1835 Dutch church joins U.S. list of endangered places Benefactor sought in campaign to preserve New York landmark

August 16, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEWBURGH, N.Y. - There were no suntanned, silver-haired corporate angels on hand recently when Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the Dutch Reformed Church here to talk about historic preservation. Her backdrop was the derelict Greek revival temple by Alexander Jackson Davis, completed in 1835, once an uplifting symbol of the city's material progress and now an evocative, camera-ready testament to urban decay.

"What does it mean to save a building?" Mrs. Clinton mused before a large crowd assembled in the sweltering heat. "When a town like Newburgh is able to revitalize its history, you become a beacon of economic development and tourism."

By saving landmarks and living with them daily, "you begin to tell yourselves and your children the story of Newburgh," she observed. "That makes America more real."

The day before, the president and the first lady shared the dais at the National Museum of American History with Ralph Lauren, announcing the designer's $10 million rescue of the flag that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner" (presumably this flag is off-limits for Lauren as a style phenomenon).

The dueling images - Lauren as patriotic savior and a vacant city church without a patron - underscored the paradox of Mrs. Clinton's "Save America's Treasures" tour: For every million-dollar pledge by a Ralph Lauren or GE to rescue a star, there were humbler places like the Dutch Reformed Church or the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, Mass., waiting for deliverance. Who should pay to preserve them?

The first lady made a pledge herself, donating royalties from a coming book of letters to the First Pets to the National Park Foundation. (The nonprofit foundation has announced that the Coca-Cola Foundation was donating $1.5 million to pay for hands-on discovery centers at nine national parks.)

Beginning in 1816

In an interview, Mrs. Clinton said that government - federal, state and local - should bear a large part of the financial burden for historical preservation, supplemented by public-private partnerships. "Government has the primary obligation," she said. But there are also many people with resources who might not have thought about the contribution they could make."

Although state and local governments made forays into preservation at least as early as 1816, when Independence Hall in Philadelphia was purchased and restored, ever since the Mount Vernon Ladies Association rescued George Washington's mansion and grounds, preservation in the United States has relied on contributions and philanthropy.

The most notable federal exception, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, created the National Register of Historic Places, which now has nearly 80,000 entries, and a program of matching grants for their preservation.

But practically from the beginning, preservationists have had to be skillful quilters, piecing together funds from public and private sources. The private role in public monuments was perhaps most strikingly illustrated by Lee Iacocca's successful campaign restore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which raised more than $400 million.

Leader in effort

A leader in public preservation has been the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has received money from Congress since 1966, but will lose its financing next year. Three years ago, after Congress threatened to pull the plug, the National Trust negotiated a three-year $7 million phase-out and has since been building a war chest to privatize itself.

"We're comfortable with it," said trust president Richard Moe. "The funding fight became a preoccupying thing that distracted us from the issues. We want to be more effective and entrepreneurial."

At the national parks, the repair backlog for historic buildings is more than $1 billion. Three years ago, an experimental program began that returned park entrance fees to the parks; it will generate about $400 million in the next several years, said Edward Norton, vice president for law and public policy for the preservation trust.

The House Appropriations Committee is considering a bill to increase funds for rehabilitating historic buildings in the national parks and to stabilize the deteriorating south side of Ellis Island.

'Making progress'

"We're definitely making progress," Norton said.

But in places like Newburgh, when the tour bus pulls out and the bunting is folded, financing will probably depend, as it always has, on the grit of a determined few.

"Preservation is the most underrated catalyst for urban rebirth nationwide," said Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of "Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown" (John Wiley & Sons, 1998). "The most desirable neighborhoods from Atlanta to Seattle are historic districts. But preservation hasn't gained the star status that big stadium and casino projects have because it happens in small increments."

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