Monday, January 19, 2015

10+ Years of Preservation Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Sites Program: A Report Card

The Town of Pamplin City, listed in 2014.

Preservation Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Sites list has helped focus the advocacy and field work of its staff each year for the past decade.  The list includes buildings, archaeological sites, cultural landscapes, and viewsheds across the Commonwealth that face imminent or sustained threats to their integrity or their very survival. The list is issued to help raise awareness of Virginia's historic resources at risk from neglect, deterioration, lack of maintenance, insufficient funds, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy.  The intent is not to shame or punish those responsible for the stewardship of these places, but to bring attention to the threats described and to encourage citizens, localities, and organizations to continue to advocate for their protection and preservation.

Early on, the first several years of the program were administered bi-annually (in 2000 and 2002) by the Preservation Alliance of Virginia.  Following the merging of that organization’s mission with that of   Preservation Virginia in 2004, annual lists became the norm from 2005 to the present.  Selected by a committee comprised of staff, board and committee members, and experts in the field from around the state, the aim of the list is to raise awareness of a diverse range of historic resources from communities around the Commonwealth.  Once selected, each year’s list helps guide staff for how best to engage with and advocate for sites.  With limited staff resources, focusing efforts on resources previously identified through the listing process helps us to better leverage our work in localities statewide.  Of course, preservation emergencies or new issues brought to the attention of staff are always addressed, too.  Finally, it should be noted that once listed, a Most Endangered Historic Site never truly gets removed from the list or our consideration.  Unless definitively “saved,” listings are monitored and lines of communication with the site’s nominator or contact are kept open.

Current Status

As of the current writing, updates and status reports for each listing from the beginning of the program in the year 2000 through 2014 have been added to Preservation Virginia’s website.  Where available, pertinent links to news stories and reports are included with the listings to help contextualize them but are in no way exhaustive.  For the purpose of exploring the success of the program and the nature of threats that Virginia’s historic resources face, as well as providing a quick way to reference their current status, each listing has also been “graded” into four categories.  While the particulars of each site are unique and nuanced, the following four categorizations can be used to characterize each listing:
SAVED:  The immediate threat to a resource has been overcome and is not likely to reappear in the foreseeable future

LOST:  The resource has been demolished or its integrity altered enough to jeopardize its register eligibility

STILL ENDANGERED:  The threat present at the time of listing is still active, unresolved, and/or could likely reappear in the foreseeable future
WATCH LIST:  The resource is not currently, actively endangered but may still face threats and should continue to be monitored

In order to create a type of “report card” for assessing the success of the Most Endangered Historic Sites program, we’ve categorized the current status of listings up through 2013, as above, and have identified the types of threats as well as the leading factor or reason that a site is now considered to be “saved.”  Some very clear patterns develop from this way of looking at the reasons for a site’s current status and how it came to be saved.  For this exercise, each “saved” listing was only counted once, for the most prevalent reason it was saved, though it should be noted that many sites have successfully avoided harm due to multiple factors enumerated below. 

Since the beginning of the Most Endangered program (through the 2013 list), approximately:

·         51% of listings are SAVED
·         25% are on the WATCH LIST
·         13% are LOST
·         11% are STILL ENDANGERED

Types of Threats

Overwhelmingly, if one were to assign a singular reason for a site being threatened, the biggest danger for historic resources in Virginia comes in the form of encroaching development.  Whether an old building threatened with wholesale replacement or a site facing a fate of being swallowed up by new development, 43% of listings cited development and expansion as the main reason for inclusion on the list.  Demolition by neglect or abandonment was the next most popular threat, at 33%.  Roughly 10% of listings can be seen as threatened because of transportation expansion or infrastructure-related projects.  Approximately 6% of listed sites cited unavoidable external threats like damage caused by weather, while the remaining 5% cited a lack of funding for the reason the site was in jeopardy.  Most Endangered listings often face multiple threats, some of which unfold over time.  For the sake characterizing the general trends in Virginia over the past nearly 14 years, each site’s main threat was counted once.

Encroaching development: 43%
Demo by Neglect: 33%
Transportation/Infrastructure expansion: 10%
External threats/weather: 6%
Lack of funding: 5%
Other: 3%

How Sites Were Saved

Much like the multiple and varied threats that have and still face historic sites in the Commonwealth, the reasons or factors behind the more than 50% of listings that we consider to be saved are numerous and often intertwined with one another.  That is, any combination of grassroots efforts, funding sources, governmental intervention, or other factors could be responsible for a site being saved.  In order to characterize the overarching reason that a listing was successful, we have attributed to each listing one predominant factor, with the understanding that others apply as well. 

Almost 50% of the successful listings since 2000 can be attributed primarily to the grassroots efforts of local supporters, whether individuals or groups, however formally organized.  From concerned citizens to friends groups to fully-incorporated 501©3 private non-profits, it becomes clear that work at the local level is the most effective way to save a site.  Whether influencing elected officials at the locality level, private interests, or others, the power of a coalition of people with a shared interest in a resource is not to be underestimated and forms the approach for how Preservation Virginia works with Most Endangered listings.  By helping local groups to organize, strategize, and raise awareness of an issue, Preservation Virginia can help save sites across the Commonwealth.  In 24% of listings, securing funding from non-governmental, private, or corporate sources has been enough to turn an endangered site around.  Also at 24%, some kind of governmental action, whether funding or more often a zoning change, has helped save an endangered listing.  In only a couple instances, less than 5%, larger or more global external factors, like the economic downturn in 2008, can be credited with effectively stalling or tabling development or expansion plans.

Grassroots/local efforts: 48%
Funding (private or corporate): 24%
Governmental intervention/action including funding: 24%
External factors (economic recession): 4%

Why lost?

On the other hand, the main contributing factor for more than 50% of the sites on the list that are considered LOST was the realized threat of development.  In almost all cases, the listed resource was demolished to make way for a new structure (whether it was ultimately built or not).  Finally, approximately 30% of those properties or sites LOST are attributable to external factors like severe weather events or fire.  In a few cases, a resource was lost because of governmental action (8%) or a dire funding situation (8%).   

Development: 54%
External factors (weather, fire): 30%
Governmental action: 8%
Lack of Funding: 8%

Preservation Virginia’s Most Endangered program has proven to be an effective tool for helping to save sites across the Commonwealth.  It focuses Preservation Virginia’s work in the field and has yielded multiple thematic projects across the state, like the Tobacco Barns Preservation Project and the forthcoming Saving Virginia’s Rosenwald Schools initiative.  Most Endangered listings help to strengthen existing and create new partnerships and collaborations, from the most local level to the national.  For example, two high-profile Most Endangered listings- Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom and the James River viewshed- have also been included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s national 11 Most Endangered list; Preservation Virginia has been working with the Trust to coordinate advocacy efforts in Virginia, much like local non-profits or groups of citizens do at the local level with our statewide listings.  Taken on the whole, it is clear that the success of historic preservation is the result of the people involved in the effort, from the nominators and supporters of listings at the most local and intimate level, to leveraging the input and sway of organizations and other entities at the statewide scale and beyond.

The complete graphic representation of the program that accompanies this narrative can be found at the following link:

For more detailed information on past and current Most Endangered listings and for information on how to nominate a resource for the 2015 list, see: