FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Years of water damage have stained the walls. Holes in the ceiling expose the second floor to the first. The staircase creaks, boards straining under the pressure of each footstep. A musty aroma taints the air, as if someone was rifling through the pages of an old book.
The new owner, Jane Hunt Meade, said she and her husband met with three architects about preserving the house. They all gave her the same answer: Tear it down.
“They said if anybody wanted to save it, work should have been done on it decades ago,” she said late last month.
Years of neglect led to the desolate state of the storied Stone-Hilton House, but some concerned neighbors in the Washington-Willow Historic District launched a campaign to save it while others worried how it might be replaced.
The future of the Stone-Hilton House spotlights the conflict between preserving history and protecting personal property rights.
The Stone-Hilton House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 1870s home is a significant structure in the Washington-Willow Historic District in Fayetteville, according to its listing by the Arkansas Heritage Preservation Program.
A structure is considered historic if it is associated with a significant event, person, or architectural style or if it holds important information about the past, according to the register. It also has to be at least 50 years old in most cases.
Recognition alone won’t save the house. One of the only protective measures for the house and any other historical building is for a city to pass a preservation ordinance.
A preservation ordinance allows cities to regulate what changes can be made to the exterior of buildings in historic districts. Regulations can include what material may be used in renovation and what architectural features may be included to make sure houses’ appearances remain similar to the time period of the original building.
No residential historic districts in Northwest Arkansas have an ordinance protecting them. City officials and preservationists have struggled to get neighborhood support because an ordinance would constrain private property rights.
Commissions would enforce the rules by requiring property owners to obtain a certificate of appropriateness before work can be done. The certificate verifies the proposed work meets the architectural and historical standards of the area.
Three ordinances protect nonresidential structures: the White Hangar at Drake Field in Fayetteville, which houses the Arkansas Air & Military Museum; a two-block area in Rogers’ downtown; and the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale and its surrounding property.
Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville all have had their share of controversies when it comes to historical preservation. Among the four cities, there are 11 historic districts and 482 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places as either stand-alone structures or as part of the districts.
Many cities struggle to balance historic preservation and population growth.
Northwest Arkansas is ranked as the 22nd fastest-growing metro area in the country, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Washington County’s population has increased by a little more than 12 percent, and Benton County has had an almost 17 percent increase since 2010.
Residents often react negatively to the announcement of a new development in a historic area of town, said Greg House, owner of Houses Inc., a Fayetteville-based property management and development company.
“Whenever there is change, people push against it,” he said.
The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that restricting personal property rights also curbs the goal of preservation.
Mark Zweig, founder of Mark Zweig Inc., a development firm based in Fayetteville, served on a historic district commission for a few years in a community near Boston. He said that experience leads him to think people here aren’t ready for a preservation ordinance that would limit their rights as property owners.
“People don’t realize if the historic commission has teeth and can enforce certain standards and maintain the integrity of what’s there, they don’t realize what the ramifications of that are,” he said.
Being told what they could and couldn’t do to their houses angered property owners, he said.
Zweig said people want to dictate what others do with their property but don’t like it when someone starts telling them what to do with theirs.
Jennifer Henaghan, a deputy research director with the American Planning Association, said development and preservation can be mutually beneficial.
“They have very similar goals,” she said. “They both improve the revitalization of the area and boost tourism.”
Henaghan said cities need to have a plan laying out the expectation and regulations for historical preservation residents can consult before conflict arises. Getting that information out would pre-empt a lot of problems, she said.
Being registered as a historic home improves a property’s value, said Mark Christ, community outreach coordinator for the Arkansas Historical Preservation Program.
Zweig said property value is more about location than the building on the land in Northwest Arkansas. Many of these districts and homes are close to downtown areas or social hubs where residents want to congregate. The desire to be close to these areas has bumped up the value of the land over the years, he said.
The Stone-Hilton House is an example. From 1995 to 2015, the value of the land increased by 241 percent, while the building increased by 65 percent, according to county records.
Henaghan said the property value depends more on how well maintained the buildings are and how much the neighborhood has invested to keep its historical integrity intact.
“Older neighborhoods have the ability to drive economic development because they have that built-in character that would cost a heck of a lot of money to re-create from scratch,” she said.
Both House and Zweig said they enjoy preserving houses when they can, but sometimes it’s cost-prohibitive.
“I actually have to pay my debt and make a buck off of this,” House said.
Alternatives exist if a building can’t be preserved, said Allyn Lord, director of the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. They include building similar structures to replace old homes and having someone photograph and record information about a house before it’s demolished.
House said he thinks there’s value in the appearance of historic properties because people are attracted to the characteristics of the architecture. If they can’t be saved, the new structure should reflect the old.
“It’s easier to get the community to accept change if you’re matching what is already there,” House said. “That’s not a radical change to the community you’re involved in. Secondly, there’s just a market appeal if there’s a cool architectural integrity to it. It can be an asset.”
