Capital Area Preservation looks for opportunities

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — In the face of growth in Raleigh and Wake County, a boom in land development is putting historic buildings at risk but also boosting efforts to preserve and restore those properties and integrate them into the region’s life and economy.

“Development creates dangers but it also creates opportunities,” says Gary Roth, president and CEO of Capital Area Preservation in Raleigh.

The nonprofit was founded in 1972 as the Mordecai Square Historical Society by individuals who had worked to save Mordecai House after the death of the last descendent of the Mordecai family to live in the house, which was built in the 1700s.

In partnership with the city of Raleigh, which renovated the building and maintained it and the grounds, the nonprofit initially managed the visitors program and interpretation of the building.

In 1983, starting to look beyond Mordecai House, the nonprofit accepted its first historic preservation easement — a private agreement with a property owner that is attached to the deed, remains with the property permanently, and includes restrictions on any changes to the building or property, or both, unless approved by the party that holds the easement.

In 1985, after accepting four more historic preservation easements, the nonprofit changed its name to Capital Area Preservation.

Operating with an annual budget of $217,000 and a staff of two people, the group works to “incorporate in our growing future the best of the past” by protecting historic properties, and promoting and raising awareness of historic preservation, Roth says.

Capital Area Preservation now holds 30 easements, and often receives a financial gift from the property owner making the easement to support its easement work.

It also serves as staff for the Wake County Historic Preservation Commission, with the number of landmarks approved by municipal and county government since it formed its partnership with Wake in 2003 growing to 75 from 23.

In return for agreeing to allow their property to be designated as an historic landmark, property owners get a 50 percent deferral on their property tax as long as they comply with the landmark agreement, and must seek permission of the Commission to make changes to the building exterior or land.

If property owners want the landmark designation removed, they must pay three years’ deferred taxes.

Capital Area Preservation, which also has contracts with the towns of Apex, Cary and  Morrisville, has developed five historic properties since 2003.

It typically acquires a property through a gift, then stabilizes and sells it with a preservation easement, often generating a donation from the buyer to support its work.

Roth, who holds a master’s degree in museum and historic preservation from Wake Forest University, says the preservation movement for its first 100 years after its genesis in the 1850s generally focused on turning the homes of famous Americans into museums.

But in recent years, the focus has changed “to saving buildings to integrate them into the future life of our communities, not to keep them as museums, but to keep them as functioning businesses and homes” that use the past to inform the future, he says.

“We are a growing county,” Roth says. “We’re changing rapidly. It’s so important to have a part of our history among us. If a society doesn’t have some knowledge or reverence of its history, we march into our future blindly.”