New Legal Column: Friday Filings

Penn Station in 1911 at 7th Avenue and 33rd Street in New York City. For more great historic pictures and a detailed history of the building visit

Penn Station in 1911 at 7th Avenue and 33rd Street in New York City. For more great historic photos and a detailed history of the building visit this site.

Today is the first day of a new column here at I Speak Vintage. The idea for this column is all things legal that are tied to what is known in the United States as Historic Preservation. I know what you are thinking…how boring. But wait! This is typically the point at which people butt heads about the idea of saving something versus demolishing it or replacing it with something else. So when you see that article in the paper about that beautiful building downtown that somebody wants to tear down, this is where you are going to end up if you want to try to help save it, so how about a little background.

The seminal case in historic preservation in the United States was Penn Central Transportation Co. v. City of New York. This case, decided in 1978, set a precedent that is the legal justification for most historic preservation ordinances in the country today. It deals with the rights of an owner to develop a property versus the right of a city to review and regulate the development of a designated historic property. The loss of Penn Station set the field of Historic Preservation into motion and caused citizens to think proactively about their surroundings, what is kept and what is lost, and how they can have a say in the matter.

The meat of this landmark court case dealt with the Fifth Amendment clause of “takings” which comes from the phrase, “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation”. The debate continues today about property rights and how to maintain a balance between the rights of society and the rights of property owners. The burden of this issue often falls on historic preservation commissioners. More on that later.

As was the case with Penn Station, the loss or threatening of a historic structure birthed a historic preservation movement. It is often argued that the building that set the field in motion in Chicago is the Glessner House. After seeing several architectural masterpieces come down in the 1960s era of Urban Renewal, citizens came together to take a stand. Find the full story of Chicago’s historic preservation movement here.

Courtesy of

The Glessner House. Designed by H.H. Richardson. Photo courtesy of a.a.

In Europe the field is often called Heritage Conservation. Professionals in the US have commented on how Historic Preservation is a misnomer, carries an elitist stigma and that Heritage Conservation is a more accurate term. The strongest argument for that can be found on Vince Michael’s blog here and here. And if you want some real knowledge dropped on you, here.

So why do people care, you ask. Why does a whole field of people think they should be able to have some say on other people’s property?

The answer to this is very deep and well thought out. Saving sites, structures, green spaces and landscapes that have a history and that tell a story allow for successive generations to see part of the past somewhere other than in a book or online. The foundation of this effort to save things is that people can learn from their past, and having something tangible to help illustrate the story paints a better picture and helps it stick in our minds.

Please follow along as we take a more technical look at the field of historic preservation in our Friday Filings.

One response

  1. Pingback: Experience Old Chicago in the Prairie Avenue Historic District « I Speak Vintage

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