Historical preservation commissions look to connect the present with the past

Union photo by Ashley Duong

Joel Garretson, the head commissioner of the Henry County Historic Preservation Commission, was recently able to register his house onto the National Historic Registry. His house and farm in Salem was built in the early 1900s and has belonged to his family since its construction.
Union photo by Ashley Duong Joel Garretson, the head commissioner of the Henry County Historic Preservation Commission, was recently able to register his house onto the National Historic Registry. His house and farm in Salem was built in the early 1900s and has belonged to his family since its construction.

To the historic commissions in Henry, Jefferson and Washington County, history is more than just about keeping old and aging things around — it’s about understanding the lives of those who came before and finding pride in how each city and town came to be.

The historical preservation commissions, most often known for their preservation efforts, often function in advisory roles, helping local residents do research to get properties placed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as giving tips on how to best restore older buildings. All of the local Southeast Iowa commissions are comprised of volunteers, individuals in the community who are passionate about history and preservation.

A resource for the community

The process to get a building on the registry involves extensive research and can be costly, which is why most commissions help building owners with grant writing as well as research. Generally, buildings are determined by the National Park Service to be put onto the registry under three considerations: whether the building is representative of the time period it was created, whether an individual of historic importance is attached to the building or whether the building can be tied to a larger nationwide trend.

Bryan Kendall, the head commissioner of the Washington Historic Preservation Commission and an archaeologist who works in Iowa City, noted that the commission really works to educate home owners in possible avenues when it comes to restoration.

“We really want to try to show people that there are options other than tearing a building down. We, ourselves, don’t have any power to stop an owner if that’s what they intend to do but we can try to educate them and get them to see why it would be important to keep it around,” he said.

Keeping history alive

The Washington Historic Preservation Commission has held workshops as well as hosted cemetery tours that included members acting as historic figures that lived in and were buried in the city’s local cemetery.

Currently, Kendall’s commission is working on restoring a structure, reffered to as a haven, at the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery. The haven dates back to the early 1900s and served as an area for out-of-town Washingtonians to freshen up after a funeral service. The commission received a grant from the Historical Resource Development Program to restore the shelter.

“We’ve had a lot of success here in Washington,” Kendall said about his groups restoration projects and grant proposals. Since Kendall began as a commisionner five years ago, the group has been approved for four grants for local restoration projects.

Not everything can or should be saved

In addition to the shelter, the commission was able to get the city’s West Side Residential area declared a historic district, the second in the city, following the downtown area. But while the Washington commission has made many strides in promoting preservation within the city, Kendall notes that some buildings just cannot be saved. The archaeologist stressed that history and preservation does not only concern things of the past — it’s the way the past interacts with the present that allows preservation to happen.

“The city’s old hotel was torn down two years ago … we do a demolition review, and so if people want to demolish a historic property in the downtown district, it gets reviewed by us, which is a way for us to provide the research and say how important the structure is. But this old brick hotel was chopped up and used for apartments, which was the poster-child of bad, rundown and poorly maintained apartments. And then they later found out there someone was running a big meth lab in it … so it’s an interesting old structure but at this point it’s such a blighted property … we ultimately recommended that they could go ahead and demolish it,” Kendall said of the commission’s review of the property.

“The community’s opinion of [the building] was so low so it didn’t really resonate with [locals],” Kendall added.

“People have to have that cultural connection to it … the important thing about these buildings is that they’re reflections of these lives and these time periods and it’s sad to have to let things go, but that’s sort of how it works.”

They have to care enough to save it

Former historical preservation commissioner Mark Shafer, of Fairfield, echoed similar sentiments when explaining why it is important for preservation to occur. People have to have an appreciation for the history of a building before they can care enough to try to save it.

“We work a lot on educational outreach, helping people to understand the richness of our local history, the contributions local citizens made to agriculture. The buildings that are left behind are a testament of lives that were well-lived,” Shafer said.

Shafer, who just recently stepped down as the county’s head commissioner, noted that Jefferson County’s biggest success in terms of preservation was its ability to get the Louden Machinery Factory registered on the National Registry. In a huge push, the commission was able to register 16 properties linked to the factory onto the national register. Other historic buildings in Jefferson County that have survived the test of time include Maasdam Barns, Jefferson County’s courthouse and the McElhinny House.

However, Shafer also noted that other important structures in the county had not been as fortunate.

“It’s sometimes hard to get people to care … some of these historic buildings just evaporated and what can you do? Americans in general don’t think about historical preservation so much, but they go to Europe and see these hundreds of year old buildings but they don’t make the connection. They could have those things if they hadn’t been torn down … it’s all a matter of priority,” he said.

In addition to history, for Shafer, aesthetic appeal is as much of a piece of historical preservation.

“I think we’re all judged by our appearances and that includes the way a town looks and if you tear down all your historic buildings or allow them to fall into disrepair, it just gives a general bad impression,” he said. Shafer, who is a retired art teacher, has a keen appreciation for the structural and architectural qualities of historic buildings. He even published a collection of drawings in 1976 commemorating Fairfield at the turn of the 20th century.

“I’ve always liked old buildings since I was a kid, and seeing them torn down was really upsetting, which was why I wanted to help do things that would prevent that from happening,” Shafer said about what motivated him to get involved with the commission.

Shared history can bridge divides

Both the Henry County’s Historical Prservation Commission as well as Mt. Pleasant’s committee are currently working on books that will commemorate and delve into the lives of local residents and the houses that they lived in. While centered on schoolhouse buildings and residential houses, the books will include historical narratives on early settlers in the Midwest that contributed to the development of the current-day towns.

Lea Bradley, a commissioner on the Mt. Pleasant Historical Commission says the book project has been a way to get people to work together.

“Particularly in this political climate, with so much divisiveness, it’s important to think about what we have in common.”

The book the Mt. Pleasant commission is working on will feature pictures of 110 houses, taken in 1909, next to pictures of the structures that are still up today. Bradley estimates 70 of the buildings are still standing and believes the book will take about two years to complete. The Mt. Pleasant commission is also working to rehabilitate the Second Baptist Church, which is the oldest black church west of the Mississippi River.

“You can’t save everything, but with the book, it just makes people a little bit more aware of how important historical properties are and how important it is to save them. In Europe, buildings stand for a thousand years, but in the U.S., the buildings are demolished after only 100 years. We really need to change that thought process,” Bradley said.

Bradley’s interest in historical preservation motivated her to look into her own home and register it with the National Registry.

“It was really a labor of love,” Bradley said. “It takes a lot of work and now that I’m older, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it now.”

Joel Garretson, the head commissioner of the Henry County Historic Preservation Commission also knows the process of getting a property onto the National Registry rather intimately. He went through the process just a couple years ago with his own house, which has been in his family since the late 1800s. Garretson joined the commission in 2010 out of personal interest.

“I’ve always loved history and was a family historian. Understanding what my ancestors have done. It brings me a lot of pride,” he said.

Garretson noted that the Henry County Commission has been successful in preserving many of the bigger historic buildings in the county, including the Henderson Lewelling House and the Swedish American Museum.

“It takes a lot of time but it promotes and protects the cultural heritage of the county. It really enriches the community,” Garretson said, explaining why he believes preservation is important.