Denial of Access In the Name of “Historic Preservation”

I’m starting this post off with an anecdote (I do that a lot, don’t I). But it’s such a perfect anecdote that it really does belong here.

I recently attended an event in a historic building which  lacked wheelchair access from the front, although it was accessible (kinda, you had to go down a sort of sketchy path to get there) from the back. As I was climbing the steps to the front door, a Black woman in a wheelchair rolled up. Without even really looking at her, the representative at the door said “oh, you can enter through the back.”

There are a lot of problems with what happened in this anecdote. Like the fact that the representative didn’t even acknowledge the woman, didn’t even say “hello, thank you for coming,” did not apologize for the fact that the front of the building was not accessible (and didn’t mention that the interior was largely inaccessible anyway), and apparently didn’t see anything even vaguely disconcerting in telling a Black woman to enter a building “through the back.” There was a time in this country, and it was not very long ago, when Black folks were expected to enter any building through the back. If at all.

Proceed to the back of the bus. Enter through the back. What do these things have in common? They are denials of personhood. They are denials of the equal right to access space. They both imply “we don’t really want you here, but we must allow you in, so we are going to begrudgingly allow you a form of ‘access’ to our space.” And they are extremely problematic.

“Historic preservation” is an excuse I see used to deny accessibility a lot. In part, it’s because I live 10 miles from the village of Mendocino, which is, quite literally, one big registered historic landmark. In 1971, huge chunks of the town applied for and were granted admission to the National Register of Historic Places. Mendocino takes historic preservation so seriously that they have a Historical Review Board to review any proposed activity, and I mean any proposed activity, which might impact the appearance of the town. Recent selections from their agendas include topics like whether or not signs can be moved two feet to the left, if someone can paint a shed, and if someone may erect a tent in a backyard for two days for an event.

Three white Victorian houses in a row, with classic features of Victorian architecture like gingerbread latticework trim and bay windows. All have luscious gardens with flowers in bloom.
Some of Mendocino's historic structures (two of these are bed and breakfasts). Incidentally, 'Murder, She Wrote' fans may find the house in the front right familiar...

The Historical Review Board is infamous for its draconian attitudes, and a lot of what goes on there is about power plays, unsurprisingly, for a small town.

The MacCallum house, a historic bed and breakfast originally built in 1882 as a private home. It is a quite large two story building with a pitched roof, painted cream with white and blue trim. Lots of gingerbread trim, a sunroom on the front left (the structure faces South). A white wooden fence and lush gardens surround the building.
Another one of Mendocino's historic buildings.

What, exactly, does this have to do with accessibility? Well, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Mendocino is highly committed to historic preservation and extremely inaccessible. Most of the businesses there are only accessible to people who can walk unassisted. Wheelchairs, walkers, and even canes are very difficult to use in Mendocino. The town has narrow, coarse, steeply sloped sidewalks (including original wooden sidewalks) which are extremely difficult to navigate (not least because they are often rendered innavigable with random objects like tables, chairs, discreetly positioned trash cans, and so forth). There are few curb cuts. I can walk unassisted and I have stacked (“fallen spectacularly and painfully,” in California argot) more times than I can count on the sidewalks of Mendocino. The doorways of businesses which one might theoretically reach in a wheelchair are often too narrow for a chair to get through, and almost all are “just one step” doorways. If you’re in a power chair, forget it.

A newly installed curb cut, right in front of an inaccessible business with two steps in front of the door and a big open sign.

What’s wrong with this picture?

If you can actually get inside a business, good luck getting around. Few businesses have chairs which people who need to rest can use. Most of the counters are so high that only adults of average height can see over them to do business with the clerks (I’m short enough that clerks often don’t see me or can’t assist me without coming out from behind the counter). Aisles are narrow and extremely cluttered. As for navigational aids to assist the visually impaired, forget it. And if you’re Deaf or hard of hearing? Again, good luck.

