It's always fun to hear architectural historian Molly Myers Naumann, of Ottumwa, talk about her passion --- old buildings. Several of us had that opportunity early Tuesday evening during a public meeting that was a preliminary step in Chariton's application to have its town square added as an historic district to the National Register of Historic Places.
The application process is complex, is expected to take more than a year and success is not guaranteed, but Molly does not accept commissions of this type unless she expects to succeed, so we're hopeful. The application is a joint project of the city of Chariton and Chariton Area Chamber/Main Street. Obviously, Molly will be paid. Those of us who help out with research won't.
Molly's credentials run deep in Chariton because she has handled the individual application process for several buildings already on the Register, including the Main Street District's Hotel Charitone, Chariton Newspapers Building, City Hall and American Legion Hall, all designed by hometown architect William Perkins. First United Methodist Church and the Lucas County Courthouse, also in the district, are on the Register, too. Molly also handled successful applications for the Chariton Cemetery Historic District and Fred and Sherry Steinbach's Crozier House (also a Perkins building).
There are a number of advantages to winning a place on the Register for the district, including the fact all "contributing" buildings within the district are automatically added to the Register (the application process for individual buildings is both time-consuming and costly). The designation also would recognize the historical importance of the square as a unit both in terms of architecture ---brick and mortar --- and in terms of how it has functioned since 1849 as the heart of a county seat town.
There's a major financial incentive, too. The owners of National Register buildings are eligible for state and federal historic preservation tax credits when restoring or renovating --- so long as Department of the Interior guidelines are followed. These credits potentially can pay up to 45 percent of a project's cost --- 25 percent from the state plus 20 percent from the federal government.
Molly spent a good deal of time Tuesday evening correcting common misunderstandings about what National Register status means. The most common misunderstanding, she said, is that a place on the register limits what an owner may do with a building. It does not, she said --- unless public funds are used to improve it. If you accept public funds, you play by government rules, Molly said. Otherwise, a building owner may do anything he or she wishes to do. Nor does National Register status mean a building must be open to the public, although most commercial structures already are.
A National Register application is developed in cooperation with the State Historic Preservation Office, then must clear the Iowa Advisory Committee before being forwarded to the U.S. Department of Interior for consideration. Molly anticipates an appearance before the state committee next April. If the application clears that committee, the Department of Interior most likely would approve it, too, and the status could go into effect mid-year 2014.