Historic preservation in Tupelo is like personal hygiene: Everybody seems to agree it’s a good idea, but no one wants to be told to do it.
The Tupelo Historic Preservation Commission has the unenviable job of telling people to clean up – or in its case, to protect the city’s dwindling stock of older structures.
Everyone cheered the creation of the commission in 2005, then booed when it entered their properties.
Take, for example, the commission’s attempt to designate the Joyner neighborhood as a Local Historic District. Most Joyner residents favored the move, but some balked and raised such a ruckus that the City Council finally rejected the commission’s request.
Even when it wins a battle, like historic designation for the century-old Spain House, it creates controversy over property rights.
The commission now finds itself at a crossroads. It has achieved some of its goals but incurred a bad rap along the way. If it’s going to continue, said Chairman Michael Jones, the community must embrace its mission.
“I think the bottom-line issue is not whether people care about history, because they do,” Jones said. “I think the bottom-line issue is a really kind of a rights issue; ‘I ought to be able to do whatever I want to with my land whenever I want to. Don’t mess with Texas.’”
That attitude has hindered the commission’s work since its inception, said Desha Cruse, its first chairwoman and the person who helped get the group off the ground.
People don’t understand the commission’s role, she said, and therefore resist its presence in their neighborhood. They see it as another layer of bureaucracy, something to strip their rights rather than preserve their property values, she said.
But “I’d rather answer to a commission that listens to my concerns than risk having a slumlord buying a house next door,” she said.
Part of the commission’s role is to identify historic structures and districts and to nominate them to the City Council for local protection. If the council approves, the commission gains oversight of those designees.
Property owners aren’t affected by the designation unless they want to significantly alter their structures, demolish or build anew. Then they must seek approval from the commission, which assures all changes maintain the original character of the structure or area.
But that process often is misunderstood. Residents worry the commission will tell them what color to paint their house if local historic status is achieved. And many used that argument to oppose the recent attempt at designating Highland Circle.
The 100-house neighborhood just north of Jackson Street already is on the National Register of Historic Places. The commission wanted it to have local protection, too, but that effort was dropped after strong objection from some residents there.
Jones said he was disappointed about the situation and feels more public awareness about the commission’s goal might have changed things. But public awareness campaigns haven’t been the commission’s strong point.
“The way it’s set up, the commission does the promotion, the protection and the regulation, so it’s like we’re the only sheriff in town,” Jones said. “If there was a preservation society, then that could be the promote-and-protect part,” leaving regulation to the commission.
A preservation society also could help cause a paradigm shift in the community so residents come to value the commission’s role instead of fearing it.
Former City Councilwoman Doyce Deas, who has long advocated for historic preservation, said she’s interested in creating such a group.
“We do need a historical association that gives some weight to the movement,” Deas said. “And if people can understand the economic impact this thing can have, it does not cost more to renovate a home or commercial building in the proper historical manner.”
It’s unclear when or how that group will start, but Deas said it’s a doable project.
In the meantime, the commission prepares to enter its fifth year with several issues on the horizon. It must save the Spain House, for which it won protection but not necessarily preservation. It also wants to designate a few more historic districts, including two downtown.
And it needs to convince the public it’s a viable entity with a noble mission. Cruse, who is no longer with the commission, is rooting for the cause.
“I feel like as long as people in the commission are willing to work, there is hope,” she said, “And as long as they educate the community, there is hope.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal