Preserving Erie's History

Categories:  Community   
Wednesday, June 18th, 2014 at 4:05 PM

As we walk down the streets of Erie, we are surrounded by history. We may not always realize and we may not pay much attention on a daily basis to this history, but it’s there and it’s what makes Erie home. We need to preserve our home and its past in order to have a clue to what the future may and should bring.

Enter Kira Heinrich, Archeological Reviewer at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. As a key speaker at the Preservation Erie and Erie County Historical Society’s Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority Mission Main Street workshop, this Mercyhurst University alum explains why preserving our city’s history should be at the top of Erie’s priorities.

The workshop features training on historical preservation topics such as the economic and cultural values, ordinances, grants, tax credits, the fostering of preservation in our community, Erie’s Demolition Delay Ordinance, and the importance of performing a historic resource inventory at the Jefferson Educational Society June 20 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Jessica Courter: What role did Mercyhurst play in your current career path?

Kira Heinrich: I kind of fell into archeology at Mercyhurst but without Mercyhurst I don’t think I would be where I am in my career. When I got to school, I had grants and such that I had to pick a major and I started at the top of the list of majors and accounting didn’t seem like it was for me and archeology was next and I was like, ‘Yeah, sounds cool.’ So I accidentally, in a way, started taking classes in anthropology and the basic archeology stuff and really ended up liking it. I think Mercyhurst gave me a very practical basis for moving forward in my career because it wasn’t just all about Erie. They didn’t just teach you the theory of what you were supposed to do in your future but actually how to do what you are going to do in your future.”

JC: What was your favorite thing about college?

KH: That’s kind of a hard question because I liked pretty much all of my experience there. I mean I had good friends and my classes were interesting and after I got through my freshman year I didn’t have to worry so much about where the payments were coming from. It was a time of very little responsibility. 

JC: How does archeology play a role in preserving Pennsylvania’s history, and more specifically a city like Erie?

KH: The work that I do here [at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission] is I review archeology projects that need to satisfy Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the federal law [which requires federal (Federal?) agencies to consider the effects of their projects on historic properties], and I make sure that what they do is adequate and to consider archeology as a cultural resource and that archeology is sort of half of the equation for what culture resources are.

There’s archeology, which is stuff that is below the ground, and then there’s historic structures, which are the things above ground. Preserving archeology gives you a chance to learn about the past. When people learn about the past they often read about it in textbooks…and even real documents but what is written down in all of those things is a perception by the author of it. So the real fact can often be purposefully hidden in those documents.

Archeology gives you a window into that past that doesn’t have that same bias. It is just the facts. You just have artifacts, you just have features, and there’s no chance that the people who made them should try to hide what it was. It is a ‘cleaner view’ of history. I think it’s important for people to know where they came from and to be able to have that for where they’re going to go in the future. Archeology is as part of that as much as preserving the court house or a really great old mansion or something that you can really see above the ground as well.

JC: It seems obvious that people should care about preserving their history, but why do you think people should care about preserving historical buildings and artifacts?

KH: Like I said, I think that knowing where you came from forms where you’re going. If you don’t understand how you got to where you are as a civilization then you’re bound to make the same mistakes that people in the past have made. That’s the big-scale answer and I think the small-scale answer is that having these things in your community gives you an identity. It gives you a sense of place. One of my examples I like to give people is think of where you grew up, and then think of where you grew up without buildings there. It’s just an empty spot. Is it the same? Probably not—it wouldn’t feel the same to me. Not having that connection to the past I think really changes how a place feels and how it functions and how people feel in the place.

JC: So what are some archeological preservation endeavors that you are personally most proud of?

KH: That’s a very difficult question. I mean I have done lots of things that I have found interesting. I have done a lot of projects that I am proud of, but I don’t know if I would call them a highlight…I guess just the work that I did. The work that I did with integrity and that I did with the best of my abilities.

JC: In your experience how often do historical preservation efforts face opposition from both the public and organizations?

