P. Lynn Scarlett, acting secretary of the U.S. Interior Department, came to Madison on Tuesday to announce that downtown is a National Historic Landmark. Mayor Al Huntington, left, points out Little Jimmy atop the Fair Play fire station during a trolley tour. John Staicer, executive director of Historic Madison Inc., said it shows that Madison is “a very special community now officially recognized as the national treasure we knew in our hearts it was all along.” (Staff photos by Mark Campbell)
P. Lynn Scarlett, acting secretary of the U.S. Interior Department, came to Madison on Tuesday to announce that downtown is a National Historic Landmark. Mayor Al Huntington, left, points out Little Jimmy atop the Fair Play fire station during a trolley tour. John Staicer, executive director of Historic Madison Inc., said it shows that Madison is “a very special community now officially recognized as the national treasure we knew in our hearts it was all along.” (Staff photos by Mark Campbell)
The long-anticipated designation of downtown Madison as a National Historic Landmark was announced Tuesday by the acting U.S. secretary of the Interior shortly after she got her first look at the city.

“This is really a lovely town, lovely,” Cabinet member P. Lynn Scarlett told Mayor Al Huntington during a trolley tour before the announcement at the Broadway Fountain. She has been acting Interior secretary since April 1.

“It has such a middle-America feel to it, a place where you could expect ice cream socials and picnics,” she said.

A while later on the trolley, sitting across the aisle from Huntington, she said, “It’s a beautiful setting. It’s such a charming town. It’s delightful.”

Being a National Historic Landmark, Scarlett said after the ceremony, is “of national significance, truly of significance for the whole nation. That really puts Madison in elite company.”

The designation encompasses all of the downtown historic district that is covered by the city’s historic district ordinance. The size of the area covered, about 2,000 acres, makes it one of the largest National Historic Landmark districts in the nation, the Interior Department said. Within the area are more than 1,600 historic buildings of several architectural styles that are homes, businesses, public places, churches and industries, as well as infrastructure like roads and bridges.

Scarlett, who has worked at the Interior Department since July 2001, said that what makes Madison “so special” is that its old buildings are usable as homes and businesses. During the trolley tour, she remarked about seeing lovely old buildings by the block, not just scattered around the town.

The Madison National Historic Landmark is the third district in Indiana to receive the designation. The others are the Indiana World War Memorial Plaza in Indianapolis and the New Harmony Historical District. National Historic Landmark designation also is given to local sites, and Jefferson County has two: the Lanier Mansion and Eleutherian College. In 1973 downtown Madison was designated a National Register of Historic Places District, which doesn’t carry as much prestige as being a National Historic Landmark.

About 100 people attended the announcement, which had been billed as a secret. The audience included children who are in the Mayor’s Eagles and the Junior Preservation League.

The city will have a more public celebration later in the year after a bronze plaque denoting the designation arrives, John Staicer, executive director of Historic Madison Inc., said after the announcement.

Designation as a National Historic Landmark puts Madison in the company of such locations as Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and, as of last month, Elvis Presley’s Graceland.

The designation is not accompanied by any money, but Scarlett said it will enhance local applications for federal grants for projects related to historic preservation.

Staicer said later Tuesday that being a National Historic Landmark will have impacts on federal funding decisions, but for local preservation the city’s historic landmark ordinance will have more impact on individual property owners.

Those federal funding decisions could include a new Madison-Milton bridge, he said. The designation gives an “extra layer of scrutiny” for projects that will have federal funds, and could lead to an “extra effort to try to be creative” to make the project fit in with the district, he said.

“It gives the community at large an additional say in what happens in those federal actions,” Staicer said.

Staicer and Scarlett both spoke of the importance of partnerships among individuals, organizations and governmental agencies that led to the designation.

“Successful preservation ... also relies on partnerships,” she said. “The people of Madison clearly understand this.”

Madisonians also understand, she said, that historic preservation can be an “economic catalyst” and “bring people to see this great, great place.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Sodrel, R-New Albany, said at the ceremony: “It’s important to progress, but it’s also important to ... remember your roots.”

Later, he said it is about more than Madison. “This is the nation’s history, not just Madison’s history or Indiana’s history,” he said.

In 2004, Madison was the first community in Indiana to be designated a Preserve America community in a new White House program. That, along with being a National Historic Landmark, will put Madison on the must-see list for tourists, attract businesses and help Historic Madison Inc. and others to win grants, she said.

