Before spending a lot of taxpayer money to rehabilitate a historic house, the city of League City should ask itself whether it’s the best organization to act as the main steward of historic preservation.
If the city decides it isn’t, which is probably the most rational conclusion, leaders should acknowledge that now and work to find and cultivate community groups that could take on the task.
The question isn’t whether historical preservation is important, it clearly is. The question is whether the city and the public money and assets it controls are the best to fill that role.
The question arose recently in discussion about how much the city should spend to keep a promise about preserving the historic Ghirardi House. The city almost 20 years ago accepted the house as a gift with the understanding it would preserve it and one day turn it into a museum dedicated to the Italians among its founding families.
Doing that would cost much more than anyone envisioned at the time, however, according to recent estimates.
Dealing with asbestos and lead in the house and turning it into a museum might cost the city $1 million, The Daily News reported.
Although some observers argue that’s a high estimate, the essential question is who should care for and manage the house. After nearly 20 years, it’s clear the city of League City might not be the answer to that question.
Some council members are understandably reluctant to spend so much money on something nonessential, especially after voters in May passed $145 million in bonds.
But the city shouldn’t let the house, which it moved to Heritage Park in 2002, fall victim of inertia and other pressing matters.
At stake is League City’s history.
The city council accepted Rita Ghirardi’s donation of the house in April 2002, shortly after her husband’s death. The city paid $8,500 to move the house from its original location at the corner of FM 518 and Louisiana Street to Heritage Park, 1220 Coryell St.
By accepting the house, the city council accepted responsibility for it.
The two-bedroom house, which is just more than 1,100 square feet, was on its original site for almost 100 years and is tangible connection to the original Italian families of League City.
It would be great to have a museum dedicated to those early settlers, but museums aren’t cheap to run. They require staffing and special maintenance and operations that city administrators have neither the time and money nor the expertise to do well.
The city should, with provisions and restrictions, turn the house over to a private organization, which, through fundraisers and grants, could provide the care and attention it deserves.
Galveston, which decades ago had lost so many historic buildings and was at risk of losing more, was successful in preservation with the formation of the Galveston Historical Foundation.
The not-for-profit corporation formed in 1954 for the purpose of preserving historic homes. The foundation has succeeded in raising awareness about and money for preservation, something city administrators aren’t always able to do, nor should they try. The foundation manages many of the island’s museums.
At the very least, preservation of old buildings demonstrates civic pride and encourages an appreciation of history and heritage.
And historic preservation might even be more important in fast-growing communities at risk of being taken over by urban sprawl and cookie-cutter developments.
When times are lean, history takes a back seat to the now. And historic structures exist at the mercy of politics and budgets.
“Money is the nature of the beast in this day and time, and if history means that little to this town, maybe it’s not worth doing. It’s our job to question the cost, but why has everyone else given up?” League City Mayor Pat Hallisey said at last week’s city council meeting, disappointed more people there weren’t fighting for the Ghirardi House.
The Ghirardi House is worth fighting for. But the city should find people willing to do it and make arrangements to get out of the preservation business. Doing so would benefit the city and benefit the house.
• Laura Elder