Owners often preserve historic homes by adapting their use such as turning a house into an office space or an old post office into a museum.
The Thaden House in Bentonville was built in the mid-1880s and was the home of famous aviator Louise Thaden. It was scheduled for demolition last year but now will serve some function for the Thaden School, said Clayton Marsh, founding head of the new private school in Bentonville. The house was dismantled and will be reassembled at the school’s location on the old fairgrounds in Bentonville.
Marsh said the house could be used as a gathering space for community members, a seminar room for teaching, a place to house art exhibits or a meeting room for the school’s board. School officials are exploring options and waiting for the budget to be defined.
The Lane Hotel in the Rogers Commercial Historic District is another example of adaptive reuse. The renovated hotel will open this fall as a Haas Hall Academy, a public charter school with other campuses in Fayetteville, Bentonville and Springdale.
Henaghan said companies throughout the country have been moving headquarters from suburbs closer to downtowns because it offers a better quality of life. Google, for example, refurbished an old Nabisco factory for its new offices in Pittsburgh in 2011.
The Department of Arkansas Heritage and the U.S. Department of the Interior offer tax incentives and grants to those who preserve historic properties. Local preservation societies also provide grants for homeowners to renovate their houses to align them with the era when they were built.
Proponents of preservation have found success in advocacy and raising awareness. Cherie Clark organized protests outside Bentonville’s Thaden House when plans were to demolish it, prompting city officials to try to save it. Then the owners of the house eventually donated it to the Thaden School.
“Outside of advocacy, there’s not much that can be done,” Christ said.
Numerous attempts have been made to pass a historic district ordinance in Fayetteville, said Andrew Garner, the city’s planner. The last try was within the past decade, he said. City officials approached business owners in the West Dickson Street Historic District, but the proposal never gained traction.
The owners were “adamantly opposed to such a regulation,” he said.
Bentonville has no plans to create a commission or an ordinance, according to email from Mayor Bob McCaslin and Councilwoman Stephanie Orman.
Leah Whitehead, president of the Benton County Historical Society, said residents are working to make it happen.
“We have to accept progress because it’s going to happen; we can’t stop it,” Whitehead said. “We can only hope we can come together and say, ‘OK we’re going to preserve this because it’s important.’ I mean how are the kids two generations from now going to know what occurred?”
Springdale’s commission meets on an as-needed basis. The last time it was needed was more than 10 years ago when a man wanted to build an addition to his home in the district, said Melissa Reeves, director of public relations for Springdale.
The Rogers Commercial Historic District requires a business owner to get a certificate of appropriateness to renovate the front of a building.
“It’s a necessary evil,” said Sheila Reece, owner of Cooking Studio of Downtown Rogers. “Moderation is always good, but I understand and applaud the concept.”
Kim Walters, co-owner of Walter’s Boot & Shoe Repair with her husband, Aaron, said she didn’t mind going through the commission because they haven’t had major work done to the store.
Ed McClure, commission chairman, said owners have never complained about the extra regulations.
“My sense is landowners appreciate that someone is looking out for their investment and making sure the historical integrity is intact,” he said.
He said the commission has approved some alterations that might not have conformed 100 percent to the idea of strict preservation.
“The Historic District Commission has done an amazing job preserving history, but also understanding the needs of modern-day commerce,” he said.
Reece said the commissioners have been more than accommodating. They offered to help find the correct material the Reeces would need to make sure the work was historically consistent.
Rogers revised its historic district guidelines earlier this year to make it easier and quicker for business owners to get a certificate. One change is any work considered to be general maintenance can bypass public notice requirements.
“Things are really streamlined now,” Reece said. “Things are moving forward.”
The Stone-Hilton House has been at the center of debate in Fayetteville since the Meades bought the home in May. Concerned residents were worried about what she planned to do with the home. Some appealed to the city’s historic district commission, while others launched a Facebook campaign to save the house.
“There’s no way anyone could restore that house, historic commission or not, and have it work out economically,” Zweig said.
The two-story brick house was built in the Georgian architectural style with Italianate details, according to the Save Stone-Hilton House Facebook page. The style combines symmetrical design with decorative elements such as intricately engraved doors and roof cornices.
Hunt Meade said she has every intention to build a home fitting the architectural integrity of the neighborhood. She has been approved for a building permit for a little more than $800,000 in a neighborhood where houses have recently sold for near a half-million dollars.
She also plans on trying to keep parts of the original house such as the fireplace in the first floor living room, the basement and a few of the remaining cornices on the roof.
Bob Stafford, one of the residents who attended the commission meeting back in June, said it was upsetting to hear the house had to be torn down because the neighborhood and Fayetteville would lose a piece of history.
“I hope that they do try hard to really build something that fits the neighborhood,” he said.
Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.nwaonline.com
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