The white house on Main Street is falling down. Its back porch is unstable, and its windows are broken. Inside, the walls are decaying and the floors are covered in debris.

John Haigis sees past the blight of the 19th-century house.

"It has character," said Haigis, president of Darby Borough's Historical Commission.

Home to the oldest continually operating free library in the United States and a Quaker meeting house that dates to 1805, Darby is rich in history.

But the small Delaware County borough is not rich in resources.

As its many old buildings fall into disrepair, local officials and historic preservationists are left to grapple with which are worth saving - and how to save them.

Darby is not the only place struggling with these issues.

"Unfortunately, it's something that is quite common," said Erin Hammerstedt, a field representative for Preservation Pennsylvania, a statewide nonprofit organization.

Where Haigis sees treasures, borough officials find eyesores.

The borough spans less than a square mile and has a median household income of about $32,000. Darby has no money to spend on preservation, said Mayor Helen Thomas, and vacant old buildings are dangerous.

"We're trying to do the right thing not only for the borough history but for the people of the borough that are here," Thomas said.

Haigis and his wife, Jan, moved into an old house in Darby in 2001. Since then, they have become the borough's most outspoken advocates for saving its history.

"I think there's a blessing and a curse," Haigis said. "The blessing is, we have such incredible historic fabric. The curse is, we have so many old buildings, they overwhelm available resources."

Though it can be difficult to attract economic development to Darby, preservationists say emphasizing a community's past can lead to its revitalization.

"This is a moment that Darby could really build on all the architectural resources that it has," said Aaron Wunsch, a professor of architectural history at the University of Pennsylvania. "People forget how dumpy and hopeless a place like Manayunk looked 20 years ago."

Finding funding can be a challenge, said Hammerstedt, of Preservation Pennsylvania. The state gives grants to worthy projects, but the process is competitive, and the awards are often just "a drop in the bucket" compared with a project's cost, she said.

Though he has struggled to find support or funding for his efforts, Haigis is working to save several structures in Darby.

He leases the former borough hall - which dates to 1850 - from the borough for $1 a year. He would like to turn it into a museum but has made little progress in the last five years.

For the white house that sits vacant on Main Street, across from the borough's library and next to Haigis' home, he has a similar agreement with the Delaware County Redevelopment Authority. Haigis envisions an ice cream parlor on the first floor, offices on the second, and a caretaker's apartment on top.

But borough officials would like to see that building demolished. Thomas, the mayor, said she has watched shingles fly off its roof on windy days.

"There is a lot of history in Darby, but that is not one of them," Thomas said. "You can't save that building."

A similar conflict has played out at another property, on Darby Terrace. Last summer, Haigis persuaded a property owner and borough officials to delay demolition of a 250-year-old house for six months, with a promise that he would work to save it.

Six months have passed, and Haigis has neither raised money nor found a potential buyer for the building. But property owner Davoud Baravordeh has decided not to demolish the home. Instead, he hopes to sell it.

The mayor said she was frustrated that the building was not demolished. She said children run through the house. The borough has had to board it up, and it has been a dumping ground for trash.

Haigis acknowledges that he is "a little bit scattered" and struggles to make his projects come to fruition.

"A number of people think we're crazy," he said. "But I think that there are a number of people who appreciate what we're doing and will help how they can."

Even as funding and support remain elusive, preservationists are optimistic that Darby's old buildings have a future.

"Besides improving Darby itself, it could be a model for lots of other situations around the area," said Alvin Holm, a Philadelphia-based architect. "Where do you get the money? Sure, that's a good problem."

610-313-8116 @Lmccrystal