Paving America's Cultural Heritage

Steve Fulgoni knew that one of America's most important musicians had lived in his town, but by the time he learned the exact address, it may have been too late.

Fulgoni, the newly elected village historian in Dix Hills, N.Y., was trying to track down the last home of saxophonist John Coltrane, whose music not only changed jazz but also influenced rock and classical musicians.

When he found out the exact address and went to see it, a "For Sale" sign stood in the front yard. A developer had bought the 3.4 acre lot, and had received a permit to subdivide it. He was only waiting on town approval to demolish the home.

"He was granted the subdivision, he was granted everything — because nobody knew," Fulgoni said.

And if Fulgoni did not happen to be a jazz fan with a particular love for Coltrane, the house would likely already be gone, and with it, he believes, an important site in the history of American culture.

"That's — unfortunately — a very familiar story," said Norman Tyler, the director of the preservation program at Eastern Michigan University's department of urban planning. "There is always a threat, with development the way it is."

Whatever your taste in music, whatever your feelings about what is important in American history, there is likely a site somewhere in the country you would consider worth saving that is threatened, whether by development, ignorance or neglect.

The National Register of Historic Places, a division of the National Parks Service, named 107 sites of national cultural or historic importance that it considered threatened on its most recent list. The list includes churches, courthouses and other government buildings, forts and naval bases, historic districts and homesteads dating back to the colonial era, as well as Indian sites thousands of years old.

And each year, some of these sites are lost.

For example, one of the oldest brick farmhouses in the United States — Resurrection Manor in Maryland — was demolished in December 2002 when the property was bought by a new owner.

Resurrection Manor was destroyed even though it was already listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In Corvallis, Ore., a high school built by the WPA is scheduled for demolition. Corvallis High School is considered among the finest examples of the public buildings produced by the Depression-era program that put millions of Americans to work and modernized the country's infrastructure.

There are threatened properties everywhere.

In Marengo, Ill., for example, on the main road into town is an astonishingly beautiful white Italianate Victorian home, the only house in town with a cupola, and it has been vacant and unmaintained for more than 20 years, owned by a woman who lives in California.

Though the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad and is architecturally unique in the region, it was not until last summer that it got landmark status with the state, through the efforts of the local preservation society. Even so, the Marengo Historic Preservation Commission has been unable to convince the owner either to sell or to repair the badly deteriorating home, chairwoman Lisa Trainor said.

It is a different issue facing the little "prairie churches" all across North Dakota. The small, simple wooden churches are not threatened by development or by owners who don't care. Instead, they're at risk because the rural communities they served are shrinking, leaving them without congregations.

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