Tuesday, July 22, 2014

It's About People


Historic one-room school house in Montana
Hello Everyone:

In yesterday's post we talked about change and preservation.  Change is a constant and how you manage change is what historic preservation is about. National Trust for Historic Preservation chief preservation officer and executive vice president David J. Brown emphasized the point that preservationists must embrace change and let go of the one-size-fits-all approach if they are to make the field relevant in the millennium.  Change is a constant, how preservationists adapt to change is the challenge.

Today we're going to continue our look at historic preservation in the twenty-first century by looking at people.  Not specific people per say but how preservation can be more meaningful for people.  Without people, there wouldn't be historic preservation.  Buildings don't save and transform themselves, somebody has to call attention that a nineteenth century school house in the State of Montana is deteriorating and needs help.  As I said yesterday, people don't attach meaning to just the bricks and mortar, they attach meaning to the stories and memories that reside in the brick and mortar.  Americas do actually care about the loss of a place they love.  However, many of my fellow citizens do not equate the work preservationists do with the places that hold those beloved memories and provide a sense of continuity.  Many Americans still see the profession only in relation to buildings, not in terms of how what we do gives resonance for the presence and hope for the future.

Winterburg Congregation Japanese Presbyterian Mission
Huntington Beach, California

When American poet Peter Streckfus (http://www.peterstreckfus.com) was asked to consider why old places matters, he responded, "I'm not sure old places matter.  People matter. The question is how do we honor ourselves when we honor old places?"  This is an excellent response because old places are part of who we are as a culture.  Sure, you can demolish a place and build anew but you cannot replaces the significance that building has to the people who made use of that place.  Too often, in the rush to save a place from a date with the wrecking ball, preservationists forget incorporate people into their presentations.  Mr. Brown observes that he has sat through countless presentations that just show the building, occasionally showing how people use the building.  It's like actual users don't exist. However, if preservation is to move forward in the twenty-first century, the focus has to
Interior of the Houston Astrodome
Houston, Texas
include people.

One perfect example was the campaign to save the Houston Astrodome.  The Astrodome, dubbed the "eighth wonder of the world," is still in danger of demolition in order to make way for new development on the site.  Local preservationists, together with the National Trust, mounted a campaign to get a ballot initiative passed that would authorize funds for its rehabilitation.  Astrodome supporters emphasized the role of memory during their drive, inviting Houstonians to share their stories. Although the measure did not pass, preservationists and community members did a great job in placing the emphasis on people not the building.  Thus underscoring the point that it's not about bricks and mortar, it's about the stories and memories.

Vicksburg National Military Park
Vicksburg, Mississippi
David Brown declares, "Once again, those who are pushing our movement forward are considering how preservation would be different if we focused on people."  Here's a thought what if preservation-minded individuals expanded their surveys to include places people love?  When deciding the fate of a place, historic and planning commissions should consider how their decisions will affect the people in their communities.  Mr. Brown asks preservationists to challenge themselves and the movement to think differently and be more amenable to inviting more people into historic sites.  After all, buildings are meant to be used.

This reminds me of the time I went to visit Taliesen West, Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio in Scottsdale, Arizona.  During the tour, my fellow visitors were very careful about not touching any of the furniture.  The tour guide looked around at her charges and told them that the architect and his students would routinely put their feet up on the tables.  That sort relaxed everyone.  The point here is that our historic sites, regardless of where they are, were once places that people actually used.  When they were first opened, historic sites weren't museum pieces, they were places where people came to shop, eat, work, go to school, and so forth.  Taliesen West is a working studio and school, not a museum dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright.

Tennessee Williams house
Columbus, Mississippi
David Brown suggests that if we changed the focus of preservation to people, it would make preservationists more serious about relevance.  It would force the members of the profession to be more rigorous about saving places that people really care about.  Citing urban historian Delores Hayden, "Restoring significant shared meanings for many neglected urban places first involves claiming the entire urban cultural landscape as an important part of American history, not just its architectural monuments."  In the majority of places deemed preservation-worthy, the phrase "period of significance" gets frequently thrown about.  However, at the National Trust, Mr. Brown states, the phrases is being turned upside down and the question becomes, "What if the period of significance is now?"  I would add the question, why should we care about this building or site?

President Lincoln's Cottage
Washington D.C.
One example of the "period of significance is now" is President Lincoln's Cottage.  Listed in 2000 as an Endangered Historic Site, the Cottage was the location where the sixteenth president conceived the Emancipation Proclamation, understanding the period of significance is now serves as a springboard for modern day human trafficking and the sad realization that slavery did not end in 1865.

If people are the center of preservation, we need to take into consideration how our interventions will affect people in the present and future tense.  We are a world of consumers, i.e. we are consuming our resources in an alarming manner.  The National Trust's Preservation Green Lab is making use of peer-reviewed literature to prove how older historic buildings can be used to make our cities and towns more environmentally sustainable.  As more knowledge is accumulated, it will absolutely important for preservationists to understand the science behind it and become advocates at the local, state, federal levels on behalf of older historic buildings. This makes the work relevant, people oriented, and critical to our future.

The Spring House
Frank Lloyd Wright
Tallahassee, Florida
In his great series "Why Old Places Matter," Tom Mayes talked about the work of environmental psychologist.  These individuals are helping preservationists understand that old places provide people with a sense of continuity, necessary for good psychological and emotional health.  Mr. Brown wants preservationist to challenge themselves in their historic sites, regulatory reviews, and sustainability initiatives to put people first.  Most of all, the preservation professionals must challenge themselves to all about people.

At way too many places i.e. historic sites, the districts we choose to designate, and in our writing, the stories presented often forget the people whose lives were intertwined with places, layering histories on top of each other.  At present, preservationists are beginning to take pre-emptive measures and work collaboratively with diverse communities.  This means working with marginalized communities not against them in retaining their social and spatial communal structures.  Preservation is not just about the buildings, it's about many things, chief of which the people.

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