Group helps owners rescue old houses

"Help! I've bought an old house!" is the plea that James C. Massey, executive director of the Historic House Association of America, hears each day as new owners meet renewal problems, head on.

While dozens of new books and publications are coming to the aid of individual restorers, the Historic House Association, founded in 1978, is today the only national nonprofit membership organization that has risen to meet the need. Though separate, it is a direct spinoff of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and rents quarters at Trust headquarters, 1600 H Street, in Washington.

Mr. Massey estimates that there are 500,000 privately owned historic buildings in the US today, including New york brownstones, Newport mansions, Victorian cottages, old churches, firehouses, and log cabins. Some 6,000 of these historic properties are open to the public, and visitors can view them inside and out.

Mr. Massey says that a structure need not be famous to be historic. "We consider any building historic if it is over 50 years old and has some architectural, cultural, or historic interest." These buildings are important, he says, because they enrich their communities and because if they are torn down or allowed to deteriorate, there is no way to replace them, ever." People who own old houses that may not be all that "historic," are welcomed as well, since old is old.

The houses of members include the 250-room stately home called "Biltmore" in Asheville, N.C., built by George Vanderbilt over 85 years ago and now owned and administered by William A. V. Cecil, chairman of the Historic House Association of America.

Or consider the trim, four-room pre-Civil War house in the Plains, Va., which Randie Lawrence, a woman in her 20s, bought "as an old wreck" for $5,000 and spent $13,000 and two years of her time restoring. Or, the run-down Victorian house, built in the 1880s in Little Rock, Ark., which appealed to John and Martha Matthews and inspired them to tackle a complete and careful restoration job.

In Washington, D.C. designer Dudley Brown lost his heart to a dilapidated townhouse built in 1870 in Washington's old Capitol Hill district and brought it back to life. While in Cape May's historic district in New Jersey, Tom and Sue Carroll are making their restored Victorian mansion "earn its keep" by running it as the Mainstay Inn and letting out nine guest rooms.

Problems that confront almost all old-house owners are essentially the same. In order of priority, they include energy conservation, security, and protection from theft, vandalism, and fire, taxes, and help in passing the house on the next generation intact.

Many members want to know if their house qualifies to be put on the National Historic Register, which might, in turn, qualify them for grants or low-interest loans for rehabilitation work.

The association maintains a complete reference service on questions of restoration and maintenance. It also cosponsors, with the Smithsonian Institution, spring and fall week-long courses on "How to Preserve Your Historic House." Last fall it cosponsored a conference at Oakland University on mansions and estates, and this June 5-7, it will cosponsor with harriton, a house museum in Bryn Mawr, Pa., a seminar on managing wear and tear in historic house museums.

Private owners are protecting and preserving much of the nation's irreplaceable architectural heritage, Mr. Massey concludes. "They have been hit by both inflation and recession, and they deserve all the help they can get."

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