Preserving History

By Randy Gaddo
Photo Courtesy Of Carol Highsmith

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.


To an architect, historic preservation can mean upholding historically accurate designs and materials; to a building conservator, it might translate into securing period-correct furnishings and appointments; but to parks and rec professionals responsible for maintenance in historic facilities, it can mean adopting a whole new—or sometimes old—set of priorities.

At the national, state, and even metropolitan-community level, preservation organizations often emerge to protect historic resources. But in smaller communities across the country, by default, the task of caring for the resources falls to the parks and rec department because it is often the agency within the governmental administrative structure whose mission and structure most closely align with the need.

But many departments—especially those in small- to mid-sized communities—aren’t necessarily capable of the special care and maintenance that truly historic buildings and facilities require, or for that matter know whether or not a building or site should be considered for preservation. When this situation arises, information is the first order of business.

What Makes A Building Historic
“The important thing for someone who has inherited such a resource is to educate themselves about what makes it significant, what features of the building make it worth saving,” recommends Barry Loveland, Chief of the Division of Architecture and Conservation, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission ( ).

“Look for local sources of information about the building or site, such as a local historian or historical society, or other records that might exist in the community.” He notes that every state has a historical society that may help directly, or connect information seekers to national-level resources.

“State offices work through the federal government programs for listing properties on the national register,” Loveland states. “This may help them determine what might be significant about the property, and what features are important.”

Merely because a site is old doesn’t necessarily mean it has historical value, or that its historic value outweighs the cost of maintaining it. Loveland notes that the minimum age for something to be considered “historic” is generally 50 years; but at some point, no matter the age, the decision whether or not to preserve it as a local historical resource involves a broader range of decision points.

“Once it looks like a department is going beyond their time or expertise, it may be advisable to get someone involved who can put together specs and a scope of work that is necessary,” Loveland points out. Once the requirements are articulated, there may be justification to bid out work to a qualified contractor.

The field of qualified contractors for historical sites will probably be narrower than normal, Loveland cautions. “It’s going to be a bit more difficult to find them because they are fewer, and you may need to do a lot more searching. This usually means the cost is higher, partially due to the specialized expertise and because some of the material costs will be higher,” he notes.

A Building With A Purpose
A key point in the cost-benefit analysis is determining whether or not the historic property can become an asset to the community.

“There is a lot of interest in heritage tourism, bringing people into communities to showcase what makes them special,” Loveland explains. “For some buildings it might be advantageous to put them to some other purpose—to have someone live in or for an event venue, something that would be a benefit to the community and could generate revenue.”

Loveland adds that the eventual use may dictate the scope of work completed on the project, so factoring that into the analysis early on is advisable.

One way to discover what the building may be used for is to take a more ethereal approach: become one with the building.

“You have to listen to what these buildings are telling you,” quips Katherine Malone-France, Director of Outreach, Education and Support for the Historical Sites Department of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). The organization is responsible for 21 historic sites around the country, totaling about 500 structures on about 4,000 acres ( ).

Mulling Over Maintenance
Because NTHP owns so many properties, staff members have a great deal of experience, especially with cyclical maintenance of historic structures. Malone-France recommends starting at the top.

“Maintaining the integrity of the building’s exterior envelope starts on the roof,” she says. “That involves very simple things, such as making sure that systems that already exist are taken care of. Often historic buildings have robust gutter systems and downspouts, but they don’t work unless they are cleaned. If you have drains at the foundation level or downspouts that connect into ground drains, you have to make sure those are functioning.”

Keeping water out and away from buildings is a point both Malone-France and Loveland stress. “Water is definitely enemy number one when you are trying to preserve as much of that original fabric as possible,” Loveland declares.

Malone-France states that buildings with historic value often contain materials and workmanship that far exceed today’s standards.

“The first instinct can be to replace original materials, but that should only be done in extreme cases,” she cautions.

“Original materials from previous centuries are generally more durable than what we give them credit for. It was a time when builders could hand-pick various types of wood for specific uses.”

“You just don’t see that quality of wood anymore in today’s construction,” Malone-France says. “And these older buildings were often hand-constructed by master craftsmen, so they are really worth preserving.”

For this reason, she recommends keeping surfaces water-tight and clean, maintaining the roof, trimming trees, cleaning window sills, and making sure surfaces are prepared and painted.

“Modern paints are fine as long as you properly prepare the surface,” she notes. “When dirt accumulates on surfaces, it begins to hold moisture, which begins deterioration. These are all basic things that I think most any parks and recreation department can accomplish.”

She says that the NTHP is very hesitant to incorporate new systems, such as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, into older buildings.

“These systems can be very invasive to an older building because the building is sometimes not conditioned to handle the changes that newer systems have on the environment,” she says.

Preventive maintenance in historic buildings is not much different than maintaining a home; however, there must be a plan in place.

“It’s one thing to have a cyclical maintenance plan, but you have to also have a cyclical maintenance budget,” Malone-France notes. “But it is essential to do the housekeeping things, making sure dirt doesn’t gather, inspecting the property to identify potential issues before they become problems.”

She cites the publications titled Preservation Briefs, published by the National Park Service, as excellent sources of information for parks and rec professionals who want to learn about historic preservation.

“They are available online and are written for lay people to understand,” she notes. “They are free, you can download them, and they cover general information about cyclical maintenance, how to evaluate systems, what signals that you might need to replace systems or not.”

Another great source of information is talking with other parks and rec professionals who are tasked with caring for historic buildings. Nothing speaks more than the voice of experience, so if any PRB readers have tales to tell about their experience with historic sites, I encourage you to send me or the editor an email, or call and talk to us.

We’ll make sure your experience gets into the magazine and/or on the PRB website and blog.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email .