As one of more than 300 Preserve America cities, she said, Madison is eligible to apply by May 19 for grants that will come out of the first half of a two-year, $10 million allocation for federal grants. Also, she said, there is a historic-preservation tax incentive program that since its inception has resulted in $3 billion in incentives. The tax incentives result in housing being created in old buildings as well as jobs, she said.

“Cooperative conservation is how we do the programs,” she said. “You embody cooperative conservation.”

On the trolley tour, it was clear that Scarlett had done her homework about Madison, commenting on sites that she had read about and hearing stories from tour narrator Dave Adams, co-owner of the trolley and a member of the City Council.

“What is so wonderful about Madison,” Scarlett said in her speech, “is you can tell your stories and still see and feel the buildings.” Those stories, she said, reflect the history of America, from the elegance of the 19th century Greek revival Frances Costigan house to the shotgun houses built for laborers to houses whose residents were prominent in the Underground Railroad.

In Madison, she said, she saw “phenomenal, phenomenal preservation work” that chronicles the culture and character of America.

Costigan was the architect of the Lanier Mansion and also of his own home, which he built on a very narrow lot on West Third Street. The house draws architectural students as well as tourists to see how he managed to fit a viable house in such a small space. During the tour, when Adams mentioned that Costigan was the Lanier architect as the trolley went past it, Scarlett asked, “Was that the guy who designed the really narrow house?” Later during the tour she got to see the outside of the Costigan House, which is a Historic Madison Inc. museum.

After the announcement ceremony, Scarlett was asked where she would have liked to get off the trolley to take a closer look if she had a chance to. There were three places, she said, starting with the Costigan House. “My father was an architect,” she said, and so she has an especially keen interest in architecture.

Huntington said Madison isn’t just a collection of architectural styles to be looked at. “Our city is not a museum, but a vibrant place to live and work,” he said.

Kyle Hupfer, the director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources whose job includes being designated the State Historic Preservation Officer, said the National Historic Landmark designation will be important for Madison’s tourism and economic development, and said the state will be a partner in it.

“The state pledges ... to play an active part in Madison’s future,” he said. That will include keeping the Lanier Mansion and Clifty Falls State Park open, and directing Major Moves transportation money here so Madison “will finally be able ... to get a new Ohio River bridge.”

A framed certificate was presented and read, and the wording will be repeated on the bronze plaque. It cites the “extraordinary collection” of 19th century architecture, Madison’s “important role in the Underground Railroad” and says Madison is “a nationwide example of small-town American life.”

Staicer called the day of the announcement “the most special of days.”

The designation, he said, is the “culmination of the dream of John Windle,” the founder of Historic Madison Inc. Individuals, organizations both governmental and nongovernmental, property owners all worked together on documenting that Madison was deserving to be in the company of such places as Hot Springs, Ark., Savannah, Charleston, he said.

A public-private partnership of HMI, the Jefferson County commissioners, the DNR division of preservation and architecture and the National Park Service in the Interior Department all worked together, he said. He lauded Camille Fife and her Westerly Group, which wrote the nomination application after documenting more than 1,500 features such as homes and businesses that are in Madison, a job that Staicer called a “Herculean effort.” He also praised the more than 600 people who wrote letters a year ago supporting the nomination, and the volunteers who went from door to door soliciting the letters.

“Today begins a new day for Madison,” Staicer said at the ceremony. Madison is “a very special community now officially recognized as the national treasure we knew in our hearts it was all along.”

Being a National Historic Landmark will be invaluable to tourism and especially heritage tourism, Scarlett said after the ceremony. Studies have shown that 85 percent of Americans who travel seek out places of historic significance, she said.

Scarlett said the number of historic homes and other buildings and the extent to which they are still in use was impressive. “It’s quite unique,” she said after the ceremony. “You don’t find many towns in American that have this.”

Scarlett said she also would like to tour the Lanier Mansion because it is “so grand, so beautiful, so elegant.” The mansion is a state historic site operated by the DNR.

She also would like to tour the Schroeder Saddletree Factory, another of the Historic Madison Inc. museums. “I’m fascinated by early small businesses,” she said. The wooden frames for saddles were built at the factory, and later wooden clothespins were made there. It was in business all the way into the 1970s, and that endurance interests her, she said.

But there was no time for touring. After the ceremony, Scarlett was driven to Bedford for a Republican Party event. She was accompanied on her visit by National Park Service police, who provide security for Cabinet members. Madison police also accompanied her while she was in the city.

Although the National Historic Landmark designation was announced Tuesday, the paper work was signed March 31 by Gale Norton on her last day as secretary of the Interior.

“She gets to get her pen out and I get to do the fun stuff,” Scarlett said.