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.

Individuals have saved many of the churches, turning them into homes, daycare centers or businesses, which may sacrifice the former meaning of the often starkly beautiful structures, but at least keeps them maintained, said Dale Bentley, the executive director of Preservation North Dakota, a private group.

Many communities, too, have come up with innovative ways to save the churches, some even rotating where the whole town goes for services each Sunday so all the churches will still be used.

"There are no buildings that are more culturally or socially significant in our state than these churches," Bentley said. "They were often the first building put up by the pioneers and they had the most cultural investment of any building in a community."

There are thousands of homes, farms, factories and schools that may not have enough broad importance to deserve a place on the national registry, but have meaning locally, whether through historic association or architectural interest. Many states and local governments have their own lists for buildings or sites they consider significant, including those they consider threatened.

"That's the key word — significant," Tyler said.

The significance in many cases has nothing to do with the architecture and everything to do with who lived there or what happened there.

Perfectly ordinary homes have been preserved in New York, Detroit, San Francisco and Seattle because jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, soul music mogul Berry Gordy and rock guitarists Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix lived in them.

Like those other homes, the Coltrane house would never be considered for preservation based on its design. And because people in Dix Hills had lost track of where the jazz giant lived, it had not made it onto the town's list of historic places before the developer bought the property.

But now the local government — the Town of Huntington — is considering what can be done to find a way to save the home.

The developer, Ash Agrawal, is willing to sell it to the town, and seems willing to hold off on any deal for the property to see if Fulgoni or the town can find a buyer who wants to preserve it, said Robert Hughes, the secretary of the Huntington Historic Preservation Committee.

Agrawal did not return calls from for comment on the house.

The town's open space committee is considering the possibility of buying it, though the $1.05 million pricetag is awfully high, Huntington Town councilwoman Susan Berland said.

"The town has purchased some historical homes, but not at this amount of money," she said. "The key is to find somebody who would come forward and buy it to preserve it as Coltrane's home."

Fulgoni said he believes that would be the best option.

"He [the developer] said, here's my price, if you get my price, it's yours,' " Fulgoni said. "I'm trying to find someone who can come forward, a benefactor, who could offer support to save this important cultural site."

Fulgoni contacted Coltrane's widow, Alice Coltrane, who lived in the house until 1973 and currently runs the John Coltrane Foundation, and she said the group would try to help.

She said during the time they lived in the house, Coltrane's music turned much more spiritual than it had been earlier in his career, a spirituality that was captured in what many consider his masterwork, the four-movement suite A Love Supreme, which he wrote in the house soon after moving there.

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."