2008-08-16 / Top News

Planning Underway To Keep Historic Landmark Status

By Ryan Schlehuber

When a panel of historic preservation experts and design consultants met with Mackinac Island city officials August 1, they agreed the city should create guidelines for remodeling historic buildings, constructing new buildings, and demolishing old buildings as the next step to preserve its National Historic Landmark status, which has been on "watch" level for several years. Experts say about half of the Island's buildings contribute to the historic preservation of the Island, and about half do not, meaning those who determine National Historic Landmark status are keeping a close eye on the decisions made here about how new buildings are made and how old buildings are maintained.

The panel met with members of the Mackinac Island Planning Commission.

"The first thing to do is to start with an analysis of the key features of the Island with its historic significance as it is today," Nore Winter, an urban design and preservation consultant in Denver, told the Town Crier. Mr. Winter specializes in preservation services for local governments.

Then, the Island's zoning ordinance would have to be updated to reflect the historic preservation standards set by the guidelines, said Rick Neumann, the city's architect, who attended Thursday's meeting, along with Planning Commissioners Michael Straus, Lee Finkel, Jim "Bam" Bazinaw, Mary Dufina, Trish Martin, Jim Pettit, city building inspector Dennis Dombroski, and city attorney Tom Evashevski.

Experts attending the work session with Mr. Winter were Dena Sanford, architectural historian for the National Park Service's Midwestern office, based in Omaha, Nebraska, and State Historic Preservation Office representatives Robert McKay and Amy Arnold.

Mackinac Island is one of 2,347 nationally recognized historic landmarks in the country. There are 36 landmarks in Michigan, including Grand Hotel (1989), Fort Mich- ilimackinac in Mackinaw City (1960), St. Ignace Mission (1960), and St. Marys Falls Canal (1966) in Sault Ste. Marie.

What separates Mackinac Island from most other National Historic Landmarks is its diversity in history, said Ms. Sanford.

"It's unique in that it's a National Historic Landmark that relates to America's prehistory to the 1960s, from fur trading to recreational development, it's still all there," said Ms. Sanford. "You don't find that in many National Historic Landmarks, that cover that much of a range of American history."

The significance of Mackinac Island's history to American history can be traced even before the American Revolution, when Indian nations settled the land. The Island also played a integral role in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, as the British-built Fort Mackinac was occupied both by American and British forces.

Mackinac Island has the highest concentration of pre- 1830 historic structures in the Midwest, according to Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Phil Porter.

The Island was also a national attraction in the 19th century, drawing people from across the country on railroads and steamers who sought relief from hey fever.

Federal and Victorian architecture is common on Mackinac, and several downtown buildings are included in Mackinac State Historic Parks' living museum program. The agency, overseen by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, prides itself on preserving its structures as historically accurate to the era when American soldiers occupied the fort.

The Island also continues to uphold an 1898 law that banned the horseless carriage from the Island because they spooked the horses. Except in winter, when snowmobiles are allowed, people today either walk, ride bicycles, or ride in carriages.

Ms. Sanford also noted that the Island's history is enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year.

"Its whole history is there and visible," she told the Town Crier. "It's a vibrant community. I had a great time just people watching before the meeting while I was there."

Island's Landmark

Status on 'Watch'

Since 1935, the National Park Service has identified and recognized the nationally significant places that best represent America's history through its culture, buildings, and geography. Landmarks are chosen through a process that, according to its Web site, "is rigorous, consensus based, and involves exhaustive research and extensive consultation with the public," and are recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Interior as sites that are nationally significant to American history.

Only 3% of the listings on the National Register (sites worthy of preservation) are National Historic Landmarks and, on average, only about 20 new sites are granted National Historic Landmark status each year.

The National Park Service scrutinizes the landmark's maintenance of its historic theme on three levels, non-threatened, watch, and emergency.

Mackinac Island is on "watch" status, where it has been for several years, said Ms. Sanford.

It is under watch because the community is blended with structures and areas that contribute and do not contribute to its landmark status, and with little or no guidelines in place for restoration or remodeling of historic structures, the status for "watch" landmarks could teeter either way.

Non-threatened status means the landmark has little to no depreciation of its historic value and has a guideline system in place to preserve its historic theme and structures, while emergency status is just the opposite, where a landmark is subject to losing its National Historic Landmark status owing to a decreased focus on its historical theme and decrease in the number of authentic structures.

