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Historically challenged

Historically challenged

For projects, worthiness is in the eye of the beholder Disputes over use of Community Preservation Act funds are growing
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / June 3, 2010

In the 1920s, the ecclesiastical-style structure — red-tile roof, arched portico, and dozens of windows lined up like an assembly of discerning eyes — started out as a boys’ orphanage, a refuge for the unfortunate and the wayward.

After World War II, it was a gathering spot for swimming and youth baseball games that drew into dusk; later, it hosted a Catholic boys’ school. Then, in the 1970s, it became the town-operated John C. Page Elementary School.

Now this patchwork past has creaked open a door on an unexpected debate about its historic value: specifically, whether the near-85-year-old building is significant enough to justify a multimillion-dollar restoration partially funded through the town’s Community Preservation Act. Some officials and residents identify a rich past; others can’t quite pinpoint its importance to history, culture, architecture — or, more importantly, the town.

It seems like it should be simple: Either a building, based on age, engineering, or the stories it tells, is historic or it’s not.

But as more and more structures sag into maturity and funding for nearly everything becomes more precious, cities and towns may have to engage in a sacrificial game of history roulette, and battle for every dollar as they do — regardless of whether they have mechanisms like the Community Preservation Act at their disposal.

“I think it’s always pretty hard for historic buildings,’’ noted Bill Steelman of the Salem-based Essex National Heritage Commission, one of the few local entities offering grants for historical preservation.

And in a teeter-tottering economy like this, the effects can be tragic, said Wendy Nicholas, director of the northeast office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Some communities don’t have the money to maintain [properties], to make repairs, in some cases to keep them open.’’

And if they look around for outside help, they won’t find much.

Some grants are available for eligible nonprofits and municipalities through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service, and the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund; locally, smaller amounts are doled out by the Essex National Heritage Commission. This year, the organization is offering 10 reimbursable matching grants of $2,500 — and slogging through 47 applicants to do so, according to Steelman. But that’s an improvement over last year, when cinched funding temporarily halted the program.

Clearly, it can be an aggressive fight for the endangered funding dollar — a fact that has even been exploited. Last year, the Partners in Preservation initiative sponsored an American Idol style competition, pitting historical sites around Massachusetts against each other for a shot at $100,000. (The historical idol? Hull’s beloved Paragon Carousel.)

In the end, “you can’t underestimate the power of a single dollar,’’ said Stephen DeMarco, chairman of the Rockport Historical Commission, adding that other revenue sources include fund-raising and soliciting private contributions.

With outside aid limited, some cities and towns are turning inward and adopting the Community Preservation Act. The program adds a surcharge to property taxes to build up an escrow account for historical preservation, open space and recreation, and affordable housing projects. The state, through a trust fund from a surcharge on Registry of Deeds filings, distributes some matching funds.

All told, 143 cities and towns have enacted it, according to Stuart Saginor, executive director of the state’s Community Preservation Coalition, which facilitates the program.

Still, even this program has been diminished. When it first launched in 2000, the state matched 100 percent of whatever cities and towns raised. Over the years, that’s steadily decreased to an average of about 40 percent.

Ultimately, preservation act distributions for historical projects are “fragments,’’ said Emily Wentworth, who administrates Newburyport’s CPA. Applicants typically put funding together in a piecemeal fashion, creatively pulling it in from various sources and returning for several rounds, she said.

So, as DeMarco said, applicants “really need to distill what their project is entitled to ask for.’’

To many communities, the Community Preservation Act is a lifeline. Historical sites are “key to preserving, so that future generations will know how we lived and why we did what we did. Otherwise, that’s lost forever,’’ said Edward DesJardins, chairman of Georgetown’s Historical Commission. “Without [the Community Preservation Act], I think it’d be a disaster, with these places crumbling and falling apart, and eventually just being demolished.’’

Which is a fear some have in West Newbury.

Recently residents and officials were trying to pay for an $8.2 million restoration to the circa-1926 Page School partially with CPA funds, which voters adopted with a 3 percent tax surcharge in 2007. Studies of the building have discovered significant roof and boiler issues, as well as other maladies.

However, the request was denied by the town’s Historical Commission because the majority of members felt there was a lack of connection between the town and the building through most of its existence, and also that there was very little of significance in the structure’s architecture and history.

In protest, West Newbury voters passed a nonbinding citizens petition at the recent annual Town Meeting declaring the Page School historically significant.

Many residents point to its noted architect, Edward T.P. Graham, its long history as an orphanage and school — first as an extension of Boston’s House of the Angel Guardian, then as Boys Haven, and later as Cardinal Cushing Academy — and the swimming, skating, and baseball games it shared with the community before the town purchased it in 1972.

“I cannot emphasize enough the abundant history of the building,’’ said resident Erin Rich, a parent with one child in the school and two others soon to follow.

The assertion is strongly refuted by commission member Dot Cavanaugh.

“I personally would . . . not like to have it demolished,’’ she wrote in a letter to selectmen explaining her decision. “But [I] cannot say that it is a candidate for historical consideration. In my opinion, [it] does not fit the criteria as an historic building.’’

In that case, then, what does make a building (or land) historically significant?

As DeMarco put it, “It can be any number of factors relative to time, place, people, and activities.’’

Typically, if a site is already on the state or national registers of historic places — which tally up an extensive 1.4 million buildings, sites, districts, structures, and objects — they’re covered.

But, as Nicholas pointed out, “if it’s a local conversation, a local process, it may be up to interpretation.’’

Which is what happened in West Newbury. Through the Community Preservation Act, if a site isn’t on the register (or eligible to be), a historical commission ultimately makes the determination.

In that case, age is typically the first consideration — with significance varying anywhere from 50 to 100 years, depending on who’s discerning it. Beyond that, a building could be an exemplary example of a particular architectural style, the work of a significant designer or builder, DeMarco said, or perhaps just a well-preserved specimen.

As others noted, it could be a notable location in American history, a setting for a historic literary or artistic work, or somehow associated with a historic person.

Wentworth said that it can be a “pretty subjective, squishy process.’’

Newburyport, she said, has seen some questionable applications that have required more formal discussions, but she couldn’t recall any that had been rejected.

More likely, fragments of projects get dismissed, DeMarco said.

For example, at Rockport’s early 19th century Community House, a national register property, the CPA couldn’t cover landscape improvements, paving, or a motorized partition, DeMarco said, because they didn’t fit the historical aspect.

The preservation act did cover improvements to handicapped accessibility, fire protection and mechanical and electrical systems, interior finishes, and some structural improvements. The town ultimately ended up bonding CPA funding for the building for around $2 million.

All the debates aside, though, there is much more appreciation for historic buildings these days, Nicholas said, which could also be one reason funding is dwindling — there’s a higher demand.

“What we care about is so much broader than what we cared about in the ’70s,’’ she said.

Also, times like this, in some ways, can actually be positive for historic buildings — just take a look at Providence, Savannah, or Charleston, she said, where lack of demolition money led to urban renewal.

There’s also adaptive reuse, evident in many of the area’s old mill buildings, and tax credits encouraging private homeowners and builders to rehabilitate old buildings rather than erect McMansions.

Don’t expect the trend to reverse anytime soon.

“In 2050,’’ Nicholas said, “people will be looking at what we built in the ’80s, and say ‘that is really important.’ ’’

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