Written by Tom Mayes
Increasing accessibility for people with disabilities can make a historic place more alive for everyone by engaging all five senses – touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight. That was an overarching theme of this year’s annual meeting of the Greater Hudson Heritage Network, which focused on universal design. Invited to give the keynote address because of the law division’s longstanding work on accessibility for historic places, I was pleased to address an audience enthusiastic about the possibilities of enriching experiences for all visitors through a broader approach to accessibility – universal design.
Although many organizations think of accessibility primarily as a legal requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act or state or local access codes, some sites have taken the opportunity to use programs initially developed for individuals with disabilities to make interpretation for all visitors more engaging. Full physical access for people with mobility impairments can make a site more accessible for those, such as my elderly mother, who I used – with permission – as an example of someone who may not fall within the legal definition of an individual with a disability.
From my perspective, it’s important to recognize that access requirements and historic preservation are not inherently inconsistent. The primary public policy idea embedded in the National Historic Preservation Act is “to foster conditions under which our modern society and our prehistoric and historic resources can exist in productive harmony and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.” While the idea of providing physical access for people who are wheelchair users was at one time approached with trepidation by preservationists, , physical accessibility is increasingly seen no differently than providing modern HVAC and other systems that make a building usable for the 21st Century. The trick is to provide the highest level of accessibility possible while preserving the historic character of the building. Preservation Brief 32 remains the basic approach to achieving accessibility at historic buildings. While each site presents its own challenges, there are now countless examples of projects that provide wheelchair access without threatening the character of the historic building.
The methodology for approaching accessibility has become fairly standardized since the ADA was passed in 1990. When the National Trust was preparing to open Philip Johnson’s Glass House to the public, we commissioned an accessibility study to recommend changes that would remove barriers and increase accessibility. The result is a site that is more accessible and usable than before, with minimal impact on the historic character, including a rehabilitated path of travel to the painting gallery and sculpture gallery.
One of the key parts of the methodology is identifying what’s historic and what’s not. The ADA regulations issued by the Department of Justice last year retain the key protection for historic buildings, providing that if accessibility cannot be achieved without “threatening or destroying” the historic significance of a historic property, alternative means of achieving accessibility may be used, provided that the state historic preservation officer agrees.
In July 2010, the Department of Justice and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union entered into a settlement agreement to resolve a number of accessibility issues at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. What the Association recognized was that many of the paths, sidewalks and walkways at Mount Vernon that did not meet the ADA Standards for Accessible Design were not actually historic, and could therefore be modified to be more usable without any impact on the historic character of the site. The improved paths were more usable by all visitors, not simply wheelchair users.
The settlement agreement between the Department of Justice and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association contains a revealing chart of findings and remedial measures. Many of the remedial measures are very simple, practical solutions, such as providing up-to-date tour notebooks for portions of the mansion that are not physically accessible. As Megan Dunn, Mount Vernon’s Director of Human Resources explained to me during a site visit, Mount Vernon discovered that the interpretive changes for accessibility opened opportunities to make the historic site more engaging for all visitors. Most visitors enjoy smelling the rosemary, boxwood and roses in the gardens, not only those who are blind.
While providing access for individuals with disabilities in historic places will continue to present challenges, the process of looking at the site and re-thinking the visitor experience can lead to a better experience for a broader, more engaged audience. Congratulations to the Greater Heritage Hudson Network for focusing its annual conference on accessible universal design.
Tom Mayes is Deputy General Counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.