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The payoffs of preserving history

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From the News and Observer
By Bonnie Rochman

RALEIGH -- Renovating a house can be an exhausting experience in the best of situations.

But when that house is vintage 1881, on the National Register of Historic Places and its overhauling must meet the exacting standards of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the ordeal can become even more taxing.

Not in this case, though. By voluntarily adhering to federal guidelines that govern rehabilitation of National Register properties, Raymond Rodgers and his wife, Peggy, can take advantage of a state tax credit that amounts to 30 percent of the renovation costs to their home in Raleigh's historic Oakwood section. That's about $80,000 back in the bank - "a nice piece of change," as Raymond Rodgers assesses it.

For sure, the tax credit was not the only motivating factor in tackling the project. "The kind of person who does this is crazy enough to do it without the credit," said Peggy Beasley-Rodgers. "But it stacks the deck in favor of doing it."

Federal credits have long been used as a means of encouraging owners of income-producing historic properties to invest in their upkeep. But since the state introduced tax credits for non-income-producing structures in 1998, interest in having buildings cited on the National Register has soared.

In fiscal 1997, before the credits took effect, 38 projects in North Carolina sought admission to the Register. Two years later, after the credits became available, the number of applications had jumped to 57, said Claudia Brown, who oversees the branch of the state historic preservation office that processes nominations.

The relationship between tax credits and the increase in interest is pure cause and effect, said David Brook, deputy state historic preservation officer. His office shepherds nominations through to the national level.

"It has had a healthy impact on our economy," said Brook of the millions in rehab dollars being pumped into public and private coffers.

Throughout the state now, 45 projects are seeking the credits. The state also offers a 20 percent tax credit to owners of income-producing properties.

Hulene Hill knew all about the tax credits because she's a certified public accountant. Even still, when she and her husband bought the 1920 bungalow on Cameron Avenue in Chapel Hill in June, she didn't know she was eligible for them. Only after the closing, they found out their new home was on the Register. They recently began renovations and should recoup $30,000 in tax credits.

Jerry Roberts and his wife are taking advantage of the tax credit too. They were looking for something "quiet and nice and relaxing," preferably on the water, when they retired to North Carolina from California last year. Their search led them to a Georgian house built in 1785 and finished in the early 1800s in Merry Hill, near Edenton. By the time they finish restoring the house, they expect to shave $75,000 from their taxes.

The credit works this way: Before owners can begin work on a historic property, they must first submit plans for review by the state's preservation office to make sure their ideas are in line with those of the Interior Department. When the work is completed, they dispatch photos as proof that the end result matches the intent.

Then, it's rebate time: If, for example, the owners spend $100,000 in qualified costs, they are entitled to a $30,000 credit on their state income taxes to be spread over five years, or $6,000 a year. If they owe $10,000 in taxes in a given year, they would be able to subtract $6,000 from the total.

Not everyone is happy with these incentives. Some historians say tax credits encourage too many people to apply for historical status, chipping away at the exclusivity of the designation.

"No one believes in historic preservation more than me," said Dan Morrill, a professor of history at UNC-Charlotte and the director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. "But the problem is the tail starts wagging the dog. In my opinion, the danger is that people will seize upon the means of getting a tax credit and not be as concerned about whether it truly is something that is important to the legacy of our country."

Dan Becker, the director of Raleigh's Historic Districts Commission, doesn't see it like that. "There is no evidence that they are compromising the standards for designation," he said. "Sometimes I feel they're too rigorous."

In reality, the Register is national only in name. Only 5 percent of listed properties are of national significance. A quarter have state historic stature, Brook said, and the remaining 70 percent are of local importance.

Yet as the Register expands, the definition of what's historic is evolving. Historic properties used to be associated primarily with presidents or governors; today they represent the lives of more ordinary people.

But there are some who still cling to tradition.

"They say, 'We understand why Mount Vernon ought to be on the Register, but all that stuff here couldn't be historic because it's associated with us,'" Brook said. "Some people are just not comfortable with designating something historic that doesn't have columns or isn't associated with General So-and-So."

Some historians think the interest in historic preservation transcends the tax credits. As a new century looms, some, such as Margaret Skinner, see the heightened interest in historic preservation as a way to cling to the romanticism of the past.

Skinner is the marketing director for the Carolina Inn, a graceful Chapel Hill landmark that recently gained a spot on the Register. In her job, she has noted that guests seem to be embracing what she called "heritage tourism" now more than ever.

"Folks are feeling a little bit dissociated because there's not a real sense of community like there used to be," Skinner said. "I, for one, would rather stay in a historic hotel that has a story to tell than, for instance, a hotel in Las Vegas or Disney World. I don't want to go to a place where they create the small town. I don't want something fake."

The Rodgers are going for the real thing. At 4,700 square feet, the Rodgers' two-story house, known as the Briggs-Aycock mansion, is one of the largest homes in Oakwood.

The house, located at the corner of North Bloodworth and Franklin streets, was the first in the neighborhood. Gov. Charles B. Aycock once lived there. Before that, Thomas Argo, a Civil War colonel and judge, died there.

The Rodgerses and their daughter, Austin, 14, moved in a year and a half ago, using the old servants' quarters as an all-purpose room as construction and demolition swirl around them. Renovations should be complete within two years.

Meanwhile, the work is painstaking. "If it takes a permit to get a pistol, it ought to take one to get a paintbrush," said Rodgers, standing on the heart pine floors that former tenants painted a dull gray. The Rodgerses are stripping the floors down to the wood. "People really murder houses."

The most immediate challenge was the absence of a bathtub or shower. "It has to be historically accurate, but this house would not have had indoor bathrooms in the 1880s," said Rodgers, Chef Rameaux of Chef Rameaux's School of Cooking and Louisiana Market. The end result: old-fashioned clawfoot tubs coupled with modern tiling.

Wherever possible, the state historic preservation office expects the owners of historic properties to strive for authenticity. So lamps are antique-style, wallpaper is floral Victorian and original wooden floors and banisters regain their original splendor. "If we wanted to put in garish Danish modern stuff, they'd probably balk at that," Rodgers said. "Not that they can stop you from doing that, but they can withhold the tax credits. That's the carrot."

If the recollection of an elderly woman serves, the Rodgerses' house apparently once had a sweeping porch that was the envy of the neighborhood. A former resident of the area, she stopped by to reminisce when the Rodgerses lived across the street. "Lordy mercy, that house had the most beautiful porch in Oakwood," she exclaimed.

Since then, the Rodgerses have unearthed photos of the ornate Victorian structure with its elaborately-hewn balusters and are setting about its restoration.

It's history come full circle in more ways than one.

"At first you're only thinking about your own personal interest in turning this old, ramshackle-looking house into a beautiful home, but as you get into it you realize your motives are exactly the same as the preservationists," said Beasley-Rodgers, principal of Powell Elementary School. "It's like recapturing a moment in time."