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Historic Structures in Covington & Cincinnati Studied in Special NKU Class

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Feoshia H. Davis. Photos are provided.

It’s difficult to create a sense of place in a fast-paced society where big box shops reign, we move every five years and switch careers nearly as often.

But historic preservationists aim to do just that by protecting, using and enhancing the buildings, objects and places that make each city unique.

Northern Kentucky preservationists are a small, but influential, part of preserving the region’s urban core. A new five-week noncredit course at NKU is delving into the tough tasks of historic preservation in an effort to grow community appreciation for preservation efforts.

NKU’s Office of Community Connections developed the course. The office supports the university’s continuing commitment to public engagement by offering noncredit classes and workshops for children and adults and P-12 outreach programs. The office was “proud to collaborate with The Baker Hunt Art and Cultural Center in Covington to offer this unique program,” says Melinda Spong, director of Community Connections.

Course ties people to place

Area preservationist Anne Delano Steinert taught the inaugural Historic Preservation course, which wrapped up in mid-October. The noncredit course is open to all interested community members.

Fourteen people signed up for the first class, including a young student planning to study historic preservation in college. The class met two hours every Saturday at The Baker Hunt Art and Cultural Center. The class will be offered again in the spring.

“It’s designed for people who have no history in preservation work. They learned the basics of architectural styles, why things were built the way they were, and what different preservation designations mean,” says Steinert.

Steinert, a Cincinnati native, has long held a passion for preservation. She holds a master’s degree in historic preservation from Columbia University and a bachelor’s in historic preservation from Goucher College. Before returning to the Cincinnati area five years ago, she taught history and social studies in urban New York City high schools, incorporating preservation learning.

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Toward the end of the course, students took a walking tour of historic districts in downtown Covington and Cincinnati. They learned about the unique structures, and local efforts to preserve them. “It was the architecture of this area that got me interested in historic preservation in the first place, so it just made sense for me to teach this course,” Steinert says.

“The idea was to let them experience firsthand why these buildings were being preserved in these historic districts,” Steinert says.

Preservation as an economic development tool

Nationally, preservation efforts have evolved from their 1949 beginnings to save historically relevant sites. The nonprofit National Trust For Historic Preservation led the way in acquiring and administering historic U.S. sites including President Woodrow Wilson’s House in Washington, D.C.

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Cities and small communities have gradually embraced preservation efforts. In Northern Kentucky, cities including Covington, Fort Thomas and Bellevue have created their own historic preservation districts. Guidelines for changes made to buildings in those districts are based on locally agreed upon standards, with guidance from the U.S Secretary of Interior Standards for the Treatment of Historic Buildings.

Covington and Bellevue are two of more than 1,000 cities nationwide that have their own Main Street Programs. Main Street is a National Trust program aimed at revitalizing commercial shopping areas throughout the country which uses preservation standards to revive downtowns.

“(Main Street Programs) are steeped in preservation. That’s the underlying basis for it. But really it’s about economic development,” said Bellevue preservation officer Jody Robinson. Robinson was among
preservationists who spoke to the NKU Community Connections class.

The Main Street program takes a four-point approach to historic preservation: organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring.

Historic districts can encompass both residential and commercial areas. Covington has seven historic districts and Bellevue has two, including its award-winning Bellevue Renaissance Main Street, The Fairfield Avenue Historic District. The Main Street Program, which has attracted dozens of locally owned businesses to the area, has been credited with reviving the small city’s Fairfield Avenue business district.

“Fairfield Avenue is the reason we had some stability during the downturn,” Robinson said.

Real-world lessons from the classroom 

Beth Johnson, Covington’s preservation planning specialist, was another class speaker. Preserving the historic architecture of Covington’s historic buildings — many which date back to the Civil War — are vital to maintaining property values in the urban core.

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“Any exterior change from roof to foundation has to be approved, excluding regular maintenance,” she said. “It’s really a property value maintenance tool.”

Though government entities play a role in the technical aspects of local historic preservation, it’s community support that keeps it going. That includes the property owner, the business rehabber and volunteers who promote historic district events.

It’s the people who have a passion for place that allow historic districts to thrive. That’s a major reason Steinert wanted to teach a preservation course.

“I hope they leave the class realizing they can be agents of change. They can see why these buildings are important. So instead of saying, ‘I wish someone would buy that building and fix that up, they can become involved,’” she said.

Feoshia H. Davis is a former reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer and is now freelance writer living in the Northern Kentucky area.