In deciding how to protect its past, Grafton can look to Port for an example of historic preservation that has improved and inspired a community
Historic preservation efforts can strengthen a community by saving and sharing things from its past that are an important part of its identity. Or they can tear communities apart with well-intentioned but over-reaching approaches that preserve history at the cost of property rights.
In Grafton, such efforts do neither because they are all but nonexistent. Members of the village’s Historic Preservation Committee admit as much and are considering disbanding in favor of creating a historical society that, independent of government, would be a nonprofit organization better suited to inspiring community participation and able to solicit tax-deductible donations to fund preservation efforts.
It’s a promising concept, and to see the potential such an organization has to offer, Grafton needs only to look a short distance to the north where the Port Washington Historical Society has proven to be a model of success.
Founded in 1991, the Port Washington Historical Society has brought an enlightened preservation approach to the city that instead of dividing it has done much to unite it in a common goal of protecting and highlighting Port’s important past. To show for its efforts, the organization owns and operates two prominent museums and a research center and has amassed a large core of dedicated volunteers and generous benefactors.
That’s not how historic preservation efforts work everywhere. In communities throughout the state and country, preservation commissions empowered by local ordinances yield considerable authority when it comes to deciding what properties to preserve and how to preserve them. Sometimes these efforts are successful and well-received. Other times they are divisive and counterproductive, burdening the mission of historic preservation with debilitating controversy.
An indication of that came last year when two Republican state lawmakers, Rep. Rob Brooks of Saukville and Sen. Frank Lasee of De Pere, introduced legislation that would prohibit municipalities from designating properties as historic landmarks without the consent of their owners. Not surprisingly, the bill sparked almost immediate controversy, with property-rights advocates praising it and historic preservationists blasting it.
Such controversies don’t exist in Port Washington, where historic preservation has been a mission led by the nonprofit Historical Society, embraced by city government and supported by residents.
This is some of what has been accomplished:
n The Historical Society acquired and restored the 1860 lighthouse atop St. Mary’s Hill that it now operates as the Light Station museum, which is particularly well-suited to exhibiting the city’s maritime past.
n A downtown storefront dating to 1852 is now the organization’s Resource Center, which houses its archives and offices and is used for exhibits and presentations that are open to the public.
n The crowning achievement of the Historical Society, the Port Exploreum, opened last year on Franklin Street in a 1907 commercial building known as the Gentlemen’s Club. Preservation of the building aside, the project is immensely valuable because of what it has introduced to the city — not a musty museum filled with artifacts but an engaging, interactive facility that uses technology to make relevant that which has been important to the city since its inception.
In addition to its tangible accomplishments, the Historical Society has helped foster a community ethic that inspires preservation. A prime example of that is the renovation of the Boerner Mercantile Building in the heart of downtown by owners Dan and Marie-Anne Ewig, who had the 1969 facade removed and the original building restored to provide attractive spaces for two large retail stores and numerous offices.
Grafton will have to decide if it has the collective commitment to historic preservation and the energy to accomplish it, which is a subject of a community meeting this week. As Village Administrator Darrell Hofland noted, the creation of a historical society hinges on “the sheer passion for preserving Grafton’s history.”
Village residents should make that determination knowing that such organizations can make meaningful improvements in their communities in ways that unite and inspire their residents. For proof of that, they need only look north.