Society benefits from ongoing preservation conversation

John Conti
| Saturday, July 27, 2013, 7:29 p.m.

It's hard to explain what's so fascinating about a meeting — attended by 388 people from all around Pennsylvania — where one of the things you learn is how to differentiate among the stone and shell hoes that Indians in our area were using 1,000 years ago to cultivate corn.

Or exactly how you can uncover the boundaries of and identify the processes used at a long-ago torn-down 19th-century tannery in the Allegheny National Forest.

Or how preservationists in Brownsville are getting state guidance in restoring luster to their historic town.

Those were some of things people talked about at the annual Statewide Conference on Heritage from July 16 to 19 at the William Penn Hotel, Downtown. The conference was sponsored by a seemingly unlikely partnership of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Preservation Pennsylvania organization and PennDOT — the state's department of transportation.

A conference like this tends go on behind the scenes of everyday life in a big city like Pittsburgh, but the results of its work are meaningful for all of us.

This is especially true when you realize that so many folks who could be at odds over how to preserve our state's heritage — highway builders, developers, engineers, bankers — are now at the heart of the preservation conversation.

They attend these meetings to learn the language and arts of the historians, archaeologists and historic preservationists whose commitments to preserving the state's history were made many years ago.

That's why there was a good question-and-answer session after the presentation on Indian hoes: PennDOT road planners these days need to know how archaeologists identify valuable sites.

These conferences took their present form about seven years ago as organizations like PennDOT and the U.S. Corps of Engineers decided to increase their awareness of archaeological and historic preservation issues in order to meet federal requirements in planning new projects.

This year's conference was almost unquestionably the most successful, with the largest attendance to date.

The days of the unthinking bulldozing of sites in our cities, along our rivers or in our forests seem to be receding. Although government agencies have learned the lesson about the values of preservation, it takes some incentives to get private developers involved, too.

The official opening of the conference was preceded by a full-day session on historic tax credits for the preservation and rehabilitation of income-producing properties — like apartment buildings, for example. If an apartment building carries a qualifying historic designation or, more likely, contributes to a qualifying historic district, then a 20 percent investment tax credit is available from the federal government. Now, another 25 percent investment credit against state taxes is available.

That state credit — making Pennsylvania one of 30 states offering this benefit — was passed into law last year and went into effect at the beginning of this month. Essentially, the credit is available for almost any improvement to a designated historic building, providing that historic characteristics of the building are kept intact.

Such tax credits will be useful for continued rehabbing in downtown Pittsburgh, but they can become especially important in places such as Brownsville.

Brownsville is often thought of as just a city that time has passed by, but it was pivotally important to the history of Pittsburgh and the early settlement of other points to the west. It was at the terminus of the National Road, and so was at one time a last provisioning stop for pioneers continuing on. Later, it housed early shipyards that built many of the first steamboats that moved people and freight down the Ohio and Mississippi, facilitating the settlement of the West.

One entire breakout session was devoted to using historic preservation and “heritage tourism” to promote new economic life there.

A session on bridge design noted that Brownsville still has a perfectly functioning cast-iron bridge that is one of the oldest anywhere. Another session described an archaeological investigation of the remains of the homes of two important ship captains there.

Much of the conference, of course, was spent celebrating Pittsburgh.

One tour offered to meeting-goers was of mid-century architecture Downtown. Preserving modern architecture from the 1950s has become a hot issue all over the country and “managing the future of the recent past,” as the tour was described, addressed the issue of valuing buildings too familiar to be thought old.

Another tour, called “Babushkas & Hard Hats,” took conference-goers to the abandoned Carrie Furnaces — the only remaining part of U.S. Steel's once-vast Homestead Works — and then to the Bulgarian Macedonia National Educational and Cultural Center in Homestead for a traditional Bulgarian lunch.

Through legislation, tax credits and public education, historic preservation is moving into the mainstream. Although new issues arise regularly in almost any town or region, the best evidence of that change was at the Conference on Heritage here this month.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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