2007-05-19 / Top News

Island Faces Preserving the Past in a Demanding World

By Karen Gould

The Louis Buisson House, ca. 1820, sits on Market Street near Cadotte Avenue and is one of 12 remaining French log buildings on the Mackinac Island. "The collection of French log buildings [on Mackinac Island] is one of the most important in the United States," said Dr. Busch Saturday, May 5, at the Michigan Historic Preservation Network Conference at Grand Hotel. This building is a contributing site to the National Historic Landmark status of Mackinac Island. The Louis Buisson House, ca. 1820, sits on Market Street near Cadotte Avenue and is one of 12 remaining French log buildings on the Mackinac Island. "The collection of French log buildings [on Mackinac Island] is one of the most important in the United States," said Dr. Busch Saturday, May 5, at the Michigan Historic Preservation Network Conference at Grand Hotel. This building is a contributing site to the National Historic Landmark status of Mackinac Island. The first challenge to historic preservation on Mackinac Island came in 1876, just one year after the Island followed Yellowstone to became the second national park. Today, like Ellis Island in New York, the entire Island is ranked among the county's top historic sites, holding the distinctive status as a National Historic Landmark. Unlike Ellis Island, Mackinac is a year-around working community that faces modern challenges in preserving historic structures. In addition to neglected and rotting structures that have to be torn down, accommodating modern technology and expected comforts like air conditioning often conflict with preservation standards. Now, state and national preservationists speculate that Mackinac Island could follow the path taken by Chicago's Soldier Field last year and lose its National Historic Landmark status.

"Mackinac Island is an outstanding, exceptional place of national significance," said Dr. Jane Busch, addressing historians, preservationists, and travel experts at the 27th Annual Historic Preservation Conference at Grand Hotel Saturday, May 5. "We need to make some changes in order to keep it that way. I wonder what we're waiting for?"

Now a preservation consultant based in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Dr. Busch was hired seven years ago by Mackinac State Historic Parks to prepare the nomination to the U.S. Department of Interior to establish all of Mackinac Island as a National Historic Landmark.

Today, Mackinac Island faces losing its National Historic Landmark status, said Dr. Busch, and replacing or changing historic buildings with high-Victorian architecture, as is happening, will continue to erode the Island's historic value and could ultimately impact the Island's historic status, tourism, and its economy. It's the character of the Island and the historic sites that draw people to Mackinac Island, she said.

"It's not even primarily about losing the designation," she added; "it is about losing your historic resources, and that is Mackinac Island's main asset."

Not everyone knows that half the buildings on Main Street could be in Disneyland, she said, although, eventually, people do get a sense of that, she added, and that can have an economic impact on the community.

"You can get fudge other places," said Dr. Busch, but not the old structures that identify Mackinac's historic past.

Likely, if the Island is reevaluated by the Department of the Interior, she said, the historic designation would be applicable only to parts of the Island, rather than the entire Island.

As buildings are demolished or remodeled, they are taking on a stereotypical Victorian appearance, she said, even when they are replacing buildings or another architectural design. Buildings that just mimic the architecture no longer are authentic, she pointed out.

"What we have a lot of on Mackinac Island is Victorianization," she said. "By making a building more Victorian makes it less historic. This all adds up to an accumulative loss of character."

More than 130 years ago, the commandant of Fort Mackinac wanted to tear down the fort's north blockhouse, Phil Porter, director of Mackinac State Historic Parks told conference attendees. The commandant also was the superintendent of Mackinac National Park. He didn't want to repair the structure, said Mr. Porter, and he wanted to use the stones for something else.

He sought the requiring permission for the demolition from General M.G. Meigs, the quartermaster general of the United States Army.

In his response, General Meigs called the blockhouse, "Among the few relics of older times which exists in this county. It should be preserved as a curiosity as if for no other use."

The general, said Mr. Porter, understood the importance of tourism, preservation, and history, and his insightful command helped preserve a structure that still stands in Fort Mackinac.

"If it is demolished, 'for the sake of the stone it contained," there will be a cry from the tourists against their destruction as an act of vandalism," General Meigs wrote.

Preservation, Mr. Porter said, is a dynamic and ongoing process and "historic preservation, natural preservation, and the preservation of pre-automotive horse culture is what draws people to Mackinac Island."

What draws people to Mackinac Island also places a strain on the historic character of the community as it strives to meet development, he said.

