Strong Foundations

As Preserve Arkansas’ new executive director, Rachel Silva finds the voice to speak up for the state’s historic structures


“Nobody does this alone,” she says. “No building is saved single-handedly. There are always multiple people involved.”

Speaking with Rachel Silva about her tenure at the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, you tend to hear this a lot. How it wasn’t just her. How so much of the success she had as outreach coordinator for the agency under the state’s Department of Arkansas Heritage can be attributed to those who lent their efforts to the cause.

There’s the story she tells about the New Hope School outside of Wynne, for example. Built in 1903, the two-room schoolhouse, with its cistern and potbellied stove, was in such disrepair that it was on the verge of succumbing to gravity’s pull in the early 2000s.

Saving the school had long been a passion project for Wynne resident Bridget Hart, but as is often the case, funding fell short. Bridget teamed up with Rachel to create the narrative for one of Rachel’s “walking tours”—a series of AHPP-sponsored events intended to provide education about historic sites and districts, bringing attention to structures in need of saving across the state—which ultimately became the inspiration for a book on the New Hope restoration project. Proceeds from the sale of that book, A Virtual Tour Through History in Downtown Wynne, Arkansas, along with private donations and a handful of grants (including two from the AHPP) funded the first two phases of restoration. A third phase, currently ongoing, was also funded by an AHPP grant.

Still, Rachel remains humble—hesitant to take any real credit. “That’s one that, again, it wasn’t me doing anything,” she says. “It was a project I saw that was a happy story that didn’t look so optimistic on the front end.”

She’s got a point, though. Rachel’s influence at AHPP was limited to outreach, education and spreading awareness about historic preservation in the state, although she has been instrumental in that regard. In addition to leading regular tour programs, Rachel traveled all over Arkansas doing presentations on various city and county histories, as well as providing information about the grants and tax credits available to historic-property owners interested in rehabilitating their property.

This past July, however, after 8 1/2 years at AHPP, Rachel accepted the role of executive director at the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, a nonprofit organization better known today as Preserve Arkansas. What’s the most exciting part of this new role? It’s the fact that, going forward, Rachel will be able to be a more vocal advocate for change.

But she knows not every story will be a success like the New Hope School. She says the fight is always worth fighting, especially as time goes on, and more and more properties become eligible for the historic registers. “It’s sad, but it is something for every preservationist to keep in mind that there’s never going to be a time when our work is not relevant,” Rachel says. “There’s always going to be something out there to save.”

At this pivotal point in her career, we thought it was a good time to chat with Rachel over coffee a Mugs in Argenta about her transition to her new position with Preserve Arkansas, what lies ahead and the current state of Arkansas historic preservation.

At AHPP, you used to focus on outreach, but now you’re in charge of the whole shebang, right?

Yeah, I’m the boss! The two organizations have always worked closely together. Both do historic preservation work. Both have a statewide reach, but different funding, of course. In my new position, the main difference is that I can be more of an active voice for historic preservation, whereas in the state job, I could be an active voice, but state employees can’t legally advocate. We couldn’t lobby legislators or the general public. We couldn’t lobby anyone to do what we wanted them to do, to pass legislation that would be favorable for us and our constituents.

My current job is exciting mostly, to me, because I know how it is to work on the other side and to wish that somebody would advocate for these certain things and different projects around the state. So now I get to do that.

What is an area with your new position that you’ve had to get used to?

Budgeting! Yeah, math. Just financials in general, I’d say.

What else are you excited to accomplish?

There’s a big push coming up, hopefully, in the next legislative session to improve the state historic rehabilitation tax credit and to increase the caps—the per-project cap and the annual cap—on the state tax credit, and that’s something Preserve Arkansas was instrumental in getting passed back in 2009. Since that has passed, it’s been used a whole lot. And it’s really the only incentive for private-property owners that own historic property to rehabilitate their buildings because they’re not eligible for any kind of grant money, but they can use the state tax credit for their own home. Now that people have figured it out, the caps need to be increased because the state only gives so many credits each year, and once they reach that cap, then no more.

