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Should history trump private property rights?

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Leininger on WOWO

Kevin Leininger will appear with guest host Steve Shine at 8:35 a.m. Monday on radio station WOWO, 1190-AM.

Home's owner wants its historic designation rescinded

Saturday, July 31, 2010 - 10:40 am

Built in 1952, the only house in Fort Wayne designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright clearly isn't getting any younger.

So how could the landmark at 3901 North Washington Road possibly become less historic?

Until last week, the city's Historic Preservation Review Board had never even considered such a paradox. At the request of neighborhoods or single property owners, the board for decades had created districts that safeguarded historic and architectural integrity by limiting owners' ability to make external changes without prior approval. But that all changed when owner Richard J. Herber of Wilton, Conn., asked the board to rescind the historic designation it had placed on the house just two years earlier – at his request.

The board denied Herber's plea. But if the decision at least temporarily ended speculation about his reasons for wanting the freedom to fiddle with an architectural icon, it created a question no less murky: To what degree – if any – should the desire to preserve our common public culture trump private property rights?

Where local historic districts are concerned, that question has always been problematic for me and others who value both history and liberty. I have written stories about people owning homes in historic districts who were told what kind of siding they could or could not install, or what color of paint they could or could not use. But in the case of neighborhood-wide districts, historic designation required the support of a majority of property owners. And in the case of property-specific historic districts such Herber's, the owner's support is required.

But what if the owner changes his mind?

There is no obvious answer to that question – which should trouble property owners and bureaucrats alike.

Ron Ross, an architect and Review Board member, said the vote was based at least in part on Herber's refusal to explain why the house's historic district should be eliminated. “If (Herber) had shown up and made his case, I would have listened with an open mind,” Ross said.

Weber wouldn't discuss his motives with me, either. And in a June 7 letter to city Historic Preservation Planner Don Orban, he stated only that “I want the freedom to do whatever I want with my property … I feel there is absolutely zero benefit to me having my property designated a local historic district.”

It's hard to believe Herber would have bought a Wright-designed home four years ago only to dramatically change its appearance now – something that would reduce its value in economic as well as historic terms. Maybe he wants to be able to make minor cosmetic changes without seeking board approval (although he has not filed any request to so do). Maybe he's unhappy with the disruptive widening of Ardmore Avenue just to the east. Maybe he and the city are squabbling about something else.

But if the same man who successfully requested his home be made a historic district now wants that designation removed, are his motives really anybody's business, so long as no other laws are broken?

It's not quite that simple, of course. Wright, 1867-1959, is perhaps America's foremost architect and designed some of the nation's best-loved buildings, including the eccentric Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the majestic “Fallingwater” house in Pennsylvania. But late in his career he also designed about 180 modest single-story “Usonian” homes, including one in Fort Wayne and three others in Indiana, that were characterized by an L-shaped design, lots of built-in cabinets, flat roofs, native materials, high-mounted windows, skylight, carports and radiant-floor heating. The 1,340-square-foot Fort Wayne house, commissioned by John and Dorothy Haynes, is obviously a treasure worth preserving.

But who, exactly, should get to make that call? People who have no stake in the property? Or Herber, who paid $173,750 for the house and has the most to lose by undermining its main value: the Wright mystique?

According to city preservationists' report, the procedure to remove property from a local historic district “is the same as having the property placed in the designation.” Herber's property is still deemed “significant,” of course, but how can the process be the same when the owner has been reduced from a willing partner into an irrelevancy? Other owners of historic properties who consider protecting their properties in this way may refuse to do so if they perceive the rules for reversing the decision as unclear, arbitrary or rigged against them.

Lack of information from the owner and clear guidelines from the city make it hard to assess Herber's request or the board's decision. Preserving the past deserves better from both sides in the future.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.