According to the office of California’s Secretary of State, in order to be declared historic a property or structure must satisfy a set of specific criteria. These criteria cover such matters as building design and construction, materials, scale, use, and occupants. When it comes to occupants, their role in civic affairs, politics, culture, and events must be deemed significant in order to qualify as historic. Accordingly, most structures and personages declared historic are very old or lived long ago; General Vallejo and his home are our best example.
The official designation of historic confers not only civic and social recognition; being deemed historic includes land-use implications governing the rights of private property owners and what they can and cannot do to the appearance and use of their property. Thus a higher level of consideration and regulation applies to historic properties when proposals for their use and modification are reviewed by the government.
Naturally, a cadre of consultants specializing in historical analysis has developed to advise applicants and governments in determining whether or not this or that property is truly historic. Utilizing public records, newspaper articles, books, photographs, and interviews, these consultants prepare reports supporting or recommending against historic status. A presumption of impartiality on the part of the consultant is essential, but in reality applicants often choose consultants who lean in the desired direction. Resulting conclusions are accordingly sometimes subjective and biased.
The entire enterprise of acquiring historic designation is, at heart, subjective. Opinions about an individual and his or her significance in local history are subject to debate; and despite Secretary of State standards, opinions about building aesthetics, design, materials, and scale vary. Essentially, it is up to each governmental authority to draw the lines. Communities vary, as do their histories, and who or what might be considered historically significant in one place might not be so considered in another.
All this would be a fine philosophical discussion were it not for the fact that being designated historic impacts private property rights. Matters of preservation, alteration, and demolition arise and produce conflict. When the government tells a homeowner what he or she can or cannot do with property, things get sticky. At heart, this stickiness reflects our cultural and political divide over matters of individual vs. public rights, a tension that has fueled dispute since the beginning of American democracy.
In general, individual rights appear to have the upper hand in this dispute. Deeming to be in the common good takes extraordinary effort when constraints on individual rights are at stake. The initiative process, referendums, and even elections overall are tied to this tension, harkening back to the bifurcated roots of American values – and their British precedents – regarding private property and the limits of government.
The concept of preserving history as a public good is connected to the idea of a “sense of place.” Honoring and acknowledging the past can bind a community together; our Bear Flag reenactments, exemplify this. Yet even that honoring is not without dispute, as there are those who feel the treatment of General Vallejo was unfair. Ironically, his sculptural likeness now sits comfortably on a Plaza bench with his back turned to the Bear Flag monument. As we see it, history is anything but objective.
— Sun Editorial Board