Mendocino has steadfastly refused to provide accommodations of any kind, under the guise of “historic preservation.” They didn’t have things like audible warnings at intersections, curb cuts, ramps, and other accessibility aids in the time period which Mendocino is attempting to crystallize itself in, therefore, they can’t be implemented in Mendocino. Even if this means deliberately excluding people, literally telling them that they (and their money) are not wanted in Mendocino. The argument is that accessibility would “ruin the experience” and “break the spell” for visitors to Mendocino.

A collonaded wooden sidewalk.

Here’s one of the wooden sidewalks I mentioned. I am standing on the step one has to mount to get onto it from the North side…

A large historic building, white with red and black trim and relatively plain architecture. In the bottom left of the corner, a flight of steps can be seen; these lead up to the wooden sidewalk shown in the image above.

And here’s the flight of stairs you have to mount if you want to access it from the South side. If you can’t navigate stairs, you’re forced into the street, which is to the immediate right of this image.

Yet, Mendocino allows cars, which is not historically accurate (the town is aiming for late 1800s). Mendocino also allows people of colour to enter its businesses, through the front door, even, which is also not historically accurate. Interracial marriages and same sex commitment ceremonies can be performed in Mendocino’s churches: Not historically accurate. The female residents are allowed to go to the polls on election day, even!

A water tower; a large wooden tank of water held up by multi-story scaffolding (to provide a gravity feed for running water), with the back of a historic building in the background.
Mendocino's water towers are famous and widely photographed.

In fact, Mendocino is doing what any organization/group/etc committed to historic preservation does in the modern era: They are trying to retain the flavour and sense of history, without overriding social progress. The residents of Mendocino would be infuriated if someone suggested that interracial marriages in the town should be banned because they aren’t historically accurate. As well they should be. Because they recognize that history is problematic. It’s not all good. There are some things which are best left in the past.

This does not, apparently, apply to ableism. Because No Historic Building Ever Ever had any sort of accessibility accommodations, this means that no building in Mendocino can be accessible. Besides, accessibility accommodations are ugly and annoying and how many people with disabilities are there, anyway? Why do these people want special treatment? That’s the kind of attitude that prevails in Mendocino, and among many historic preservationists and laypeople scrambling to come up with an excuse for evading accessibility requests (let alone requirements) and it is extremely frustrating.

Front entrance of the Mendocino Hotel, a yellow and cream building. Three highly varnished stairs lead to double doors with glass inserts.  A sign with a picture of a wheelchair and an arrow and the text entrance points off to the right, and a Historic Preservation Plaque is mounted just to the right of the doorway.

Here’s the front entrance to the Mendocino Hotel, right on Main Street. It’s a little hard to see in this picture but there’s a sign which indicates that access for wheelchair users can be found around the side. Evidently the “separate but equal” doctrine is still alive and well at the Mendocino Hotel. Let’s go check that out, shall we?

A sloped ramp leads up a cramped, dark space sandwiched between two buildings. The area is clearly dirty and neglected.

Enter through the rear, please!

Because there’s no reason it needs to be like that. Accessibility accommodations can be (and are) tastefully implemented. There are ways to make buildings accessible without compromising their historic integrity. These methods would involve the use of technology which was not present in the past, but electricity is a relatively recent invention and no one no seems to have a problem with the fact that most buildings are electrified these days. So, clearly, people are willing to use modern technology when its convenient or when they are required to do so for safety reasons (I don’t see people complaining about smoke detectors in historic buildings, for example). Indeed, designing accessibility accommodations which fit seamlessly with an area of historic preservation would be a really interesting design challenge, and one which I think could be met in some very creative ways.

A large statue of Death and the Maiden on top of a historic building; the statue is painted white, and depicts Death standing with his scythe behind the Maiden, who is standing in front of a pillar which holds a vessel. Several birds are perched on the statue.