KH: I think [historical preservation efforts face opposition] fairly often and I think it’s just because people don’t really understand what we’re trying to do and they think it’s a negative when, in fact, it can be and usually is a positive. They are scared of the unknown, I think. For example, in the work I do I have to give my opinion on whether archeology should be performed or of projects that are happening for the Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act. “A lot of times I’ll say there should be archeology done here and the first response of a company that wants to do a project is, ‘Oh my god, that’s going to be so expensive, I don’t know how I’m going to do this, it’s going to take so much time.’ It’s a big scary thing because they don’t really know what it entails or why it’s important. So we do see a lot of opposition and I feel that it’s usually based on fear of the unknown and a lack of understanding of what it can give them and what it can do for them.

JC: People should try to preserve historical buildings and artifacts; so what are some measures that can be taken by the public to do that?

KH: Well, I think just being interested and involved in your local planning [are some measures]. Honestly, preserving things doesn’t start with me or anybody in my office. It starts with the people who are in the community—people who can have a say before a project is even conceived let alone already has the plan and lands on my desk. Getting involved with the planning and the community planning and zoning and all of these things that decide where projects happen and how they happen, that’s the best way to make sure that later on down the road something that the community cares about is kept for the future.

JC: For Erie, plans like the Demolition Delay Ordinance are in the works for the region, so can you tell me a little about that as well as other plans that would help preserve our history?

KH: I honestly don’t know too much about zoning and planning because that’s not my specific little piece of the pie that I work on, but I do know what a Demolition Delay Ordinance is and it is essentially, from my experience, an opportunity to have people stop and think about what they are doing instead of running ahead and tearing something down that may end up being something people care about. Actually, a lot of communities are working on ordinances and zoning in order to do the very thing that Erie is thinking about and trying to do.

JC: If a historical site, like a building, is dilapidated and can no longer be of use, what actions can be taken to preserve the historical significance of that building?

KH: I think once a building can no longer be saved, that it’s just gone so far in its lifespan and has been neglected for so long that you just can’t fix it anymore, the only thing for public safety you can do is remove the building, but you can record what was there. You can make sure that the significance of what happened there is recorded and that information—the saving of that information—can help sort of mitigate the loss of something that maybe you didn’t want to lose but just couldn’t do much about.

JC: At what point do you think a building is too dilapidated to restore or preserve? Is there a point to try?

KH: Well, I think everyone should always try. It just depends on how much money someone has. You can rebuild something from barely anything, but is it really worth it? I mean that’s an answer only the person holding the checkbook can really give. At our office we have to be practical and we know that some buildings really are so rotten that you can’t save them and some buildings that people claim are too rotten to save actually can be saved and knowing where that line is is a judgment call that has to be taken in a case-by-case basis.

JC: How does the preserving of historical sites and artifacts help the economy?

KH: I think that it goes back to that sense of place thing. I mean if Erie feels like a place where people respect their past and are taking care of their city that has an interesting history you can see when you are there and not just read about in a pamphlet then people are going to want to come and visit and if people come and visit for that then the city makes money. I guess Gettysburg is a prime example of that. They have the battlefield that’s been preserved and respected. It’s part of that place and people come there for that. Lots of towns have the sense of place that people are looking for. People come to visit just because it feels good.

JC: So you believe then that preserving history like that has a huge impact on the tourism industry?

KH: I think it does. I know when my husband and I decided where we’re going to go, we don’t choose to go somewhere that looks just like the strip mall that we can go to five minutes from our house. We want to go somewhere that has its own identity and that has its own sense of place. The way you get that is by respecting the years that have come before and the buildings that have come before that have been only there and nowhere else.

JC: Do you have any examples that show how preservation greatly impacted a city’s economy or its future?

KH: Philadelphia [is an example]. You get the whole independent small downtown. They have a whole economy built up for tourists to come see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall and the museums that talk about our earliest American history. Even downtown in Pittsburgh they have Point State Park. People come there because of the design, which is very significant historically. They’re from the beginning of our country’s founding.

Jessica Courter may be contacted at, and you can follow her on Twitter @JessCourter.

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