All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1989

Private Property: In Need of Historic Preservation

Mr. Ownby is an attorney in Knoxville. Tennessee.

Almost everyone is saddened by the demolition of an old, historic building. But sometimes an old structure be comes the focus of a heated conflict between preservationists and those who wish to exercise their property rights. What is frightening in such a case is that many people fail to appreciate the importance of private property. This was clearly evident in my community when various groups were galvanized toward saving the Baker-Peters House, an antebellum home that had served as a popular restaurant.

The restaurant owners possessed a leasehold interest in the real estate coupled with an option to buy. They were under financial pressure to sell their interest rather than continue operating a restaurant in that location. Their real-tots negotiated a deal with a national oil company to buy them out and construct a gas station—requiring the demolition of the old house and removal of two trees believed to be 200 years old. The major historical event that warranted the preservation of the old house—outside of its pre-Civil War architecture-was that it was where its owner, a doctor, had been killed by Union soldiers.

When the prospective sale was discovered, the public outcry was immediate; both the restaurant owners and the oil company were castigated for proposing a use contrary to the public will. Outraged citizens asked: Why wasn’t there a municipal department charged with alerting the public any time a dwelling such as this was endangered? How could our public officials have failed to protect this important landmark from corporate greed? Letters to the editor, television interviews, and editorials were overwhelmingly uniform in their virulent condemnation of the consummation of a private contract. Very few spoke in defense of the property owners’ right to dispose of their interest under terms acceptable to them.

Several proposals were put forward to preserve the landmark. The oil company could donate the house and land in its natural state and register it as an historic site. The company could rearrange its construction plans so as to avoid destroying the house and the trees. A third idea was to relocate the house on the same land or an adjoining tract, with the oil company providing most of the money for the move. Other suggestions included legislation restricting the property as an historical zone, and/or having the owners renounce their property interest and capital investment for the public benefit. Finally, the city passed an ordinance requiring a permit prior to the destruction of any old trees within 150 feet of an antebellum home.

Many sincere people believed that the various proposals offered rational courses of action. They denounced the desire to make a profit or suggested that any action other than preservation was a submission to the vice of greed. Most, however, saw no inconsistency in their hope to earn a profit when they sold their own homes.

The efforts to stop the demolition of the old house are a symptom of a growing problem—cultural or historical illiteracy. The goal of preserving historic landmarks is admirable, but the preservation shouldn’t be at the expense of values which permitted the creation of an historic site in the first place.

The actions taken and suggested in this instance resembled those of a lynch mob from our not-too-distant past—ordinarily associated with the rather immediate denial of someone’s civil rights without due process of law. The Fifth Amendment prohibits the taking of private property for public use without compensation. A disturbing aspect of this affair was the complete absence of this concept from any public discussion of the event. Many suggestions focused on what the oil company and/or the property owners could contribute for the public benefit. People just couldn’t seem to grasp the idea of paying a market price to enjoy an aesthetic benefit.

It is ironic that this landmark built in an era when most economic liberties were defended by law—today was defended by those who don’t seem to recognize the importance of Such liberties. In today’s cultural environment, the elevation to virtue or the devolution to vice became synonymous with being for or against preservation of the house. That the issue was considered on these terms suggests that some of the values embodied in our Constitution have suffered serious erosion and are in desperate need of historical restoration.