Here’s one of Mendocino’s most famous historic sights, which apparently sighted people with disabilities don’t need to see. This building, incidentally, is the bank; check out their inaccessible ATM:

An automatic teller machine with some signs in Braille, but no talking ATM option.

No talking ATM option, and while it’s not clear here, parts of the Braille are worn away. There are also a number of signs (not pictured) spelling out various quirks of the ATM which people would actually need to know about to use it successfully.

So, why won’t Mendocino and the numerous places like it across the United States meet the needs of the roughly 20% of the American population which is classified as disabled? Why do so many people cry “historic preservation” when they are approached about the possibility of implementing accommodations anywhere, not just in Mendocino? Why is “historic preservation” so selective? Surely it has nothing to do with internalized ableism!

A blue mobility scooter sits abandoned outside a neat cream and blue business which is rendered inaccessible with a step.

I didn’t stage this. I swear. I just happened to notice, while I was wandering around town documenting accessibility fail, that this mobility scooter was left outside an inaccessible business.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

13 thoughts on “Denial of Access In the Name of “Historic Preservation”

  1. According to my research, a ramp that would make many of those stairs accessible to wheelchairs, at least, would cost between 300 and 500$, and be temporary, much like this one I saw in Montreal (description after photos):

    First half of ramp

    Description: An historic building in Montreal with steps. Staff have laid out two temporary metal ramps that would allow a wheelchair to get up into the building. The building isn’t damaged or even altered in any way, but is now wheelchair accessible.

    (They do have some accommodations inside that did require changes to the building.)

    We tried to go out for breakfast at one of our historic pubs a few months ago, and were told they would lose their historic plaque if they were accessible. So I called the people who issued their plaque, and this is NOT true. And I’m still really mad about it.

  2. I’ve seen some very clever things done with folding/slideout ramps in historic districts in other areas, as well (you push a little button and BOOM, ramp, or you tug a little thingie and it slides out). Seems like that would be very easy to implement.

    Because of the Historical Review Board, I imagine that any business which applied for a ramp (because they probably would need to apply, inasmuch as I understand how things are done in Mendo) would be snarled in red tape for months. It would be interesting to find out how long it would take from “hey, let’s put in a ramp” to a ramp actually appearing.
    .-= meloukhia´s last blog ..House of Night =-.

  3. Anyone fancy a rewrite of “Talk to Me of Mendocino” by Kate McGarrigle from the point of view of someone in a wheelchair?

    This problem exists in schools and public buildings the world over. Some years ago, in my old home town (Croydon) there was a big scandal about a young girl with cerebral palsy (she walked with crutches) who was rejected by a sought-after Catholic convent school, which is located in an old building, at age 11. The school made various excuses. There was a letter in the local paper by a girl who was at the school, saying it was a lovely school, but that the decision to reject her was right, because (among other things) the corridor was narrow and she would have had to deal with lots of rushing girls between lessons. She was eventually offered a place at another Catholic school (then private, now state-funded) and took it, as she got the distinct impression that she wasn’t welcome at the first school.

    My sister was also rejected by them; the school had a record of refusing admissions from girls with one non-Catholic parent, like my father.

  4. “Indeed, designing accessibility accommodations which fit seamlessly with an area of historic preservation would be a really interesting design challenge, and one which I think could be met in some very creative ways.”

    Can I just second this? Beyond the wrongness of denying people access, there is nothing about accessibility that has to be ugly. Saying that is just stalling tactic.

