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Constraints on the future

Indiana Landmarks does a commendable job of historic preservation. They recognize the structures worth restoring because of certain events or persons of the past or for their architectural significance.

Saving neighborhoods, however, by zoning them with strict standards designed to keep them looking as they did in some bygone day, is contrary to good sense. Yes, others have different values and I’m supposed to respect them. It doesn’t make it easier for me or them when we insist the government be used to enforce our values.

Not every Indiana courthouse is a gem worthy of eternal existence. Just because we grew up with it, doesn’t mean succeeding generations should be burdened with our nostalgia.

Public buildings constructed before 1920 were, in most cases, more charming than those erected in the past 100 years. But charm alone cannot accommodate the present or the future.

The same can be said of most town squares. Let a horrific natural event (tornado, flood, whatever) rip through downtown, and immediately we seek funding to rebuild. Not to redesign, but to rebuild, to replicate what met the needs of yesterday.

Entire neighborhoods are designated historic with existing land owners in control, monitoring every design for exterior modification. It protects neighboring property owners from devaluation of their land and structures by denying the property rights of others.

The presumption is future buyers want to locate in places offering limited structural diversity. The extreme examples of this are the city and suburban developments where one set of dwellings looks just like all of its neighbors.

We know them well. Many of us expect to live in such places as we struggle with raising families or surrender individuality with advancing age.

Presumably, developers have lower costs by limiting diversity of styles and materials. But to require residents to maintain initial uniformity, because it makes lawn mowing or roofing less costly, seems to me a violation of our essential humanity.

This not something new. I recall the owner of the apartment house where we lived in my childhood had an authorized pallet of colors for repainting our rooms. Had my parents preferred a non-conforming tint of the basic choices, it would not have been allowed.

Some old neighborhoods have the advantage of being old. They offer diversity to the extent the initial developers, a homeowners’ association, or some governmental entity did not limit exterior changes, plantings, painting, fencing and other expressions of individual preferences.

Indianapolis demolished its old, over-the-top, wedding cake courthouse. They keep seeking a reuse for the old, less ornate city hall. To modernize the home for local government, a featureless slab was built. Now there is a movement afoot to immortalize this prosaic, mid-20th century, utilitarian structure.

Knowledge of history is valuable. But, tell me, why is the physical past not allowed to pass?

Morton Marcus is an economist. Reach him at mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com. Follow his views and those of John Guy on “Who gets what?” wherever podcasts are available or at mortonjohn.libsyn.com