Tips from Your National Park Service

In my hometown-and yours, too, I'm sure-a small, one-story house was for sale, and then it was gone. The guy who bought it promptly tore it down and then, because the new house he had designed was too big for the site, let the hole sit there for a year, a broken tooth in the 1950s neighborhood. Of course, the house he built was still too big for the lot, but there it stands, three feet from his seething neighbors: a McMansion.

This is a familiar story, almost trite by now. Some places, like the Chicago suburb of Kenilworth, Ill., have become overrun with McMansions. On one Kenilworth street of eight houses, for example, three houses have been torn down. The town has just 825 houses, many designed by big names like Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, and George Maher, and no laws to protect them.

So what's a small town to do? The National Register of Historic Places, after all, grants zero protection; a listing merely prevents the Feds from tearing down the building (most of the time). But the National Park Service, which oversees the register, now has a sample preservation ordinance that towns can emulate-or heck, just download.  It's a great site, albeit difficult to find, all about creating preservation ordinances, which only 2,300 communities have done.

http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/workingonthepast/roletheyplay.htm

A National Register listing does next to nothing; it's up to small towns to do something before its neighborhoods take on that freak-show look. And this NPS site seems as a good place to start as any.

Margaret Foster is the editor of Preservation Online.

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