  5. We have lots of inaccessible buildings everywhere (I think at least 90% of the buildings I see are inaccessible for a lot of disabled people, of which wheelchair inaccessibility maybe stands out the most but is not the only thing), but if they’re declared ‘monuments’ or historic or whatever, they’re unlikely to EVER change (not that I see the other buildings changing in a hurry). The University I attended for a time was like that (actually most of it is in a modern location with huge and as far as I could tell wheelchair accessible buildings, but the Arts department is located in the inner city), old innercity Utrecht buildings, usually one entrance only, the inside a maze of stairs and tiny hallways (I think it’s not even allowed, like by safety rules and fire hazard, etc, for buildings to be like those buildings, but maybe the historic label okays that too). I frankly don’t see a way they could ever make those buildings accessible unless they tore them down and built completely new ones. Often the dimensions inside are weird too, incorporating whole nextdoor buildings or parts of them. Maybe historic buildings elsewhere are different, but making these accessible would mean tearing down a whole lot of walls and finding some place to put at least one elevator and completely redesigning the classrooms, and there might also be a problem with moving any walls with the ceilings which are especially protected because of the fresco thingies and such. Not to mention the problems with the street, no sidewalks to speak of and cars to drive there even though it’s the inner city, and that the roads and sidewalks are paved with probably won’t do either.

    I want all that (inaccessibility) to change (preferably without damaging the buildings, but otherwise maybe they DO need to tear them down, maybe keep the old look for the outside. If they really need to, maybe they could move the buildings to an outdoor history museum, like they do for other old buildings we want to preserve but really can’t make use of anymore). A lot of buildings that stem from times when people were a lot smaller on average than they are now (over here anyway) are either torn down or modified, people seem to think that’s only practical, but apparently accessibility for all kinds of disabilities is not as important. It’s not like they couldn’t build new buildings and make new streets that have the same atmosphere or general looks as the older ones, it’s not like all modern buildings NEED to look futuristic or block-like or factory made (like they all look the same everywhere too). We have no issues tearing down or modifying stuff built in the 50’s. They also have no issues modifying the really old buildings if a shop moves in, to house bigger windows for display and signs on the outside and modify the inside too, but somehow it’s a waste of old buildings if we modify them for accessibility?

    I’ve also always wondered why they put a University department in those buildings. They are more than just impractical for EVERYONE and may be simply impossible for a lot of people. I want everything to be accessible, but I wonder especially about something like a University not being accessible. Just seems like stuff like schools, libaries, stores, hospitals especially should be and it feels more irresponsible when they are not.

    Also, the other, modern University location may be accessible for wheelchair or cane users (I’m not actually 100% sure, but it seemed that way the few times I went there for exams), but I’m not sure if they are accessible in any other way (actually I know for sure they are not sensory-friendly, from experience). None of the buildings, inner city or other location, are made for people to actually find their way in, that’s for sure. 4 years there and I never did really manage to find things very well anywhere.

    And I’m pretty new to thinking about accessibility for buildings or events (in all ways, including they ways I’d need them to be made accessible for myself), so if there are any errors either in my knowledge or in the way I’m reasoning or looking at this I’d like to know, because the topic is important to me.

  6. I live just a few miles from George Washington’s Mt Vernon estate. There is really no way to make the house and part of the grounds accessible – it’s multi-level and everything is narrow and I doubt it would structurally accomodate an elevator. It’s also privately maintained, so the rules are different than if it were government property. But, they do note on the website and brochures what few places are accessible there and also that most of the property if inaccessible. At least they give fair warning, as it is a huge tourist destination.

  7. It depends of where you’re talking about, but in general it’s fair to say that yes, it’s “historically accurate” that disabled folks were shunned, hidden, institutionalized, criminalized, segregated. So i suppose Mendocino is just doing their part! Ugh.

    And i didnt know they had ATMs in the 1800’s! You learn something new every day on this site. Thanks FWD!

  8. i remember being in mendocino back in 1990, before i had serious mobility issues, and even then it was difficult to get around — unexpected steps, uneven floors, entrances that dropped suddenly a few inches.

    i’m sad to see it’s still a problem, since it was a lovely town to look at. but it would be much lovelier if it was accessible.

  9. Quick couple of questions.

    In Mendocino, do people get arrested or at least hassled for using in public; cellphones, laptops, digital watches?

