The coevolution of a community and its historic buildings

Preserving history isn’t static.

As times change, so do places — and so do the uses of buildings.

A perfect example can be found in our Spring Real Estate section this week. Rosemary Christoff Dolan has written about the Daniel Webster Jenkins House.

The grand Queen Anne revival house still has a sunrise on its facade and a sweeping porch. Inside, Christoff Dolan has pulled up carpets to reveal original flooring. The stained-glass transom, ornate hardware, and beautiful woodwork all survive.

The house was built by an important person in Central Bridge. Jenkins was a stationmaster at a time when the railroad transformed the community into a center of commerce. He was also an entrepreneur, dealing in coal, lumber, hay, and straw, and a community leader, serving as Schoharie’s supervisor, and helping to bring public water and a fire district to Central Bridge.

Few people in Central Bridge today could afford the lifestyle of the Jenkinses. But the house has survived for 134 years and now accommodates three apartments.

Christoff Dolan was drawn to the house by its character and integrity — and also by the 300-year-old oak tree that shelters it. She bought the house in 1986. She worked on the apartments as they became vacant, and thereby grew intimately acquainted with the old house, and more and more curious about its past.

She shares with our readers the life of Jenkins and his wife, Hattie — right down to details of the topics Hattie presented to the ladies’ club, the Eccentric Club of Central Bridge, that met in her parlor.

Christoff Dolan’s copious research led to the house being placed this month on both the state and national registers of historic places.

Because Christoff Dolan’s story appears in our real-estate section, we did some research to find out what such designations do for the value of a building.

First, it’s important to debunk some misconceptions about the register. When a building is placed on the National Register, it doesn’t restrict what the owner can do with it — no restrictions are made, for example, on the color a house is to be painted.

The register was established in 1966 as part of the National Historic Preservation Act. The National Register currently lists over a million properties, with 80,000 listed individually. The others are within historic districts or are considered contributing resources.

Each listed property has to meet one of four criteria; it must have: contributed to a major pattern of American history, been associated with a significant person, have distinctive characteristics in its design or construction, or yielded information important to history or prehistory.

In our coverage area, many individual buildings — churches, schoolhouse, farmhouses, inns, and homes — are listed on the National Register, as well as a handful of historic districts, in the Onesquethaw Valley, in Rensselaerville, Slingerlands, and Altamont, and on Rapp Road. Currently, as described in our special section, a group of McKownville residents are beginning the process to have their neighborhood listed as a historic district.

The National Register can contribute to the economic vitality of communities, according to Donovan Rypkema, writing for the Cultural Resource Management publication put out by the United States Department of the Interior. Local governments and heritage areas and corridors, striving for community vitality and smart growth, are using the National Register, the publication says.

Rypkema writes that a listing “has a multitude of values — cultural, environmental, social, educational, aesthetic, historical.” He goes on to say that the question becomes, “Do these values manifest themselves in economic value?”

He answers that question by citing a number of analyses of the impact on property values of local historic districts. “Using a variety of methodologies, conducted by a number of independent researchers, this analysis has been undertaken in New Jersey, Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Colorado, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, and elsewhere,” he writes. “The results of these studies are remarkably consistent: property values in local historic districts appreciate significantly faster than the market as a whole in the vast majority of cases and appreciate at rates equivalent to the market in the worst case. Simply put — local historic districts enhance property values.”

Meanwhile, Cheryl M. Hargrove, who served as the first heritage tourism director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, writes about the economic value to communities of  “heritage tourism,” which the National Trust for Historic Preservation defines as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present.”

Hargrove cites a study by the Travel Industry Association of America, showing that people who engage in historic and cultural activities spend more, do more, and stay longer than other types of United States travelers.

As national trends shape local economies, we can see in our midst how communities change. Just as the advent of railroads brought commerce to Central Bridge, so, too, did railroads shape the villages of Altamont and Voorheesville.

Those villages grew up around their train stations. Later, as roads with their cars and trucks became the predominant means of travel and transport, suburbs grew, stretching out from the village centers, which had to redefine themselves.

In writing Bette Cowley’s obituary earlier this month — she died at the age of 91 in the Altamont home she had loved — we described how she and her husband, artist Ed Cowley, were involved with a small group of citizens who saw the value in preserving the unused Altamont train station, and spent their own money and sweat to save it.

The historic train station, beautifully restored, is now the center of the community once again, but in a new way — as the permanent home to the Altamont Free Library.

This week, we are printing a letter from Ed Cowley, son of the artist, reviewing some of his father’s work — including his love of the Altamont and Voorheesville train stations, which he often portrayed in his art.

“The architectural parts are wonderfully plastic and invite painters’ alterations,” the artist wrote of the two stations he loved and painted. “Most themes that attract painters have this same sense of looseness and excitement about them. (One of the reasons why one never sees modern houses or cars in a painting).”

Voorheesville’s station was not saved, but recently a fanciful shelter was built to echo its shape, complete with a witch’s hat roof, near the place the station once stood. On Sunday, the lot there was filled with cars as parents unloaded kids’ bikes and joggers steamed by — the abandoned railroad track has a new use: It’s a trail stretching all the way to the Port of Albany for hikers and bikers.

We need only glance at Altamont’s Museum in the Streets to see how the use of old buildings can adapt with time, too. What is now a spa on Maple Avenue was built as a harness shop and later housed the library and an insurance business. Across the street, a building that was constructed as a firehouse also served as village hall, and now is being renovated to be a shop where veterans who have lost limbs will be fitted with prosthetics.

There are 26 lecterns throughout the village, and 26 stories of preservation and adaptation — one for each building. The founder of the Museum in the Streets project, Patrick Cardon, has said the international project will educate locals as well as promote tourism. France has 40 communities in the program and Cardon says that, in the Loire Valley, trails link the villages, attracting many bicyclists to wine country.

This may help Altamont become part of the “heritage tourism” trend that Hargrove wrote about — and who wouldn’t appreciate added prosperity? But, even if the Museum in the Streets didn’t bring in a single tourist, the stories told on the lecterns do something more — they show us how history unfolds.

Society changes. The grand home in Central Bridge that was built and occupied by a single couple for many decades — and later a single widow for many more decades — is now inhabited by three households.

Times change. But, if we seek to understand and preserve our past, as Rosemary Christoff Dolan has, we enrich our future.

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