If there's such a thing as a preservation superhero, I think we just found one.
Becky Anderson bought and restored her first old house in Burlington, Iowa, in 1994. Then, in 1998, she bought and restored the house next door. In 2000, she tried to buy another house, but lost it in a bidding war. In 2001, she saw a for-sale sign at a ramshackle hilltop Italianate, crawled through a broken bay window to check it out, and proceeded to buy, completely renovate and restore it, and move in.
Recognize her story? I know I do. Preservation can be an addicting hobby. Fix up one place and pretty soon you want to fix up another. For Becky Anderson, the hobby didn’t stop with houses. In 2008, her daughter, a local real estate agent, told her about the Hedge Building, a Victorian Gothic main street commercial building built in the 1880s that was on the market. Anderson remembers, "The amount of original woodwork and detail in the building was amazing. I was thinking, ‘could I take this on?'"
With the help of Federal and State Historic Preservation Tax Credits, and a tenant (her own financial services company) ready and willing to take office space on the first floor, pieces started to fall in place. "We moved into our new offices in February 2009, with the front of the building still not completed. The building had been a men’s clothing store and the storefront had been drastically altered in the 1940s. It took another eight months to recreate a limestone storefront similar to the original."
Remember: preservation superhero. Always moving, always saving. Since 2005, Becky Anderson has also been president of the Capitol Theater Foundation, a group formed to save and rehab the 1937 Art Deco jewel in downtown Burlington. In 2010 the group was awarded at $1 million grant from I-JOBS, an Iowa state initiative to fund local infrastructure projects. But Anderson is quick to take a back seat: "I have just been one of many who have worked on this project." The Capitol Theater is expected to open in May.
Meanwhile, she was elected to the Burlington City Council last fall and is currently working on another historic building restoration downtown. After hearing about the projects she’s worked on, I knew I needed to raise the bat signal and talk to her in person.
What got you interested in preservation? What do you see as its greatest values?
My family has always had an interest in old things. My father and uncle collected and restored antique cars, and someone was always fixing up an old house. I remember as a child of about ten walking by this large stately home in my small hometown that was overgrown and run down. I was thinking "someday I’ll buy that house and make it look beautiful again." I never did buy that house, but when I first moved to Burlington, Iowa, I bought an old brick Italianate house that had been converted to a duplex and was definitely the worst house on the block.
I think the greatest value of saving an old house or building is that it honors the people who built it. It seems like at every project I’ve worked on I always end up having a conversation about the people who built it, designed it, commissioned it, and how remarkable the workmanship was at that time.
You were elected to the Burlington city council last year. What led you to run for the position and what impact can your role in local government play in local preservation?
I ran for City Council because we have the most amazing inventory of historic buildings you will probably ever see in a town our size (26,000). I felt that the council’s lack of support for the Capitol Theater showed that they did not see these buildings as assets but liabilities. I wanted to turn that thinking around. I also thought that my financial background could be helpful in these stressed economic times.
Applying for preservation tax credits and grants can be a daunting process. How have you navigated that process and what advice would you offer others looking to do the same?
I think it’s very worthwhile, but for me it was something that I could do myself. I have a finance background and I’ve deconstructed and reconstructed buildings, so I understand how to document all of that. Because I'm a numbers person, filling out Sources and Uses forms and pro formas is understandable to me. For most people, I would suggest hiring someone to write the grants and tax credits. I think you can get a pretty good idea going in if you are eligible or not - and if you are, it’s well worth it to go after the funding.
In your preservation and community work in Burlington, what places do you look to as models for how you'd like to evolve and improve moving forward?
I always enjoy visiting communities that have a strong commitment to historic preservation. It really says something about the people who live there. My dream is to have Burlington be one of those places that people come to visit and leave feeling like they were enriched by the people and the historic architectural fabric of the community.
What advice can you offer others interested in getting involved in preservation and community work in their local communities?
It’s more action than words. Be prepared to be busy and try to enjoy every minute of it because it’s worth it and your efforts will pay off for years after you are gone.
David Garber is the blog editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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