Friday, February 26, 2016

Returning Dignity

By Matthew Shoen

Historic Map of St. Lawrence County from

When people approach historic preservation there are oftentimes a number of motivations at play. We’re seeking tax credit money for redevelopment, or trying to uncover the history of a neighborhood in order to preserve the look of a street. There is however another reason to pursue historic preservation. Preservation, in so many ways, is an act of returning dignity to buildings and communities.

For twenty-two years I lived in St. Lawrence County. It is an isolated place in the nebulous part of New York State most people assume is part of Canada with too few people and too few jobs outside farming and the penal system.  In St. Lawrence County we were taught by our circumstances not to have pride, or feel positive about our surroundings. The land was beautiful, this was never in doubt, but the built-in human landscape of towns like Potsdam, Canton, Ogdensburg, and Massena was too easy to deride. We are among the three poorest counties in the state, the largest county in New York with one of the smallest populations. Canton and Potsdam had the ivory towers of great universities, but these affluent schools never felt like they were part of the county, they were fortified castles sitting in our impoverished midst. The rest of the county had a depressive air. It never felt like there was anything to be proud of. Home was home, but the county's economic depression retarded any desire to meaningfully connect with local history.

When I began working as a preservationist I started to poke around, glancing at St. Lawrence County’s contributions to the National Register of Historic Places. I was surprised in all honesty to see so much. The library near my summer camp had been listed in 1982 while my Town Hall in Lisbon had been included in 1980. There were in fact three separate buildings from Lisbon on the Register, more than I’d ever expected. Reading the nominations for these buildings, and dozens more spread all across the county, I felt proud of my community. I had been reconnected to the history of my home and enlightened to its rich two-hundred year story, a history which interconnected with so much in New York.

For example, the Russell Town Hall was endowed by Seymour Knox I father of Seymour Knox II who’d go on to help expand the Albright Art Museum into its current form. Meanwhile, in Ogdensburg sits the McEwan Customs House the oldest standing federal building in the country.  Ogdensburg was also home to Frederick Remington the great artist of America’s Western expansion, as well as a historic gallery of Remington’s works. This is just a small selection of the trove of information I found. All these facts, when viewed individually, are completely disconnected. However, collectively they articulate the history of St. Lawrence County. The actions of thousands of men, women, builders, architects, philanthropists, mayors, and pastors was mixed together in an invisible past which required dedicated research to pull into a narrative. That narrative was the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places.

In Buffalo we’ve seen the economic value of historic preservation and tax credits. We've seen the importance of pulling the city away from the cycle of destruction and urban renewal which has failed to spark economic development. I sincerely hope that someday these economic benefits reach St. Lawrence County and tax credits become the new wave of development. For now however, the National Register is serving a unique purpose in the area. It is articulating the value of our buildings, the social history we often loose sight of in the face of economic woes. The Register reminds us who came before us, what they did, and how they contributed to the evolution of New York State. 

The National Register returns dignity to the county and offers visual proof of what we have to be proud of. Buildings like the Customs House, the lighthouse on Crossover Island, and Richardson Hall each gain so much by their inclusion in the Register. They qualify for tax credits and are guaranteed protection against future degradation, but the people who walk past these buildings each day also gain something. They gain access to their past, much of which has been scattered or lost. Buildings which previously may have been eye-catching now have a history which ties the county's past to the lives of those who currently live there. 

The St. Lawrence at dusk from

Between the swift current of the St. Lawrence River and the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains there are sixty-six individual buildings and structures and eight historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a small but significant number which will only grow.  In its growth the Register’s listings will continue telling stories about St. Lawrence County and the people whose lives were formed by the landscape of rivers, mountains, farms, and human achievement cemented in architecture. 

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