Paving America's Cultural Heritage

The conflict over the Coltrane house is a common one that preservationists around the country face — the conflict between the interest of the community and an individual's property rights, Tyler said.

"People are very concerned about property rights," he said. "We have a very strong feeling in this country that we don't want anybody interfering with what we can do with our property."

The federal government's reluctance to get involved in that issue is why when Congress finally passed national preservation legislation in 1976, the law provided for national recognition of sites of historic significance, but left all power to preserve those sites to state and local governments.

Congress's reluctance to get involved in preservation goes back to the very first effort to save a U.S. historic site, when a group of women turned to the federal government in 1856 for help preserving George Washington's home in Virginia, Mount Vernon.

"The government basically said, 'We don't do that,'" Tyler said.

Only through the efforts of Ann Pamela Cunningham and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association was the historic home saved, Tyler said.

Since 1976, Tyler and many preservationists agree, the country has done an increasingly good job of recognizing the importance of saving buildings and sites that can help people understand the past. The Bicentennial celebration may have helped Americans realize that they had a history and that it should be preserved.

The pressures of development, though, have grown stronger, too, particularly in the West, Southwest and Sun Belt, where populations are growing rapidly and history may be too close to the present to be seen as significant.

"In the West, history got a bit of a jump-start on us," said David Bogan, cultural education specialist at the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office. "We in the West are just beginning to realize that things need to be preserved and protected."

But communities in less densely populated areas have an advantage in that they often can still preserve the "cultural landscape" by saving open space around a site, Bogan said. It is something that cities and towns have tried to accomplish by declaring areas "historic districts."

"When you lose the context, you lose the interpretation of what the sites really were," said Lynn Cowan of the Glencoe Mill office of Preservation North Carolina.

The context of the Coltrane house is what his widow is hoping can be preserved, because for her the context of the music he created while he lived there was as important as the notes he played.

"From the time of A Love Supreme, everything had a spiritual connotation for him, and I said, 'This man's goal is higher now, higher than the music.' Now it was about who we are and where we came from," she said. "Preserving the house could serve some purpose. I could see it — people looking at photographs, seeing where he played, where he sat outside and meditated. Maybe they could feel some of that energy."

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