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Auburn’s Equal Rights Cultural Heritage Center is entering the final stages of exterior construction. The walls have been erected, the brick facade is going up and we can start to get a three-dimensional sense of how the building will actually look. One local complaint (a distant second to parking issues) is that the look of the welcome center drastically departs from the historic surroundings. It certainly is different from the nearby historic buildings, but there are good reasons why it should be.

Contrary to what many lay people might assume, best practice in preservation suggests that new additions to a historic building, or new structures within a historic district, should not match the significant historic resources to which they are attached, or otherwise near. Beyond that, there are regulatory laws that actually require that it be “differentiated.” These are known as the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, and they are federal law. There are a few dimensions to how these work, and these standards apply to different properties in different ways in different places. However, they are usually used as a tool to guide rehabilitation projects on properties that are “certified historic.” Being “certified historic” means that the property in question has been listed or determined eligible for listing in a federal or state register of historic places, as the South Street Area Historic District is.

The guidelines have no real power unless there is public funding involved in the project in some way. The real power of the guidelines kicks in when state or federal money is involved, or when the owner of the property is seeking tax credits for the project. They must work with a representative from the State Historic Preservation Office, known in the biz as “SHPO" (pronounced ship-O). It is SHPO that reviews the project as it moves through various stages, and decides whether or not it meets the secretary’s standards, deciding whether or not the project can proceed, get the next loan disbursement, or capture the tax credits. To some folks, that’s a lot of power for one bureaucrat, but that is another topic for a future column.

In addition, the view in the discipline of preservation is that it would actually be quite disrespectful to construct something that simply looked like the nearby historic buildings. Furthermore, it is not clear what historic period represented on South Street should be copied. Would it be constructed to match the street-facing side of the Seward House Museum, which was itself an 1866 adaptation of an 1816 Federal-style facade? Should it replicate the Romanesque style of Westminster Presbyterian Church (1870s), the Colonial Revival style of Memorial City Hall (1930s), or the parking garage (1970s)? There is no right choice, except perhaps deciding to make a statement about the next step in the architectural evolution of Auburn by building something new. “New” is a word that needs context when it comes to city planning and preservation, anyway. After all, each piece of history standing in the open air museum that is South Street was, at one point, new. In 1848, when Seward built the tower on the north side of his house, neighbors complained it was too European, too untraditional. When the Auburn Schine Theater was built, it was unlike anything within 10 blocks! Conversely, the Equal Rights Heritage Center will itself be historic one day, and our children or grandchildren may try to protect it because of its (future) historic architectural merits. So while the new welcome center may not “look like” the other buildings nearby, it is respectful of the heritage around it precisely because it is different.

As a mid-century modern apologist, I keep returning to the bank building on the corner of North and Genesee, the poorly named “bunker.” As an architectural specimen, it had nearly no fans in Auburn until recently, entwined as it was with the trauma of urban renewal. An entire generation focusing their emotional baggage and sense of loss on what the bank represented (the bank, by the way, was not really associated with the urban renewal projects or the Arterial, but gets lumped in with them for some reason). Now there is a new generation of folks who have lived with it their entire lives and can appreciate its own distinctly modern style, one that is itself passing into the realm of being “historic.”

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Andrew Roblee, of Auburn, is an historic preservation planner and serves on the board of the Preservation Association of Central New York.

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