The National Trust for Historic Preservation has released its 2013 list of the 11 “most endangered historic places.” As a historian, I am a sucker for these kinds of lists, and think that the the NTHP performs an excellent service by publicizing these places. I was also pleased (dismayed?) to see two churches on the list – the San Jose Church of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Abyssinian Meeting House of Portland, Maine. Of the San Jose Church, the NTHP says
Old San Juan’s San José Church was built in 1532, a century before the Mayflower settlers established the first permanent colony in New England. One of the few surviving examples of 16th century Spanish Gothic architecture in the Western hemisphere, the building displays four centuries of architectural design and masonry traditions including the extraordinary Isabelline Gothic vaults, a rare Catalan architectural design.
And of the Abyssinian Meeting House, they say
Built in 1828, the Abyssinian Meeting House is a modest house of worship with great historic significance to the people in Maine. Serving as a school for African-American children, community center, and a stop on the Underground Railroad, the Abyssinian is the third oldest-standing African-American meeting house in the United States.
The founding of the Abyssinian church was precipitated in part by African Americans’ frustration with having to sit in segregated pews in Portland’s white-led Congregationalist churches, and the Abyssinian Meeting House ultimately became Portland’s Fourth Congregationalist Church in the 1830s. As elsewhere in America, the black church served as a site of worship, socializing, and protest, and the church saw antislavery addresses by both Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. The church fell on hard times in the early 20th century, however, and the congregation dissolved in 1914.
I do wonder about the political/economic implications of keeping some of other the threatened sites on the list. The San Jose Church and Abyssinian Meeting House are easy calls for preservation, as they simply need more funding to restore them, and they take up very little space. But cases like the modernist Worldport Terminal at JFK airport, and the Astrodome in Houston, seem more complicated. Modernist architecture must have fewer devotees who are committed to it for aesthetic or religious purposes. (I can appreciate the nostalgia for the Astrodome because of Astros baseball – and their early uniforms – and all the wonderful events the arena has hosted, including titanic sellouts by Texas artists George Strait and Selena.) But the Astrodome in recent years has become an out-of-date eyesore, unused for four years because of safety issues, and Houston needs to figure out something to do with the place rather than just letting it sit there. A new proposal for renovation has breathed a bit of life into that possibility.
Similarly, the James River of Virginia is threatened by a power line project that, according to the NTHP, jeopardizes the “scenic integrity” of the area, including the site of the Jamestown colony. I absolutely love the National Park at Jamestown, and would certainly want “scenic integrity” preserved, all things being equal. But we also have to keep the power grid up to date.
In any case, I would urge you to help your favorite historic sites by continuing to visit, and by joining at least one as a member. (I am a member, for instance, of the Patrick Henry National Memorial, which helps preserve Henry’s last home place and burial site, Red Hill.) Those of us who love history should invest, however modestly, in its preservation.