Old buildings for new growth is a sensible plan

March 06, 2004|by Carol Gallant and Jim Whipple

Lately a great deal is being written locally about Jefferson County, W.Va., government's "space needs." Let's not forget the larger issue. Growth versus heritage continues as a great battle in a growing America, and Jefferson County exemplifies the different constituencies that vie for victory.

After a three-year court battle, we have, as two private citizens, spending JCPASH citizen funds, succeeded in getting our County Commission to "agree" to the mandated Historic Review of its demolition decision of the jailhouse. An end run was attempted by the commission -changing the historic preservation laws for West Virginia - and we still won. And finally, a firm recently was selected by the Commission (DASA in Charlottesville), to conduct the review. However, little note has been made of this significant event.

American towns, for decades now, have been transformed by growth - more people, traffic, and loss of landscape, identity, history and quality of life. As many citizens grew tired of this "progress" - and noted that it was called "progress" largely by those who made money from it - the pressure grew on public officials for limits on the devastation of communities/America and a demand arose for better way for communities to expand.


One "better way" developed was the re-use of solid old and/or historic buildings as part of growth -and vast knowledge and experience exists in the field. In fact, some experts offered our commission free advice - to no avail. In 1966, Congress passed the Historic Preservation Act, and 50 states passed similar laws - requiring a "look before you leap" and a guarantee of public input.

JCPASH formed to protect heritage, involve citizens in growth decisions, educate ourselves and officials on the value of heritage, and ensure that leaders follow the law. What might have become an educational debate and exchange of community ideas was, instead, reduced to a cliche: For or against this building? Hardly the big picture.

Five people in power - unaware of or disinterested in the law and the far-reaching impact of their decision on an historic district - "singlehandedly" made a bulldozing decision. No study of alternatives. No great public outcry. Why would there be? Commissioners said: Oh, it would cost too much to fixone corner is sinkingit's not historiccells can't be removed. None of this turned out to be true, but who knew? Or even that it was two-thirds a Georgian-Revival home?

Here are some more facts, largely unreported. The jail is on the National Register (1997) for architecture and "association with historic events at the Court House." It is on the Inventory of American Labor Landmarks. Historic architects, with 110 years of combined experience, pronounced it remarkably solid and an excellent candidate for adaptive re-use.

Our County Commissioner referred to "amateurs" and we have been called "misguided." Here are some of the misguided, amateurish folks who have weighed in with JCPASH: The Keeper of the National Register; President of the United Mine Workers; Preservation Alliance of West Virginia; Labor History Association of West Virginia; National Trust (which offered a free architect and money); and the five West Virginia Supreme Court Justices.

Citizens must ask: "What's going on here?" And why did the Commission - in need of office space - sell the old magistrate building, already paid for by taxpayers? Oh, that's right. "It would cost too much to fix." And the figures? And, by the way, we are all taxpayers, and a lot of us aren't paying just to ensure modern government office space - but for historic buildings and scenic areas to be put to a use that respects heritage and serves the entire community.

Carol Gallant and Jim Whipple are members of JCPASH (Jefferson County Preservation Alliance to Save Our Heritage) in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

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