Opinion – 5/20/2003

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 20, 2003

The Panolian – "Big Easy" by John Howell Sr.

For additional opinions and articles,
pick up the 5/20/03  issue of The Panolian

Preserve What’s Left of City’s Heritage

Funny how one thought can trigger another until the mind has wandered far afield from where the process started.

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So it was following a public meeting earlier this month at the Panola Partnership office between several Batesville residents and officials of the Department of and History. The state officials explained the ongoing process of having a portion of Batesville listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the creation of an Historic District. You may have noticed the proposed boundaries of the district in an ad in this newspaper announcing the meeting.

The application effort has been underway for 18 months, originating with the Design Committee of the Batesville Main Street’s Board of Directors, Main Street Director Colleen Clark said. During the process, staff members of the state’s Department of and History surveyed the proposed district street-by-street and house-by-house, identifying over 200 structures that are over 50 years old and which exhibit architectural features and construction methods which were unique to the late 19th early 20th Centuries.

The and History people were quick to point out that having a home or business within the district won’t restrict the owner’s property rights. He or she can sell it, renovate it or tear it down. But if the owner chooses to renovate the property, there might be some preservation grants available. And if the property is income-producing, depreciable property, there’s a substantial tax incentive available if the owner renovates the property within standards set by the Secretary of the Interior. All considered, the advantages of having an historic district created far outweigh any disadvantages.

The district’s boundary extended from Church Street to the west side of Eureka Street to include the house where my mother lives and where my grandparents lived when I was growing up. That’s when the wandering started, recalling the way that street looked then. Eureka Street was entirely residential but was as now the main approach from the south through the center of town. The prosperity and transportation changes of the last half of the 20th Century fueled commercial development far beyond the public square’s perimeter to the reaches that we know today.

It’s when I find myself walking about these streets that my mind strays from present to past and back again, down Eureka to Church Street where homeowners have made substantial investments in preserving the street’s older homes and enhancing landscapes, thereby creating one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Batesville. As I walk I admire the present and then flash back to somewhere in the past recalling who once lived here or there or what once stood in places now vacant or replaced with something more modern.

Not that something more modern has not been more desirable in many cases. Nor is the commercialization of formerly residential areas necessarily undesirable. Indeed, renovating and preserving historic homes and other sites the past takes money, and some of the wealth created by the economic growth in the city during the last half century has found its way back into the preservation of older structures.

By the time you read this, the application for historic district status will have been reviewed by a state committee of the and History department. This committee will decide whether Batesville’s application has merit and either approve it or ask for more information. Part of the information that they will be considering will be the house-by-house survey conducted last spring by Department of and History staffers. Those of us who attended the meeting in Batesville last week got a look at the survey collection, and everybody was fascinated with the descriptions. These are houses that most of us have been accustomed to seeing all our lives, and our familiarity with them has caused us to take them for granted. However, when you read about their architectural styles and construction techniques as seen by someone who is viewing them for the first time, it helps to put their historical value into perspective.

That survey will return to the Panola Partnership office and will be available for anyone who wants to see it. While we were only able to view its pages briefly during the local public meeting, one should be able to take his time when the survey binder returns. This should at least be a reference to help a property owner decide whether a historic structure should torn down or renovated. Among the people who will be having to make those decisions will be the congregations of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, both of which have recently acquired ownership or options on properties that contain historic structures as defined in this new district.

In Batesville, our hindsight for preservation has always been remarkable. Perhaps the creation of an historic district is a tentative first step towards preserving what’s left.