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Sandra Beane Milton was researching her North Carolina roots when she learned the family home of her ancestors’ slaveholders was still standing. Thanks to local efforts, the building had been saved from demolition in 1984. Sandra contacted the homeowners, explained her connection and was invited for a visit.
“I could walk the very rooms, touch the walls, look out the windows where Harriet and Peter most likely labored,” she says. As she pulled up to the elegant Beaufort, NC, waterfront home, she recalls, “My ancestors and their experience loomed in my imagination. A flood of emotions washed over me: fear, joy, sadness, excitement, longing and pride, all mingled with appreciation.”
Walking on an ancestor’s home turf is a rare opportunity. Only about 7 percent of US homes today were built before 1913. Many other buildings our relatives used—churches, schools, businesses, courthouses, hospitals, theaters and more—have also disappeared.
Genealogists are part of a much wider circle of people who delight in old places. Each has his reasons: personal or family memories, architectural or historical importance, community identity, and religious or symbolic meaning. Others recognize the environmental or commercial value of keeping something that’s already here. The combined efforts of these folks are why many old sites continue to exist.
Local residents are generally the first line of defense for “endangered” buildings. Some, like the parents of Tabitha Almquist (see the next page), purchase and restore old homes. Community-based preservation organizations may rehab and advocate for preserving historical properties. Some cities have qualified for preservation funding under the National Park Service’s Certified Local Government Program, which is administered along with State Historic Preservation Offices. State offices often identify historic properties, run tax breaks and grant programs, and work to fill the rosters of the National Register of Historic Places <www.nps.gov/nr>.
The National Park Service, which runs the National Register, partners with the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation <preservationnation.org>. One of the Trust’s best-known and successful preservation campaigns is the annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places <www.preservationnation.org/issues/11-most-endangered>. More than 250 sites have been featured on this list since 1988 and, according to the organization, only a handful of these spotlighted sites have actually been lost.
This inspires hope for preservationists in Cincinnati, where the Union Terminal railroad depot was named an endangered place in 2014. Constructed in 1933, the Art Deco facility is the second-largest half dome in the world. After the golden age of rail travel ended, the terminal spent empty years before becoming home to a museum center and the local historical society. It attracts nearly 1.5 million visitors per year, but according to the National Trust, “Union Terminal is suffering from deterioration and water damage. The building is facing a critical point in its existence, and is in need of extensive repairs.”
Want to save an old building? “Be knowledgeable about the building, the funds available, the threat to it, the partners that exist, the ways to use designation, to engage others in your passion,” advises Erica Stewart, part of the National Trust’s public affairs team. “Get inspired by the thousands of others doing preservation work.” She recommends starting with the case studies and how-tos at the National Trust’s website, which covers fundraising basics, historic designations, preserving cemeteries and more. Find more resources at PreservationDirectory.com <www.preservationdirectory.com>.
A final and important way of helping to save old places is to visit them. Admission fees and visibility fuel ongoing efforts to keep these monuments to the past standing.
From the October/November 2015 issue of Family Tree Magazine