Building the public trust: Preservation’s middle age?

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Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1981. Photo credit: Wikipedia

When Madeline Cirrillo Archer published “Where We Stand: Preservation Issues in the 1990s,” she sought to assess the challenges facing a movement that was a quarter-century old. In 1991, historic preservation was soon to be an interest of mine. Now, as the Director for Programs and Publications at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, revisiting this article and the period it chronicled has been an opportunity for me to see if the principles and thinking that drew me to the field and were the basis of my introduction to historic preservation still held true. Would the ideas and ideals still resonate with me (and others) today, 25 years later? How does preservation’s maturity compare to its “young adulthood?” Where do we, in fact, stand as compared to Archer’s predictions?

Archer highlights several key issues she perceives to be the big challenges for the field, including paying for preservation, establishing historic districts, ecclesiastical and nonprofit exemptions, gentrification, relationships with government, holistic preservation, and identifying what should be saved. Surprisingly, this could very well be a list of concerns for the movement in 2015. Granted, some of the major focuses of the field today, including sharing the history of under-represented communities, the impact of new technologies, and confronting the looming threat of climate change, were not on the forefront of minds in 1991, but, for the most part, Archer’s concerns remain.

I’ve been in meetings within the past year where questions nearly identical to Archer’s are being discussed. We still seek innovative ways for funding historic preservation and bemoan the shortcomings of existing policies, such as the federal historic rehabilitation tax credit. Questions of whether the criteria for National Register listing and the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation (now nearly 50 years old) should be revisited are still debated. And there is ongoing discussion (and some movement) about restructuring the National Park Service so that historic preservation and cultural resource programs are more fairly and adequately served. Clearly, the author was spot-on in identifying the challenges in the coming 25 years.

While this raises its own set of questions–Why hasn’t more progress been made? Did we get sidetracked with other threats or priorities? Did our attempts result in unsuccessful implementation? Were these issues too overwhelming and complex to overcome in 25 years?–perhaps the most important is: what can we learn from this?

Penn Station by Berenice Abbott, 1935-1938. The original Penn Station, pictured here, was torn down in 1963. courtesy: Repository: The New York Public Library. Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.

Penn Station by Berenice Abbott, 1935-1938. The original Penn Station, pictured here, was torn down in 1963. Photo credit: The New York Public Library. Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

At the time Archer’s article was published, the movement was very much in its “young adulthood” and, as such, was experiencing growing pains. Mature enough to have already learned from the mistakes of its infancy (such as the loss of Penn Station and countless battles over urban renewal) but still forming its identity, priorities, and direction, preservation at the time was faced with new challenges, such as ongoing criticism of gentrification, the proliferation of sprawl and “big box” retail, and questions of what and how to preserve . We’ve learned from these challenges, and today preservation stands more comfortably in its middle age. However, the movement needs to solidify certain priorities and directions that Archer identifies as crucial. Critically, it needs to engage a broader base of supporters.

As a field, we find difficulty in communicating the value of historic preservation for preservation’s sake. We have perfected justifying preservation in terms of jobs created and economic benefits, but as Archer observed in 1991, “While [these] economic defenses have been useful, the movement as a whole has been negligent in allowing money to dominate public discussions of preservation’s value. There is real need for preservationists to identify, articulate, and communicate preservation’s value in historic and cultural terms.”

This idea was not a new one (even in 1991), and one of the most striking revelations in Archer’s article was the identification of this ongoing issue during the “teenage years” of historic preservation–including recommendations from the 1979 National Preservation Conference in Williamsburg, which promoted the relationship of preservation to other quality of life issues, and a 1978 HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development) publication, A Future From the Past, which states, “Building conservation is of more than just practical importance. It is essential to the health and humanity of a community environment. Just as is common during times of war, massive destruction of a community’s physical fabric as a part of a plan for redevelopment can remove much of what provides a stabilizing influence on people’s lives . . . . That which they had identified as being their world ceases to be a part of them . . . . [Preservation] gives strength and permanence to its local community.”

This Place Matters campaign in Baltimore. Courtesy, Baltimore Heritage.

This Place Matters campaign in Baltimore. Photo credit: Baltimore Heritage

We are just now beginning to make progress on articulating the softer side of preservation, and the research of my colleague at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Tom Mayes, is at the forefront of this discussion. Tom, a fellow in historic preservation at the American Academy in Rome in 2014, has spent the past year investigating why old places matter (see his blog, Why Do Old Places Matter?). His research focuses on environmental psychology, emotional aspects, and aesthetic factors that challenge the field to rethink the way we message the importance of historic preservation and why people should care about it. This gets to the heart of what Archer states “could well be the most essential job of preservationists”–communicating the symbolic function of historic preservation to the public.

Even without this research, preservationists in the second 25 years of the movement had begun marketing what Archer calls a “humanistic preservation ethic.” Simple but profound messaging that appeals to the broader public can be seen in engagement tactics such as endangered places lists, This Place Matters campaigns, ‘save me’ messages on threatened buildings, and “heart bombing” places to show why old places matter. In addition, the movement has reached out to more diverse audiences and has tackled difficult subjects.  These include the preservation of controversial or unpleasant pasts, such as the Manhattan Project, Japanese American internment camps, and slave dwellings.

These developments demonstrate that we have made strides in tackling what Archer describes as perhaps the greatest challenge facing preservation–the advancing of its status as a broad-based popular movement while it changes its theoretical framework. With the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act upon us, national organizations and federal agencies are taking the opportunity to reflect on how the movement has developed and what we still need to accomplish. Summits are already being planned to engage not just preservation professionals but allied fields on how to make preservation more relevant to a broader audience. Archer’s observations could and should be used as a resourceful tool to aid in these discussions.

“Where We Stand” concludes with a final thought that leaders should consider as we move beyond the movement’s middle age: “The public must see and understand the logic behind the policy and strategy, especially as preservation broadens its traditional definitions. With public support that is widespread, clear and vocal, the preservation movement will come of age in the next century.”

~ Rhonda Sincavage is the Director of Publications and Programs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, DC.

  1. Brendan says:

    great article!

  2. Kaitlin says:

    I love this article. But, the link for Archer’s piece is broken. Can you provide a functioning link? I’d love to read that, too. Thanks!

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