Historic Preservation: An interview with UF’s Marty Hylton


Morris “Marty” Hylton III is director of the historic preservation program at the University of Florida’s College of Design, Construction and Planning. He spoke with Herald-Tribune Real Estate Editor Harold Bubil by phone from his office in Gainesville.

Harold Bubil: What is the state of the preservation movement in the United States?

Marty Hylton

Marty Hylton

Marty Hylton: The preservation movement is losing ground in communities across the country. Part of it has to do with people understanding the importance of protecting heritage sites and historic resources within their community. Preservationists aren’t doing a good-enough job explaining what the mission is, what the goals are. And they aren’t using language that the common person can relate to or understand.

HB: Is money the key to preservation? After all, we are talking about real estate for the most part.

MH: One thing that appeals to everyone is the economics. So understanding how preservation can actually pay off is extremely important. Particularly if it is not an immediate payoff, but a longer term investment.  With the real estate interests, it is, “What are we going to gain in the next few years?” Preservation often does pay off, and sometimes even more so than some development that goes on immediately. Again, it takes time.

HB: Historic districts are a great draw for both local residents and tourists.

MH: A great example is Nantucket. (At UF, we have had a program there since 1972.) A man named Walter Beinecke – his family owned S&H Green Stamps, and he divested his interests in the company and began investing in Nantucket in the late 1950s, mainly the 1960s. There was no zoning there at the time; he could have gone in and built 10-story hotels on the waterfront.

Rather than doing that, he understood the value of the historic downtown and the natural heritage. So he helped protect 40 percent of the island as open space, and the whole island is a National Landmark Historic District. He built hotels and catered to people who would value the heritage of the island.

Now the average home price there is over $1 million. The historic downtown is a very charming setting. Even if it doesn’t appeal to you as a history buff, just being in this kind of movie-like setting is something that appeals to everyone.

HB: There is the National Register of Historic Places, and then there are local preservation ordinances. Which is more useful in protecting historic buildings?

MH: We often say in preservation that the real protections happen at the local level. They have teeth. Being on the National Register of Historic Places -- if it is a private property and not a federal site, and no federal monies are being used – really is an honorary designation. It affords no protection. Where the protections come in is on the local level.

It is a very different arrangement in each city. For example, the New York City Historic Preservation Commission really has a lot of power, a lot of weight. The person who is appointed by the mayor to be the head of that commission is basically controlling development and works very closely with the zoning commission on how the historic resources are protected. It is a big economic impact.

People who are appointed to the landmarks commission, they have many years of expertise in some area of historic preservation, whether they are a historian, conservator or architect. There is a lot of vetting that goes on, and a lot of thought as to who these commissioners are. And they can be on the commission for many years. There is always an attorney who knows real estate.

In Florida, it varies dramatically: which sector of the local government, how it is administered, who is on the commission (historic preservation board).

HB: What is preservation?

MH: The term “preservation” is only used in North America. The rest of the world says “heritage conservation.” I think “preservation” is like what our grandmothers did with the pickle jars and freezing something in time. That is not it at all. Preservation is about the management of change.

So, when you preserve a building, and it is a house museum and “George Washington slept there,” the decision may be made that we are going to restore it back to a certain period and it is going to remain that way. But the majority of preservation the way it happens is what is called rehabilitation. That is the actual term that is used by the Secretary of the Interior. That essentially allows for change – additions, alterations, the function is changing – it may be going from a school to an art gallery and classrooms, to use the example of the old Sarasota High School.

I don’t have a statistic for how much rehabilitation happens vs. restoration, but it has to be that 75 percent of the work of preservationists is altering buildings sensitively. But it doesn’t mean you are preventing a new use from happening, or preventing an economic benefit from the property. It just means that the development that happens, or the changes that are made, need to be thoughtful.

HB: In Sarasota, we see a lot of houses – historic and otherwise – demolished because the underlying land value is so high. People don’t want to pay $600,000 and live in a substandard old house unless it has been sensitively restored and is not in a waterfront location.

MH: Land value really is important. The legal term is that the historic designation encumbers the property. Often the local designation decreases the value, because it limits what you are able to do with the site. Part of the preservation tax law is what that was about – that people who designate their properties locally, or put easements on them to protect them long-term, can take the decrease in value as a tax credit over a number of years. That was meant to counteract that situation where a property was losing some of its development value because of the designation. That is huge, a very important part of preservation.

HB: In Sarasota, two old houses between Gulf Stream and Palm avenues, which once was lined with fine homes, are about to be demolished to make way for a condominium highrise. The land got too valuable and the Historic Preservation Board approved the demolition permit.

MH: The difficulty is that the context was lost long ago. We see it over and over again -- the value goes up pretty dramatically when you have the context intact – when you have not a single house, but a whole neighborhood protected.

In the economics of preservation, the problem is the time frame. It doesn’t happen overnight, typically. A great example is in New York City’s meatpacking district. It was an industrial part of the city, and not a very nice one in most people’s view. Now when you go there, the real estate prices have gone through the roof; there’s no more meatpacking. That was really preservation: It is now a historic district, and seeing the transformation of that part of the city from industrial use to urban retail and entertainment, that is what preservation is about, and how that happens sensitively. That is a great example of where preservation has paid off. The benefit economically has been tremendous.

HB: But preservation is about more than money, right? What about quality of life?

MH: The scale of neighborhoods, the walkability, the charm, or the fact that people are buying these properties and becoming good stewards of them, that is a big part of preservation – the overall feel of a community and its appeal to people. There has to be a moment where there is a tipping point, where people are investing in that community for that reason. A lot of it is there has to be a value.

Preservation is part of our everyday life. It is not something that is forced upon us. We choose every day, whether we use the word “preserve” or not, to take care, to value, the things in our lives, our property and our community, that we care most about. It is an integral part of how we live our lives, and how government or other groups or agencies operate.

We have been talking about the built environment and the tangible aspects of heritage, but there is also the intangible. The traditions that we do every year. Even the World Heritage program has started a list of intangible heritage. Things like cuisine and dances.

HB: Why do some people resent preservation boards?

MH: Preservation really has developed a bad reputation because people think about it in terms of these local commissions or groups that tell you that you can’t paint your door a certain color. In the U.S., the property rights issue is so strong – the belief that “I am an American and I can do what I want with my own property.” It doesn’t happen that way in Europe. In Sweden, there are not even trespassing laws. You can actually camp on someone’s property as long as you stay a distance from the house. There is this collective good that is acknowledged. There is a sharing of resources that we don’t always have in the US.

If you look at the life span of a house, you are only responsible for that site for a fairly short period of time. It is stewardship vs. ownership. But how many people have you encountered that really view it that way?

The advocacy aspect – education and awareness – is critical. You also have to put it in perspective; we are talking about general values in how people live their lives and what they care about. The preservation movement has always had a large challenge to really educating people about the value, and not just the economic, but the quality of life and all the values that are associated with historic places and historic communities.


Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: December 21, 2014
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