Greg Harton: Other people's property

Fayetteville house’s future sparks cry for preservation

Posted: May 29, 2017 at 1 a.m.

Over the years of covering communities in Arkansas, I've gotten into a few discussions about historic preservation. Eventually, the conversation usually comes around to a question that's older than the structures some people want to be preserved: Is something historic just because it's old?

To a degree, preservationists consider anything beyond 50 years old as historic, but some structures obviously have been sites of events or the buildings themselves served such significant roles that their historic bona fides are even more clear. Not every old structure can claim "the president slept here," and a building's significance to a community's history can be a true eye-of-the-beholder evaluation.

In Fayetteville in recent days, a hue and cry has arisen out of the Washington-Willow neighborhood as neighbors and others learned that a long-neglected property had changed ownership. "Save Stone-Hilton House" is the new Facebook page attempting to rally people's awareness to the threat, perceived at least, to the 138-year-old home's existence.

The structure sits on a large property -- at least based on neighborhood standards -- at the corner of Lafayette Street and Willow Avenue. If buildings can be witnesses to history, there aren't many in Fayetteville that have seen as much as this one.

Voices of concern were sparked May 17 by a Facebook post by Jonathan Story, who recently moved to Texas but whose love of Fayetteville history isn't diminished by his relocation. Some will remember Story, who became a historic preservation star in 1993 when, as a 12-year-old, he collected signatures on a petition to save the old Ozark Theater next door to the Historic Washington County Courthouse. It was a sad sight back then, but today, the theater is a renovated office building few could imagine turning over to a wrecking ball.

Story's Facebook post, sounding the alarm about the Stone-Hilton House's uncertain future, inspired hundreds of responses, most of them praying the structure could be saved. "If Fayetteville allows the destruction of one of its grandest, most historically significant and most architecturally excellent structures, located on the most prominent spot right in the middle of of the historic district," Story wrote, "then historic preservation in Fayetteville is dead. I call on city leaders to stand up and stop this from happening."

This is far from the first time a community has gotten up in arms about the potential loss of a historic property. It makes for a familiar story: Little is done to lay the groundwork for historic preservation. Then a threat, real or perceived, to a beloved, admired but mostly ignored property gets people riled up, and the outcry is, "somebody ought to do something."

Here's the rub: It's a privately owned piece of property. As such, there's little a local government can do to prevent a homeowner from painting it pink, adding a blue roof or demolishing it.

The house does sit in a designated historic district, of which the Fayetteville has five listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That list identifies places worthy of preservation. Fayetteville's districts are the Mount Nord district, the Wilson Park district, the Washington-Willow District, the University of Arkansas district and the West Dickson Commercial Historic District.

Five historic districts. That sounds impressive, perhaps a bit reflective of the city's website statement that it "considers preserving our historic resources and heritage a priority." But historic districts like those in Fayetteville are largely promotional designations. They put no governmental restrictions on private property owners. The historic preservation portion of the city's website says "It's the community's responsibility to preserve its past and protect its story."

"This is not unique to Fayetteville," said Rachel Patton, executive director of the nonprofit Preserve Arkansas in Little Rock. "It happens everywhere in Arkansas. People always get very emotional and loud whenever there's a chance of demolition, and sometimes that what it takes for people to wake up and even consider historic preservation."

Under Arkansas law, the local government -- the city of Fayetteville, in this case -- determines whether a local preservation ordinance is in order. Places like Eureka Springs, Hot Springs and North Little Rock have adopted such measures to create enforcement powers for a historic district commission. That can give commissions control over the facades of structures within historic districts. When I was a reporter in Hot Springs, I remember disputes over an awning and whether its design and material matched a building's historical facade. People who wanted to paint the exterior had to demonstrate that the chosen paint was a color that existed in the period in which the building was built. None of those newfangled colors paint companies have conjured up more recently. If the commission believes a change is historically accurate, it issues a "certificate of appropriateness."

Are property owners of the Washington-

Willow Historic District ready for that kind of restriction? Absent buying a structure and turning it into a city-owned property, the government's influence is limited unless there's enough support to adopt a historic preservation ordinance that necessarily takes away some decision making from private property owners.

In Arkansas -- even in funky Fayetteville -- that can mean a big political fight. Mostly, people are comfortable letting government tell others what to do with their properties, but not volunteering to be accountable themselves. But if Fayetteville had such a district that included the Stone-Hilton House, Patton said, demolition would not be on the table. Each local government can customize the level of restrictions it and its residents are willing to embrace.

Patton said individual whose properties are on the National Register or that contribute to a National Register historic district can qualify for significant tax credits for rehabilitation. Those tax credits can be sold to institutions, such as banks, giving property owners cash in hand.

Such structures can also be donated to nonprofits or a local government, which can then be eligible for historic preservation grants if the new owner has a significant plan for the structure's use. Patton said in those cases, a contemporary use is vital.

"It's not frozen in time," she said. "We want things to be used."

Interestingly, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program plans a "listening session" at 5:30 p.m. June 8 at a Fayetteville Historic District Commission meeting at City Hall Room 326. It is not a response to the Stone-Hilton House situation. Rather, such sessions are a requirement of the state's participation in federal preservation programs.

But if people are motivated, the meeting very well might be a good place to ask some questions and provide some feedback about what people want for historic preservation locally and across the state.

Historic preservation has to start somewhere.

Commentary on 05/29/2017