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Globe North

A different sort of 'Idol'

Online voting will determine which of 25 Boston-area landmarks

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / May 7, 2009
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One just wants to be seaworthy again. Another has long suffered from a phenomenon known as concrete rot. Two more need all-over rejuvenations.

And the fifth? Its goal is to become a monument to one of the most famed cities in the Commonwealth.

Decide which one you're rooting for?

Then bring on Ryan Seacrest.

This is "Preservation Idol."

Just as pop culture addicts can feverishly tweet and be tweeted, track Hollywood crushes courtesy of the stalkerazzi, and pass judgment on flat-footed celebrity dancers, now, too, they can determine the destiny of their favorite historic sites.

Through Partners in Preservation, 25 significant landmarks in Greater Boston are engaged in a furious competition: In 34 days of online voting that ends May 17, preservation boosters can cast their ballots for those sites they feel are the worthiest.

North of Boston, the rivals include the Crane Estate in Ipswich, Old Town Hall in Salem, Lowell's Boat Shop in Amesbury, the Schooner Adventure in Gloucester, and St. Joseph's High School in Lowell.

But this pop culture-inspired competition isn't just about bragging rights. At the end of the aggressive campaign is $100,000 for a restoration project of a grand prize winner's choice.

"It's very novel," said Emily Rosenbaum, executive director of Coalition for a Better Acre in Lowell, which would capitalize on a grant to rehab St. Joseph's into 22 affordable apartments. "It instills a sense of excitement."

A joint venture of American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the unorthodox grant cycle was previously staged in San Francisco, Chicago, and hurricane-torn New Orleans. In total, Partners in Preservation has pledged $5 million over five years, or $1 million in each region.

After $100,000 is given to the winner of the Boston area popular vote, the remaining $900,000 will be doled out in smaller grants to several runners-up, as determined by an advisory committee made up of local civic and preservation leaders. Those grant winners will be announced June 16.

The 25 sites in Greater Boston - spanning the mid-1600s Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham to the circa-1969 New England Aquarium - were pared from an initial 160 contenders, according to Wendy Nicholas, director of the northeast office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Originally, the requests composed a total of $9 million in proposals, she said.

Finalists were chosen based on several factors: historic and architectural significance, community involvement, and overall contribution to tourism and economic development.

The competing sites represent the "depth and variety of historic treasures that we have here," said Nicholas.

Yet they're also indicative of the ongoing struggle to maintain patchworks of history and secure funding that is starting to go the way of the dodo bird.

Encompassing a wide sweep of landmarks - churches, barns, boats, carousels, cemeteries, meetinghouses, museums, and homes of influential novelists - all the competitors rely heavily on deteriorating state and federal funding and diminished private donations, membership dues, and ticket and merchandise sales.

"There's a general overall fear of spending money" these days, said Graham McKay, a boat builder with Lowell's Boat Shop.

At the waterfront bulwark, that's meant about 50 percent less business. Where there once were three or four boats on back order at any given time in the spring, he's now seeing one to two, McKay said. "The smaller places run on a shoestring budget are feeling the effects harder than many," he noted.

This, in turn, is exacerbated by the overall higher price stickers associated with historical preservation. As Nicholas explained, such projects are often intricate and complex, requiring more time and effort to keep with historical timeframes and materials. Also, they "don't sit still," she said. There's "always, always work to be done."

That's been evident with the Schooner Adventure.

Built in 1926, the boat has been docked since 1994. Getting it ready for the open ocean has required a $2.5 million deck and hull restoration, and another $1 million is being sought for mechanical parts, according to Marty Krugman, president of the Gloucester Adventure, the nonprofit that stewards the schooner.

The $100,000, if awarded, would outfit the 230-ton schooner with new masts and spars, including two booms, two gaffs, a topmast, and a jumbo boom, Krugman said.

And if you ask him, it's got a good chance. His evidence: Gloucester's resounding rally around the "Man at the Wheel" statue, which was recently chosen for the new Massachusetts quarter.

He said he hopes the same fervor will apply with the schooner. "It's an important icon of Gloucester's fishing heritage, and America's fishing heritage."

This is a maritime legacy shared by Lowell's Boat Shop, which is no less enthusiastic about its odds.

The grand prize money would help with overall building maintenance: replacing shingles whipped off and scattered by the wind; repairing rotting windowsills and replacing long-disappeared panes; and covering a paint job and insulation installation (the interior temperature has been as balmy as 16 degrees in the winter, McKay noted).

Established in 1793, the shop represents the area's ship-building past.

In its best year, 1911, it produced 2,029 boats, McKay said, and today, vessels are fashioned from the same plans and in essentially the same manner.

"You can walk in here and be transported back 200 years," McKay said.

Given such zeal on the part of all the challengers, the competition is getting fiery.

Organizations are bombarding members and visitors, forwarding out e-mail lists, posting personal stories and YouTube videos, and staging open houses. Lowell's Boat Shop is getting even more aggressive: Supporters can be entered into a drawing for a 13-foot Salisbury Point skiff.

Still, in the end, many agree that awareness might be the ultimate prize.

All of the sites have "wonderful stories to tell," noted Andrew Kendall, president of the Trustees of Reservations, which owns and cares for the sweeping, seaside Crane Estate. "It's a real challenge to raise attention."

Yet the competition has "generated a great deal of interest and enthusiasm," noted Krugman, "and it certainly motivated us to go to the limit to publicize ourselves."

All told, preserving the past is essential to moving forward, he said, contradictory as it may sound. "If we neglect our history and our culture, we become homogenized."