On a given day, Madison’s preservation planner Heather Bailey may be evaluating how well a historic building meets the city’s ordinances or reviewing development proposals.
But Bailey says her job is also about advocating for historic resources and telling the stories of a community.
“I love people and I love stories and historic places. You get that sense of association that people had been here for a long time,” Bailey said. “It's just nice to be a part of that continuity and a part of sort of a larger family.”
Bailey’s field is taking on greater urgency as climate change threatens cities. After witnessing firsthand how a wildfire damaged the previous city she lived and worked in, Durango, Colorado, Bailey is thinking through historic preservation concerns with an environmental lens.
She previously managed Durango’s preservation program after earning a Ph.D. focused in public history with an emphasis in historic preservation and heritage tourism. Bailey began her job Jan. 7, moving to Madison with her husband and two children.
In Madison, Bailey is working on the city’s first ever historic preservation plan, which is nearing completion. The plan aims to identify, celebrate and preserve the places that represent the city’s collective history. Additionally, the process includes updating the city’s ordinance standards for Madison’s five local historic districts.
She is also working with the owner of the Suhr House, a historic Langdon Street property that has fallen into disrepair and received the city’s first ruling of demolition by neglect.
The City Council referred the decision back to the Landmarks Commission for reconsideration Sept. 16. If the owner makes the necessary repairs, the council directed the commission to rescind the demolition by neglect ruling.
You just came back from the Suhr House. Is that an example of the work that you've been doing for the city in this role?
I'd say yes and no. It is representative of the work that I do with the city and that there's a lot of work with property owners trying to do right by their properties, but, no, this is not typical work and I hope it doesn't become typical work. This is our first demolition by neglect case that has really gone through the process. It is really a last resort strategy and it's not something we hope that we are doing all the time.
How would you describe your role with the city and what sorts of responsibilities come with that?
Part of it is very much development review, and so there are some aspects of my work that is much like the work of the planners that are doing development review. I get applications for things that people are wanting to do to their properties.
I'm also the advocate for the historic resources. These are cultural assets. There are certainly plenty of instances where I'm there to advocate on their behalf because again, these designations are in part about holding them in the public trust for the people of Madison. My job is to advocate for them, per the terms of the ordinance, but with what we're talking about with the preservation plan, we're really trying to get back into more education and outreach.
What is the progress on the historic preservation plan? How do you fit into that and what work is being done?
We're getting close to completing the plan. Hopefully we will complete it by the end of this year. We want to get to a point where we have a working draft of the plan and then turn it loose, put it out there and see what people have to say. Doing the plan has been really useful for the city to be introspective about what we do and how we're doing instead of just reacting to what's going on. Let's be thoughtful and strategic.
The history that we have individually landmarked or as part of historic districts is mostly very white, and I would say mostly very wealthy. That isn't always the case. We have a lot of working class middle class represented in Third Lake Ridge, which is a rather sizeable historic district. We're not necessarily telling all those stories beyond just that. We have a lot of really great stories and we're not telling them.
Part of a preservation program is about the regulatory aspects, but it should be about more than just that. It should be about celebrating the heritage of a community, and we're not necessarily telling all of those stories.
How well do you think Madison has done in preserving or commemorating the history of traditionally underrepresented groups in communities?
For some of the histories like the Hmong history, that's fairly recent history. We haven't been documenting that. That's very recent, but we should be ahead of the game and say, we know that this is a significant part of our history already. Let's be mindful about that heritage and the sites that are tied to that heritage for looking into the future.
We gathered together the stories first and … then we went out to go see do those places still exist? A lot of them don't. That is very typical for any place because we didn't necessarily know the stories, but also at different points in time, even if we had the story, the folks in charge maybe didn't think that that was an important piece of history to save.
We have a list of addresses for places in Madison that were friendly for African American travelers. Every single one of those properties except for the Park Hotel have been redeveloped. Now the Park Hotel has changed drastically, and it doesn't look like what it did back in the day, but every single one of those properties, they're gone. The parcel may or may not still be there. Some of them were part of a larger development, so maybe even the parcel doesn't exist anymore, but those places that were significant to Madison's African American history, they're gone. There's Hill Grocery, and that is one of our landmarks and we're working with the Hill family on some work with that property.
It should be more than just that. There are other stories in other parts of the city, and we don't necessarily have designations that reflect that rich history.
When the physical place or even just the plot of land isn't there or isn't at all like what it was when it did become significant to the community, how could the city commemorate or recognize that history in a different or unique way?
That's one of the things we're doing with the plan and also the purpose of the plan isn't just to find places to designate. Again, the regulatory aspects shouldn't be the only purpose of this program. One of the phrases that comes up in the preservation community is “this place matters.” That's something the national trust really likes to push is people showing up and you know, doing selfies in front of a building and saying this place matters. You should save the place, this place matters. But again, a lot of those places are gone, but those stories matter.
Those places might be gone, but those stories still matter. That's still a part of Madison's history. All that stuff will be available, and part of the public record, we could do things with that. We can do programming. There's any of the previous surveys that we've done, a lot of those got turned into walking tours. People could do walking tours, it could inspire art. It could be a part of a storytelling event. It could be for people gathering together oral histories. It could just be nice for our community to know that their history was valued enough that we documented it and made it part of our program.
What gets you excited about this work? What inspired you to study this in school and to pursue it as a profession?
I did my master's in history with a public history emphasis and ran a museum for a couple of years after that. The museum was in a 1916 Italian Renaissance Revival Mansion. I learned a lot about historic buildings there. I ended up being the resident historic property expert. It was part of a national register district and people had questions about that. I got more and more involved in historic properties, working with the chamber of commerce and the downtown business association to talk about heritage tourism aspects. I was developing walking tours and really seeing this as part of a larger whole. I went back and got my Ph.D. in public history and did an emphasis in historic preservation and heritage tourism. After that, I worked as a preservation planner.
I love people and I love stories and historic places. You get that sense of association that people had been here for a long time. It's just nice to be a part of that continuity and a part of sort of a larger family.
Why should cities value historic preservation?
Up until a couple years ago, I just would have said that there's an importance to the sense of place and to identity. When you do a wholesale scrapes of a neighborhood or a place, that can be psychologically traumatizing. Whereas, you let a place evolve and that includes incorporating some of the historic places, it's still recognizable. You still get that sense of home … I think that is something that hopefully everybody could get on board with sort of no matter what range on the political spectrum you're from that it's part of your story, and it's part of your family. And that's important for us as a community.
Having lived in Durango, Colorado, for five years, you see up close and in person climate change and what is going on. Last year there was a 55,000-acre wildfire, and we were evacuated from our home for 10 days because the fire was coming at us. That really shifted my mind and thinking through about historic preservation and climate change and sustainability. Rather than us scraping our buildings and throwing them in the dump, and building up something new, and scraping it and throwing it in the dump. Environmentally, not particularly sensitive.
I'm not saying we should stick the entire city in amber and say this is it. Places should evolve and grow. They need to, but I think we need to be investigating ways to incorporate as much of the existing building fabric as we can. Can we allow these places to evolve and see about salvaging as much of the material as we can?