Ignorance of basic cultural heritage laws is commonplace among the US public. This is not a condemnation of you, the average citizen, but more a reflection of the heritage industry’s failure to adequately market itself. Regrettably, the fundamental misunderstanding of US cultural heritage law is sometimes perpetuated by pop culture, as in the second season premiere of CW’s hit vampire show The Originals.
So let’s celebrate PreserveLaw’s second Halloween with a fun legal analysis at the intersection of vampires, werewolves, and historic preservation.
The Originals Recap
In case you don’t follow the show (I don’t either), here’s what’s going on in this episode:
Werewolves have taken over the French Quarter, which was previously ruled by vampires. Now the vampires are trying to hit back at the werewolves. The problem is that the wolfpack’s alpha female has made her home in a historic foundry that her family owns and she refuses to leave. Since vampires can’t enter a home without the permission of its owner, the werewolves hiding in the foundry are shielded from a vampire counterinsurgency.
That’s where the legal butchery begins.
Vampires Can’t Read
Vampire Elijah Mikaelson decides to use (misuse, rather) national and local historic preservation laws to circumvent the no-vampires-in-homes-without-permission rule. You might think that a 1,000-year-old superhuman would have the sense to actually read a statute or hire even a mildly competent lawyer before he tried to use the law to his advantage.
Yet this was apparently not the case for our bloodsucking deuteragonist because Elijah (or the show’s writer) confidently bungles the law throughout the process. Even when he gets the law right, he forfeits an opportunity for redemption by misrepresenting the powers and proclivities of local governments regulating historic preservation.
Near the beginning of the episode Elijah is shown speaking to two men, presumably city officials. Here’s the exchange, with the most egregious errors in bold.
ELIJAH: My foundation has aligned itself with the city’s historical preservation society. We have a vested interest in… seeing this building protected.
MAN: Place is a dump. The Guerrera family [the wolfpack] would be doing the city a favor.
ELIJAH: Well, unfortunately, under the preservation act of 1966, we cannot allow the Guerreras to demolish one of the city’s original foundries, even if it is for something as noble and distinguished as a casino. So thank you, gentlemen, and do give my best to Francesca.
For now I will give him a pass on “historical preservation,” but I have to put a stake through this vampire’s blatant misinterpretation of “the preservation act of 1966.”
Presumably a reference to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, Mr. Mikaelson implied that the NHPA prohibits the demolition of historically significant places. As I have previously explained, placing a building on the National Register of Historic Places (a creation of the NHPA) does nothing to directly protect cultural resources from demolition.
Not only does the NHPA not prohibit demolition, but it also does nothing at all to affect your land use or property rights. By implying otherwise, Elijah and The Originals writers hurt the preservation movement. There is already widespread ignorance of cultural heritage laws—we don’t need overt misinformation added into the mix.
Preservationists Avoid Eminent Domain
Later in the episode Elijah shows up on the werewolves’ doorstep for the coup d’état. Our undead antihero can’t help but gloat about his brilliant legal maneuvers before he walks right in.
My, my, you have a beautiful home here. I was so pleased when the city took my suggestion to protect its heritage status and invoke eminent domain. So I suppose that means this house now belongs to the public, and as such, anyone can enter…without invitation.
Although it is true that local governments are constitutionally empowered to take private property for a public purpose in exchange for just compensation (called eminent domain, condemnation, or a taking), this power is rarely used to save a historic building.
Instead, local governments that regulate historic districts typically play a more passive role, similar to local zoning commissions, by approving or denying proposed additions to or demolitions of buildings within the regulated district. Eminent domain is never the first tool employed by a preservation-minded local government.
Again, the freewheeling screenwriters of The Originals fan the flames of anti-preservation hysteria by insinuating that local governments are trigger-happy when it comes to invoking eminent domain for preservation purposes.
Moral of the story: don’t count on vampires for your legal needs.
Clint Tankersley is a Georgia attorney specializing in cultural heritage law. Read my bio here.