    Are all modern cars kept in a parking lot just outside of town?

    Is everything lit by gas lamp?

    Are all citizens of the town required to walk around in period clothing?

    Cause funny thing how Disney manages to allow the modern world and access for those with disabilities while having actual people in costume etc… I mean there’s a lot about Disney that makes me roll my eyes, sigh or just makes me want to walk away. But being utter evil steps about accessibility, isn’t really one of them.

    Huh, I started writing this before I even saw your bit about interracial marriage and same sex commitment ceremonies

    Randomly: How often do they get sued when someone falls and hurts themselves on something that could have been avoided?

  10. Actually, Avalon’s Willow, there was a huge controversy when a cell tower was finally put in (before then, there was no service). But that controversy was no over reasons of historical preservation!

    I also have a lot of problems with Disney, but their commitment to accessibility sure leaves Mendo in the dust.

    ETA: Except when they’re leaving the closed captioning off DVDs, at any rate.

  11. Thanks for this, Meloukhia. This is a really nice job of documenting an accessibility mess!

    Some things, as other posters have already noted above, will never be made completely accessible without ruining them. Where accommodations can be made, however, they should be–and I agree that a lot of these places could be made at least partially accessible. No “event” should ever be held in an inaccessible building.

    I had to accompany my husband to a medical procedure yesterday, performed on an outpatient basis in a building on the campus of a hospital. You would expect that would be accessible, no?

    I wish now I had taken pictures, but I was so pissed off I completely forgot I had a camera phone! There were four, and only four, handicap parking spaces out front. In the waiting room were four persons with visible disabilities, including myself. It was a smallish building with a small number of clinics, but even so, extrapolating from what I could see with my own eyes I would have to guess that there could be from two to three dozen of us in that building at any one time. Four parking spaces.

    At any rate, there were enough of us that the four spots were already taken when my husband and I arrived. The next available parking space was up a little hill, so that when I got ready to come into the building I had to to step up a curb and then go down eight steps. I’m ambulatory, so that was not so bad. But the clinic where he had his procedure done was kept cold to kill germs, and cold triggers my symptoms so by the time we came out two hours later I was so weak that I had serious difficulty getting back up those eight steps to get the car. (If I had a scooter, I would have followed the road and avoided the steps, but it would have taken me so far out of my way as to make walking it out of the question.)

    Next month, I am attending a graduation ceremony on a local university branch campus which is noted for poor disability access. I am advised to arrive two hours early just to get a good seat, never mind a handicapped parking spot, which raises serious questions about my ability to maintain for long enough to get to the ceremony, never mind through it.

    It is all so frustrating.

  12. Historical preservation is a really silly excuse. Most historical sites have ahistorical features. They have cars and roads wide enough for cars and everything that goes with car-culture: stoplights and road signs, parking, parking meters, etc. They have electric lights, including streetlights. They have modern plumbing: residents and guests are not expected to use the historical privies. Many buildings have air conditioning and modern heating: people don’t cluster around the fireplace or woodstove in winter, or fan themselves with palm fans in the summer as the sole means of cooling down. As meloukhia points out, in addition to cars, they have smoke detectors and ATMs and other conveniences that didn’t exist before the last century.

    Residents and guests accept those compromises because they can’t imagine living without the convenience they entail. It would, after all, be impossible to live without a car (writes the woman who has done so her entire adult life). It’s pretty darned sad that people’s need to make things convenient and bearable extends only to their own needs.

  13. @11 SimplySutton! I am advised to arrive two hours early just to get a good seat, never mind a handicapped parking spot, which raises serious questions about my ability to maintain for long enough to get to the ceremony, never mind through it.

    That pushes one of my loose buttons. Event planners expect that walking people will show up. They don’t wait until the very last minute to put out chairs. And there will be wheelchair/scooter users as well. Somehow those of us who bring our own seats are expected to show up early to ensure themselves a place, or be willing to ask four people to move?

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