What – if anything – do owners of historic properties owe the rest of us?
It's a good question, and preservationists are asking it today as demolition they consider at best premature continues on the 138-year-old home of a man who is largely unknown today but in the 19th century was one of Fort Wayne's most-renowned residents.
“People who own historic buildings are stewards,” said Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards, who also serves as board president for historic preservation group ARCH, which for the past several weeks had been trying to save the house Col. Robert Robertson built at Broadway and West Berry Street in 1873. “I don't know what the damn hurry was (to tear it down). I'm just very disgusted the way this has turned out.”
Nearly forgotten 105 years after his death, Robertson was so respected and prominent in his day that he was among the civic leaders chosen to speak at the laying of the cornerstone of the Allen County Courthouse in 1897. And the honor was well-earned: Before coming to Fort Wayne in 1866, the New York native had won the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Civil War, nearly dying from wounds suffered in 1864 at Spotsylvania and Totopotomoy Creek, Va., where he was shot from his horse. After the war, he served as lieutenant governor and later as Fort Wayne's city attorney and as a state senator, where he championed legislation to create public libraries here and throughout Indiana.
Should the home's historical significance and whatever architectural integrity it had left have been enough to persuade Trinity Episcopal Church to maintain it indefinitely? No. I'm responsible for the buildings and grounds at my own church, and I can tell you that no congregation – even those without budget problems – wants the expense, liability and headache created by properties they don't need.
Nor do private property rights go out the window by slapping an unofficial “historic” designation on a house. The Robertson house and the vacant doctor's office next door, which will also be razed, were donated to the church, and the church has the right to use them – or not use them – as the law allows.
But Richards and ARCH Executive Director Mike Galbraith are on more solid ground when they suggest that, had preservationists been given more time, they might have been able to find a way to move Robertson's house to another location, possibly in the West Central Neighborhood. Several other historic homes, in fact, have already been saved and later restored in just that way.
“We started talking (to the church) months ago, but were surprised when they came to us and said they'd only give us 30 more days (to work something out),” he said, adding that it could have taken another 90 days or so to seek tax credits or other funding to underwrite a move.
In fact, Richards said, ARCH representatives never got the promised chance to inspect the house – so they can't even say for sure whether the interior contained any features worth salvaging.
And now, with the bulldozer having moved in Tuesday afternoon, it's too late even if there were.
Church representatives were unavailable for comment, so I want to be as sympathetic to Trinity's needs as possible. If the church razed buildings it doesn't need to provide more parking or to be more visible from Broadway, as Richards and Galbraith suggested, that's a legitimate decision – one I would not even question if it had given preservationists more warning before imposing a deadline.
But history does indeed repeat itself, it seems.
In 1988, the medal Robinson sacrificed so much to earn was stolen from the History Center. Despite the offer of rewards from his family and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the artifact was never recovered and is, presumably, gone forever.
Now, during the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, just a few days after honoring the sacrifices of America's war dead, it's happened again.
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