Historic preservation movement joins hands with private sector

The movement for historic preservation has at times been stereotyped as an amalgam of liberal activists and the trendy rich, united to save old buildings and block new development.

Whether or not that image has sometimes been true in the past, the preservationist movement of the 1980s is adopting a theme that has become a hallmark of the avowedly conservative Reagan administration - more reliance on the private sector.

To a large extent, this theme is dictated by the administration's slicing of federal funding for many preservation projects. In fact, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and state preservation agencies were cut out of the proposed federal budget for fiscal 1983.

But officials of the National Trust hope their extensive lobbying campaign to ''Raise the Roof'' of Congress for preservation will restore about $26 million in federal support. Of that sum, $4.4 million would be allocated to the trust, with the balance going to state agencies.

Chartered by Congress in 1949 to hold historic property and to help preserve historic buildings, sites, and ships, the trust is a 130,000-member private organization which serves as the vanguard of the national preservationist movement. Estimates are that the movement has 2 million participants and followers, which includes members of about 2,800 state and local preservation agencies and groups.

Even though delegates at the recent 36th National Preservation Conference here said they're ''guardedly optimistic'' about saving federal funding in the post-election lame-duck session of Congress, the new thrust toward seeking more private support was a dominant theme.

''If we're going to continue to be an important movement in this country, we've got to go back to the private sector,'' notes Patricia Poore, managing editor of the 65,000-circulation Old House Journal published in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her magazine appeals to people who rehabilitate houses in older neighborhoods, a group considered a mainstay in preservationist ranks.

As evidence of the preservationist swing toward the private sector, spokesmen for the National Trust point out that the size of the average private donation they receive has been on the rise and corporate donors have been more in evidence.

During the Louisville conference, the Rust-Oleum Corporation announced it was donating more than 40,000 gallons of its rust-inhibitive paint to be used in preservation projects designated by the trust. The first project to benefit will be the Belle of Louisville, a municipally owned steam-powered paddlewheeler built more than 60 years ago. A week earlier, Standard Oil of Ohio gave the trust $500,000 to help inner-city building development following the corporation's demolition of two historic buildings in Cleveland.

Michael Ainslie, a Harvard Business School graduate who has been president of the National Trust since 1980, recognizes the new direction for the movement even as he lobbies to save the federal money which makes up 40 percent of his organization's ''core budget.''

With a background as a corporate executive, as well as a front-line preservationist who personally restored his own Queen Anne-style house when he lived in Cincinnati, Mr. Ainslie perhaps exemplifies the new trend for the preservationist movement.

''Preservation is not just saving landmarks,'' Ainslie emphasizes. ''It is the economic development strategy being followed by many cities to revive their neighborhoods and their downtowns. It's not just a frill that can be done away with in these times.''

Ainslie notes that the money being sought from the federal government is the same amount appropriated by Congress last year and that it represents only about two-fifths of what the federal government provided three years ago.

''That money will go to fund state historic preservation offices which will then nominate buildings to the National Register of Historic Places,'' he says. ''They certify those buildings that are being proposed for tax incentive treatment.''

Though preservationists are concerned about the level of federal support, they are enthusiastic about the 1981 Reagan tax bill's treatment of historic preservation. The Economic Recovery Tax Act has what Ainslie calls the ''best'' incentives ever with its 25 percent investment tax credit for ''certified rehabilitations.'' Such incentives are considered a major step toward making preservation and ''adaptive use'' of existing structures ''as attractive as new construction and, in many cases, far more appealing,'' he says.

Since passage of the 1981 tax act, spokesmen say the number of sites nominated for listing on the National Register has tripled.

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