Then, for me, a big thing is that Preserve Arkansas is a statewide organization. We need to do a better job of getting out and about around the state. When I worked for the state office, no matter how many towns I visited and did walking tours or programs, there were always a lot of people that had never heard of our office, that didn’t know it existed. It’s like you can’t do enough outreach. I mean, it’s amazing how hard it is to get the word out, and that’s something Preserve Arkansas needs to do a better job of.

How are you planning to change that?

We do different events around the state and try to spread them out a little bit each year, but we need to do more than what we’re doing now and just move things around to different corners of the state and get those people involved. I mean, that’s really all I have: more programs, more often, and spread them out around the state.

Does Preserve Arkansas do most of its work with privately owned buildings, or do you work with state-owned properties as well?

Preserve Arkansas helps direct people to the correct resources. We’ve helped people apply for grants around the state, even claiming grants from the National Trust. We try to help empower these people to rehabilitate their historic buildings. We kind of try to act as a clearinghouse to provide resources and answer questions, and point them in the right direction because that’s another problem—it’s a learning curve. As professionals, we know where to send them and we explain what all these acronyms and funny guidelines mean in layman’s terms.

There can be a lot of bureaucracy as well, I imagine.

Yes, and even if there’s not, in reality, they may just think, Oh, that’s too complicated. I can’t do that. And what do they do? They do something that’s not compatible with the character of their historic building. They may rip out all the windows and put in cheap vinyl windows instead of going through the trouble—or what they think is the trouble—of doing a tax-credit project.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing historic preservation in Arkansas today?

There’s never enough funding. People never have enough resources. There are a lot of great historic buildings around our state that are in a deteriorated state, and they desperately need help. It’s a combination of owners who maybe just don’t have the capacity or don’t have any interest in saving their property, or there aren’t enough financial resources available to them. You have to have the capital to spend to get the tax credit back. If you don’t have that, you’re kind of dead in the water. So, there are always challenges. But that’s probably the main one: money. There’s never enough money.

How would you describe the current state of historic preservation in Arkansas?

We need more outreach, and we need more incentives, better incentives. It has come a long way, but there’s always more to do. In Arkansas, we’re very fortunate to have a state historic preservation office the size of the Arkansas office that has an outreach program. Every state has an equivalent. They don’t all call themselves “the Historic Preservation Office,” but every state has one. The majority of them have a very small staff, and they don’t have an education or outreach program. It’s maybe 10 people, and they’re doing all their federal mandates that they have to do. There’s no one specifically designated as an outreach person. So anytime in the past that we’ve talked to colleagues in other states, they’ve just said, We can’t believe that you have the resources that you do! So really, we’re more fortunate than many other states in that aspect and fortunate to have a nonprofit to advocate for historic preservation.

As far as the state of historic preservation in the state, I think there have been huge strides, and there have been major things that have been good in the past several years that have happened, major positives. But we’ve also lost some real gems around the state in the last couple of years. So as the built environment ages, there’s more and more to work on.

The whole world of historic preservation in Arkansas is something that I’ve just had my eyes opened to recently, and there are so many benefits, aside from just historical significance—environmental and economic benefits among them.

The greenest building is the one that’s already built. The economic development aspect … everybody wants to be in a livable, walkable—usually downtown—environment. The renaissance of downtown North Little Rock and downtown Little Rock, it’s still continuing on both sides of the river and in downtowns all around the state. Downtown Jonesboro, that’s the place to be if you live in Jonesboro. The same thing in Northwest Arkansas and everywhere else—Rogers, Bentonville, Fayetteville.

And what are your buildings at your downtown core? They’re all your historic properties. And why does somebody want to go hang out in downtown Rogers versus a strip mall out on U.S. 71B? Because downtown Rogers looks like downtown Rogers. It looks like a particular place in space and time. … It’s got character. It’s got soul.

Like you said, where we are now in Argenta is a perfect example of that. A lot has happened in just this area alone.

Yeah, it’s not just about saving the building. It’s about finding an adaptive reuse for the building, making it a cool place that people wanna hang out. It’s not like every historic building has to be a museum. That’s not how it should be. It should be a restaurant, or a gallery, or a store. It could be anything! It’s just to get people thinking that way.