Monday, July 21, 2014

Change and Preservation

Palladium Building
St. Louis, Missouri
Hello Everyone:

Today I'd like to begin a series of posts on historic preservation in the twenty-first century. David J. Brown, the executive vice president and chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, recently published three articles on the future preservation and how it adjusts itself to change, stay relevant, and win support for the cause. The inspiration for these articles is the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (1966) and the hundredth anniversary of the National Parks Act (1916).  Over the next three days, we'll be talking about preservation and change; preservation and people and preservation and politics.  For today, we're going to talk about historic preservation and change.  Specifically, how does preservation adapt to a world in constant flux.

San Jose Church
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, USA
When I started studying preservation, the first class I was required to take was "Fundamentals of Historic Preservation," taught by the ever knowledgeable Jay Platt.  On the first night of class, he asked all of us to define historic preservation.  Of course we all tried to come up with the most erudite answer.  Jay, who later became my extremely patient thesis advisor, listened carefully, acknowledging are attempts at cleverness before finally revealing the answer, "historic preservation is about managing change."  Blew me away, so simple an answer, yet fraught with meaning.  This was emphasized a year later by the energetic David Sloane, professor of planning and development history who drove home the point that change is constant.  Cities change, buildings change, demographics change, places change.  Change is a constant.  Borrowing a quote from Mr. Brown's article, he cites Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic Paul Goldberger,

'[p]erhaps the most important thing to say about preservation when it is really working as it should is that it uses the past to make us nostalgic, but to make us feel that we live in a better present, a present that has a broad reach and a great, sweep arc, and that is not narrowly defined, but broadly defined by its connections to other eras, and its ability to embrace them in a larger, cumulative whole.  Successful preservation makes time a continuum, not a series of disjointed, disconnected eras."

TWA Worldport Terminal
John F. Kennedy Airport, New York
Continuity and change, two important points we need to embrace in the millennium.  Fortunately, preservation is a highly versatile field.  While the National Trust and many of its partners own properties that focus on the bold faced architecture and museum, the focus of what can be considered preservation-worthy has shifted over the years to more local preservation-centric activities.  In November 2013, the New York Times published the story of two twenty-something Buffalo, New York residents, praising them for their skills as micro-developers, "rehabbing derelict properties to rent (or sell) an attempt to save houses from demolition..." (  One of the micro-developers, Bernice Radle presented a TEDtalk at the annual TEDxBuffalo in October 2013, holding a sign that read "Preservation is Sexy." (  Preservation is a pretty sexy, it in a nerd hotness sort-of way.  This was Ms. Radle's way of explaining the"preservation as social activism" engine that drive her and her colleagues.

Protestor in Taksim Square Gezi Park
Istanbul, Turkey
Preservation as a form of social activism is already happening in the twenty-first century, albeit in a large-scale.  The wave of demonstrations and civil unrest Istanbul, Turkey were initiated over proposed urban development in Taksim Square Gezi Park.  However, I can safely say that the overwhelming bulk preservation as social activism movements do not end in mass arrests, tear gas, and causalities.  If anything, preservation in the millennium is definitely not one-size-fits-all.  It's not a one-size-fits-all thing when you factor in Main Street revitalization programs, heritage tourism, social justice, urban landscapes as public history, return to the city, historic site reinvention, and the focus on economic and environmental sustainability, they all become relevant to the work preservationists do.

Historic Textile Mill
Lowell, Massachusetts
The New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, once said,

A building does not have to be an important work of architecture to become a first-rte landmark.  Landmarks are not created by architects.  They are fashioned by those who encounter them after they are built.  The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city's memory.

This is true whether it's a textile mill, a log cabin, or a grand space.  Places change as they become invested with meaning, memories, and stories.  People don't attach any particular significance to bricks and mortar, they attach significance to the stories that reside within those bricks and mortar.  Filtering landmark building through the architectural historian's prism, not by the character-defining features and without any empirical knowledge,  narrows the scope of understanding of what makes older and historic buildings so unique. In the book Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities) (, Danile Solomon observes what the sustainable city must maintain, " the culture of the culture of the city: the way people in New Orleans, the way they dress in Milan, dance in Havana, speak in London, wise-crack in New York, and look cool in Tokyo."  In short, part of  what  historic preservation is about the intangible elements that make a place unique.

Johnny Cash's Boyhood Home and Museum
Dyess, Arkansas
If we are absolutely intent on achieving the greater goal of livable and sustainable communities for everyone, we need to embrace change in a big way.  This is something that preservationists have been doing for years, by using tools such as adaptive (re)use which breath new life into buildings in ways not previously imagined.  However, preservationists also need to embrace the changes in our tool kit.  For example, David Brown points out that the Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation are intended to be guidelines not something "...that applies equally to all of tax credit projects and hundreds if not thousands of historic district zoning ordinances."

At the local level, preservationists are beginning to realize that different situations call for different tools.  For example, the National Trust's Preservation Green Lab aided the City of Seattle pass America's first outcome-based energy code.  The outcome-based energy code includes a Performance Target strategy for new buildings and an Operating Energy Alternative for existing buildings, each allowing flexibility for property owners and designers to pursue innovative retrofit approaches that will provide the highest return on investment. (

Arcadia Farm Fall Fest 2013
Alexandria, VA

The National Trust and its allied organizations are leading the charge to move beyond the ubiquitous house museum as the best choice for historic buildings and sites.  In a growing partnership with the non-profit farm-to-table organization, Arcadia, the National Trust is looking to go beyond the tried and true house museum by formulating a new use for its historic site Woodlawn.  In a bit of shameless self-promotion, David Brown announces, "We are opening the doors to broader public participation and setting up a 21st-century use that relates to the site's 19th-century roots as a place for experimental agriculture."  Sometimes you have to step back into the past in order to go forward into the future.

The National Trust President Stephanie Meeks has argued that we "Stop debating whether house museums are a flawed model, and instead channel that energy into the original impulse: the desire to preserve the houses where our history was made.  To preserve these properties-to sustain their place in history and advance their meaning-we need to think anew, and act accordingly."  Here, here.  The house museum is not always the right answer.  Right now, preservationists have a wonderful opportunity to make the field a relevant part of the ever changing future of our communities.  In order to do so, preservationist must embrace change, borrowing Mr. Brown's use of the eminent Mark Twain quote about telling the truth, "It will amaze your friends and confound your enemies."

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