"Huge development pressures exist on Mackinac Island," he told the group. "They are huge. Mackinac Island is a very desirable place; people want to come here."

Holding a balance between a historic past and modern needs is a formidable task, Mackinac Island Mayor Margaret Doud told the audience, during a welcoming address to the convention.

"It is very difficult, sometimes, to maintain our ambiance, and that is very, very critical to our Island," she said, "however, we are a living, breathing, working year-around community. But we can never forget our historic beginnings and we have to work very, very hard to maintain that. Sometimes, in our fast moving pace of our lives today, that is not always easy."

Grand Hotel, where the conference was held, received National Historic Landmark status in 1989. Addressing conference attendees, hotel president R. Daniel Musser III said maintaining a historic structure, meeting the demands of a modern world, and running a successful business is a challenge.

"I feel more like a caretaker of this wonderful old lady," he said of the hotel, "so preservation is very important to us. However, we are a viable business, and we need to be able to preserve this structure."

To meet the needs of modern guests while retaining the character of the building, the hotel installed air conditioning to 180 guest rooms along the front of the structure, he said, and the task was accomplished without disturbing the historic appearance of the hotel.

"People come here to literally step back in time," said Mayor Doud. "They want the slower pace, they want the clipclop of horses, and they just want to enjoy the historic sites and the natural beauty of our Island."

Back in 1960, a two-page document recognizing the significance to military history, government, and fur trade prior to 1830 recognized the first historic structures on Mackinac, mostly within the park. National Historic Landmark status also included Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City and the Marquette mission site in St. Ignace. In 1972, the survey of historic structures was updated.

Nationwide, there are fewer than 2,500 National Historic Landmarks, and 36 of them are in Michigan, four in the Straits of Mackinac area.

A comprehensive 84-page document prepared by Dr. Busch in 1999, became an amendment to Mackinac Island's National Historic Landmark nomination. The survey contained in the document covered the entire Island, including buildings, structures, docks, and golf courses like Wawashkamo, which was built in 1898 and now is one of the oldest continuously played golf course in Michigan, said Dr. Busch. The links course has retained most of its original appearance, she said.

When she began her survey work in 1999, only about 50 percent of the Island's buildings contributed to the landmark status, she said, which is a low percentage. The application moved forward, she said, because it was presented to show that 83% of the Island, which is owned by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, had a very high level of integrity and contributing resources. In fact, all the buildings in Fort Mackinac contribute to the landmark status.

In 1999, 445 buildings on the Island were contributing resources and 432 were noncontributing resources, she explained.

"That's about 50 percent," she said, "and that's not good."

Since then, some buildings have been modified and no longer would be considered contributing structures, while other buildings have been demolished, and new construction and its location also negatively affect the future of the Island's historic status.

Changing the appearance of a structure, adding stories, changing views, and eliminating open spaces are affecting the Island, said Dr. Busch.

This all adds up to an accumulative lose of character, she said.

Integrity of a place means it retains physical appearances from a historic period, she said, and that gives the land authenticity and conveys a sense of history.

Integrity was an issue seven years ago, said Dr. Busch, when the nomination amendment was written. Then, there were 909 resources in the survey database. Of those, 142 buildings from the 1972 survey were no longer standing, and there were approximately 200 new buildings, including those in the Stonecliffe area.

Non-contributing resources are concentrated in three areas of the Island, Harrisonville, the business district, and the new subdivisions on the west side of the Island, with homes now visible from the shoreline.

"We need to protect the landscape and the views, not just the buildings," she said.

In Mr. Porter's presentation, "Mackinac Island: An Original Distinctive Destination for Michigan," he offered statistics that show just how many people have been coming to the Island and their economic impact to the community.

Each year, 350,000 people visit the historic sites, and approximately one million people visit the state park and sites each year, he said. The visitors generate $215,000 in area spending. Since 1958, when the historic sites opened, they have attracted 19 million paid visitors, he said.

Through the years, visitation to the Island has been declining, the result of a lot of factors, said Dr. Busch, so the Island needs to try harder to sell its uniqueness.

Given the track record on the Island, she said, a for sale sign now means the building is threatened.

"Something has to change here to protect this national historic landmark," said Dr. Busch. "History is a finite resource. Restoration only works if there is something to restore."

Next Week: Solutions to the preservation challenge.

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