A few clarifications are needed regarding your summary of the efforts to preserve Maxwell Street and the Farnsworth House (“Landmark Status: Down the Drain,” November 28). The suggestion that we should have pushed for the Farnsworth House to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places is meaningless. The most common misconception about the National Register is that it protects a building from alteration or demolition. That is simply incorrect. As most preservationists know, register listing is purely honorific.
A property owner is not restricted in any way by being on the National Register, except when federal or state funds are involved, such as in the case of a highway or airport expansion project. The same holds true for the now-defunct Illinois Register of Historic Places.
The only legal ways to protect a historic structure from demolition or alteration is to have the property designated as a local landmark or for the owner to donate a preservation easement. Unfortunately, neither Plano nor Kendall County, where the Farnsworth House is located, has a historic preservation ordinance on the books. And the property’s current owner is unwilling to donate an easement.
Hence, the reasons behind our efforts to purchase this private property at auction on December 12.
Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois
Ben Joravsky replies:
As Bahlman should be well aware, listing on the National Register could indeed help protect the Farnsworth House–by making it difficult to move it out of state, which is the biggest concern of local preservationists. According to the National Register Web site, owners of properties on the register “can do anything they wish with their property, provided that no Federal license, permit, or funding is involved.” The last clause is the pertinent one. Since Farnsworth House is on a floodplain, moving it would require approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would trigger a larger federal review process, including scrutiny by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. (For that matter, moving Farnsworth from the floodplain would require a review by the state Department of Natural Resources.) There’s no guarantee that in the end the feds (or the DNR) would say Farnsworth couldn’t be moved, but the review process would be both costly and time-consuming for the owner. Putting the Farnsworth on the National Register would have put potential buyers on notice that someone was going to fight to keep it in the state–and anyone who wanted to move it might have thought twice about bidding on December 12.