Historic Preservation Commission members want to be friends with their community, according to commission member Dr. Timothy Crowley.
“We’re not there as an adversary. I think most commissioners feel we are there to help people through the process and to help them make what everybody in the end will think is the right decision whenever there are questions about what should be done to a property,” said Crowley.
“The commission exists to help protect and preserve the original fabric and look of the buildings,” he said. “There are those applications that fall outside the norm – like the rare application to demolish a building. However, most of the time, people want to change the color of their house or change their roof or that sort of thing, and those are fairly easy applications to take people through.”
Crowley, who has lived in the preservation area since 1983, has been a member of the Historic Preservation Commission since the mid-1980s. He recently completed his second year as chairman and was succeeded by new chair Kathleen Manicke at the commission’s January meeting. A self-described “idealist” when it comes to preservation, Crowley said the commission works best through compromise.
“At times, I have been disappointed because I thought one or more items in an application should not have passed and that it was not ideal, but I understood that compromise is necessary,” he said. “I think if the commission was manned only by idealists, the system probably wouldn’t work. Property owners probably wouldn’t be able to tolerate the decisions of the commission. They would feel it was too strict or too onerous, that the decisions were too expensive to act on. It might end up being the eventual destruction of the ordinance and the commission, which I think would be bad for the neighborhood.”
Evansville’s first preservation ordinance, based on Indianapolis’ Meridian Street ordinance, established the Historic Preservation Commission in December of 1974. That’s also when the Riverside District was designated as a National Register Historic District, the core of which is the Original Evansville Preservation Area.
The original preservation ordinance was partially a reaction to the urban renewal movement of the late 1960s and ’70s during which “federal money was used to tear down large tracts of Evansville,” Crowley said.
“There was a lot of preservation activity in the mid to late ’70s, because things had finally gotten to the point where it was either going to get better or it was going to get a whole lot worse in a hurry. They were probably fearful in the way that a lot of Evansvillians are fearful today that Washington Avenue is in trouble,” he said.
The current preservation ordinance, based on new state enabling legislation, was passed in November 1998, bringing Evansville’s ordinance more in line with those of other cities in Indiana and allowing the establishment of another preservation district in the Lincolnshire area. [pagebreak]
“Lincolnshire residents wanted some oversight to preserve the character of their neighborhood, and the old ordinance didn’t allow for another preservation district,” said City Preservation Officer Dennis Au. Currently, oversight of Lincolnshire is limited to “the razing of a structure, the moving of a structure and any major additions to buildings that are on view from a public way,” Au said. He said Lincolnshire residents will choose later this year whether or not to become “a full historic district.”
The Original Evansville Preservation Area is roughly bounded by parts of Southeast Second and Third streets, Blackford Avenue, Shawnee Drive, Riverside Drive, Veteran’s Parkway, and Walnut and Oak streets. It meanders along streets and through alleys, resulting in blocks in which one side of the street is within the protected area and the other is not.
The Riverside Historic District encompasses 413 structures, the Original Evansville Preservation Area 223, and those 223 structures are under the Historic Preservation Commission’s protection. The preservation ordinance limits the commission’s jurisdiction to what is visible from a public way and states that commissioners “may not make any requirement except for the purpose of preventing development, alteration, or demolition in the historic district obviously incongruous with the historic district.”
“You never know what terrible things could have happened, because a lot of things may never have gotten started because people know there is a preservation ordinance,” Crowley said. “Terrible things may never have come to our commission meetings because they already know there is some protection there. It’s hard to know what the area may have been like if it hadn’t been for the last 25 years of historic preservation protection.”
Only one building has been razed in the preservation area during Crowley’s tenure, a “shotgun” house at Chandler Avenue and First Street that had sustained significant termite damage, slipped off its foundation, and developed a terrible lean. Crowley acknowledged that the value of the house, even restored, would not have justified the expense of restoring it. Nevertheless, he considered the house an “interesting example of the diversity of the Riverside Historic District,” where a shotgun house could exist alongside mansions, and homes date from 1838 to 1950.
“That’s why standard subdivision covenants wouldn’t work here. The diversity of the structures themselves would mandate that some opinion be used as to whether or not certain things were appropriate,” he said.
However, commission members have been working on a set of guidelines, which Manicke is anxious to distribute to residents of the preservation area.
“We need to get to the point where people are re-educated about coming to us before work is done. … Animosity is caused by dealing with things after the fact,” she said at January’s meeting.