"What Dena [Sanford] was explaining to us was that the Island is in watch status because we are 50-50 with contributing buildings and non-contributing buildings of our historic theme," said Mr. Neumann. "The Island might be quite unique in that it deals with both commercial and residential districts.

"Restoration or remodeling under historic preservation guidelines can be more expensive, but the other thing people must understand is their livelihood on the Island depends on visitors," he continued. "We've got to be careful not to depreciate that, and that's going to have to start with an educational process, helping people understand that protecting the Island's historic theme protects their livelihood."

Planning Commissioner Lee Finkel is in favor of protecting the Island's historic heritage, but he wants to avoid setting standards for restoration and remodeling too high.

"If you set the bar too high, people won't do anything," said Mr. Finkel. "Proper preparation [for restoration] is considerably expensive, so we have to ask ourselves, is this more of a theoretical place to be or can we really get there?"

Mackinac Island may be unique in its variety of historic features and because the entire island is recognized, not just certain areas or structures. But the process for preserving its historic assets is the same for many National Historic Landmarks, said Ms. Sanford.

"Mackinac Island is like a lot of National Historic Landmark communities, where it is faced with a variety of desires with changing development," Mrs. Sanford said. "But basically, If the Island can ensure its theme will not change, and keep its historic structures in place, it would definitely help with its status."

What To Do Now

What kind of work Island planners have ahead of them depends on what part of history they want the Island to depict, said Ms. Sanford.

"They can divide the Island into sections, between geographical locations and types of buildings, for example," she suggested. "But they will need to form a research group with whatever scheme they come up with."

Mr. Finkel believes the committee should start simply.

"We're hoping to create a punch list and get a clear vision of where we want to be," he told the Town Crier.

Once the Island's busy summer season ends, an ad-hoc committee of city planners, historic architects, and possibly state park representatives will begin discussion building and improvement guidelines for existing and new buildings, said Mr. Neumann.

"I hope we keep this momentum up and get a committee together to think through a series of steps to create these guidelines," he said. "The current ordinance is not adequate to protect the Island's historic presence, but it's better than five years ago, since we've added architectural review with incoming developments. Now we need to take another step and develop and design guidelines for historic preservation."

Fortunately, he said, there have been recent examples of building owners in the commercial district making the extra effort to preserve the Island's historic theme, including Grand Hotel's restoration of the second story balcony on the Windsor Hotel boarding house and the remodeling of the Mustang Lounge.

"To me, both owners made the correct approach," said Mr. Neumann.

Mustang Lounge, restored and expanded last winter, combined preservation of original timbers with the addition of new housing above the bar, but in such a way as to imply the apartments are behind the older building.

"They created the apartments to contrast the business purposely so people would see the difference," Mr. Neumann explained.

New or remodeled buildings should follow the Island's historic theme, but should not try to trick anyone into thinking it is an authentic structure, Mr. Neumann said.

"We don't want to fake history," he said. "It depreciates the value of the historic buildings around them. We want to have new buildings fit in, but we also don't want to try and fake out people. We want visitors to look at a new building and know it is new, but see that it is also in unison with its surroundings."

These guidelines and revised zoning ordinance may resolve some of the dilemmas faced by the Planning Commission with regard to the use of artificial trim and siding, which building owners contend are less expensive and longer lasting.

"Our historic heritage is our bread and butter," said Mr. Neumann. "We may need places like Mackinac State Historic Parks and Mackinac Island Community Foundation to help fund our educational process in protecting our National Historic Landmark. Nobody wants to deface historic buildings, but many people just don't know what to do. That's where education and awareness comes in, through things like workshops, annual seminars, and brochures.

"This meeting was a wake-up call for us," he continued. "Our building stock is pretty good. We can't let any more buildings slip into non-contributing" status. Those are the buildings that don't have historic significance.

There are at least two federal grants available to National Historic Landmark constituents, said Ms. Sanford. Preserve America's Treasures and Save America's Treasures are both available to local governments, which can assist businesses and residents in restoration projects of their historic buildings.

The Preserve America's Treasures is a matching grant program that began in 2005 and is intended to complement the bricks and mortar grants available under the Save America's Treasures program.

Individual grants range from $20,000 to $150,000.

Preserving historic structures also qualify for significant tax deductions.

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