What Exactly are We Trying to Preserve?

Apropos of my recent post, A Better Way to Preserve Historic Properties, it came to my attention that many historic properties are donated. And that’s good, right?

Maybe not. While I don’t doubt the generosity of the donors, most of these deals are burdensome in the long run, and probably should not be pursued by smaller entities, especially those with little experience in the management of historic properties.

Case in point: In nearby Red Bank there is an effort to preserve the Thomas Fortune House, a property once owned by a former slave and prominent African-American journalist and publisher. The house is in bad shape, and a group has formed looking to purchase and preserve the property. Like a dog chasing cars, the biggest problem may be success.

Let’s say the group raises the money to buy the property. What then? The house hasn’t been occupied in years. The cost of restoration – assuming it is even possible – would be staggering. And how would the property be used? Would it be occupied full time or used as a museum of sorts? The property has been vandalized for years. I think it is unlikely that the local vandals will have a new found respect for history once the property is renovated.

And who will manage the property? A private group? The Borough of Red Bank? Monmouth County?

Here’s a better question: is the house the thing we should preserve? Or is it more important to find a way to preserve the memory of T. Thomas Fortune, the man?

A statue in a park with a plaque describing Mr. Fortune’s achievements may be a far better (not to mention cheaper and easier to maintain) way to preserve the memory of this early civil rights hero. Perhaps we should put our energy towards finding the right location and sculptor.

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