Lou’s View – Jan. 26, 2017

Ask the History Expert: Part Three

by Lou Bernard

Just a note before we begin: This is the third installment in my “History Expert” series of columns, which I began mainly as a way to blow off steam. In these, I pretend to be writing a sort of historic advice column, and come across as saying the things I can’t say in real life. People probably think I make all these up, but I would like to stress that these are all actual questions I have really been asked. Enjoy the column.

Hello, and welcome to another installment of “Ask The History Expert,” where you write in with questions and I answer them, no matter how insane they seem. Let’s get to it, shall we?

Dear History Expert,

I need an obituary for my great-grandfather, and I need the history research on his house. Also I need a photo of his house from 1918. When can I come and pick this up?

Signed, In Search Of Information

Dear Keep Searching,

You want fries with that? Hold your horses there, pal. A lot of people get the idea that history research is like fast food, and you just place your order and someone hands you your information. And, frankly, TV shows about historic research don’t help any. But it’s not really like that. The research takes some work. If you want to do the work, I’ll be happy to teach you how, but do you even know if someone took a photo of the house in 1918? Historic research is not fast food; you don’t necessarily get to have it your way.

Signed, History Expert

Dear History Expert,

A company wants to build a cell phone tower within sight of my back porch! I don’t want to be looking at an ugly tower all day, so I need to prove my house was historic so they can’t do it. It’s historic, because it was built in 1877, so I assume they have to respect that. Who do I talk to about this? 

Signed, Historic Property Owner

Dear Future Cell Tower Viewer,

Talk to yourself, and be sure to explain how ridiculous you sound. Okay, starting from the ground up: People get a lot of funny ideas about the National Register of Historic Places. There is a huge difference between “Old,” and “Historic,” and “Officially listed on the National Register, and therefore protected.” Let me explain.

Just being old doesn’t necessarily make a building historic. If it was the site of some historic event, or the home of a historic person, or it contributed to the surrounding area in a historic way, then it can be placed on the National Register. This is a process that requires filling out a stack of forms half a mile high, and takes about a century. (I’m exaggerating here, but not by much.) If it is placed on the register, then it’s officially listed as historic, and owners have to comply with certain conditions if they want to keep their status.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning neighbors here. That’s because the status of a building is irrelevant to the neighbors. George Washington may have slept in your house, but that doesn’t cut any ice with the next guy over—He can still do whatever he wants with his property. The Historic Register only counts for the property it’s on, and nothing else. In other words, prepare to get really good reception.

Also, note that there’s not a lot of teeth in this law. If someone makes serious changes to a historic building, in most states it’s not like there’s a fine or anything. The most that happens is that the building loses its status on the National Register. So it really only matters as long as the owner cares about the property.

So we’re clear: There may be ways to prevent the cell tower, but the Historic Register is not it. Enjoy all your cell phone bars.

Signed, History Expert

Well, I rambled on for longer than I’d intended on that last one. I think we have time for one more.

Dear History Expert,

I want to be a history expert, too! I’m a young college student, and I really look up to you. I was wondering if you could tell me what sites I could find online that would teach me to learn history like you.

Signed, Young Admirer

Dear Young Guy With The Wrong Idea,

Well, you were doing really well up until the “online” part. Listen, the internet is great for a lot of things, like cat photos and racist e-mails from your uncle. What it’s not good for is learning to research history the way I do. In fact, it’s about the worst way to learn local history short of consulting drunk psychics.

So ditch your Ipod, set down your Kindle, and sign off of Facebook. Then come visit me in my office, and I’ll be glad to teach you how to research local history, and do it well. I could use a new intern. See you soon!

Signed, History Expert