Originally Posted November 1, 2013
Thank you. I am honored and deeply humbled to receive this award, and to stand where so many truly great preservationists have stood before. It never occurred to me that anything I did would compare to what they did. For 17 years I stood where Stephanie stands tonight and handed out 17 glass eagles. I’m thinking a lot about that right now – whoever said it’s better to give than to receive?
This honor has also caused me to reflect on the work we did together over 17 years, and how it all fits into the long arc of historic preservation in America. It’s been a revealing exercise, and for what they’re worth I’d like to share some brief thoughts with you.
You’ve all heard about the three “Rs” of elementary education – reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Well, I’m going to tell you about what I see as the four – count ‘em, four –“Rs” of preservation from what I’ve learned during my time in the trenches.
The first of course is restoration, which is where preservation began in this country. 150 years ago Ann Pamela Cunningham and her friends restored Mount Vernon after saving it from a developer, and that act came to define historic preservation for the next century. Ever since we’ve been saving and restoring not only presidential homes but iconic structures of all kinds that represent our greatest architecture and our highest values and aspirations as a nation. This will always remain essential work for us.
The second “R” is revitalization. In the middle of the last century some pioneering men and women discovered that communities could be given new life by rehabilitating older but less-than-iconic buildings in neighborhoods and main streets. Sometimes those buildings were given new uses, proving that preservationists could expand their reach by accepting new ideas. This practice of using preservation to revitalize communities has become so widespread that it has effectively redefined much of what our business is all about. Revitalized older neighborhoods are today drawing people, and especially younger people, back to cities all over the country and giving them new vitality. There is no one who personified the vision and innovation behind this phenomenon better than Tony Goldman, my trustee and friend who was given this award three years ago, and who was rightly honored earlier this evening with a new award in his name.
Third is relevance. Until Tony and others demonstrated that revitalization could improve the quality of life in older communities, the audience for preservation was very limited. But for the first time they showed it could be relevant to ordinary people – neighbors and shopkeepers who didn’t think of themselves as preservationists. Demonstrating that preservation had social and economic benefits, particularly through the use of such tools as historic tax credits, helped enormously. The same thing is happening now with sustainability when we demonstrate that energy efficient older buildings will emit less carbon and therefore help fight climate change. The constituency for historic preservation will grow only if we continue to show its relevance to large numbers of people by adapting to the needs of an evolving society.
The final “R” is risk. Almost nothing of importance happens in preservation without some degree of risk – measured, calculated risk, to be sure, but risk nonetheless. It could be financial risk, or risk to reputation or credibility, or simply the risk of failure. As preservationists have known forever, there is almost always risk in whatever we do. By the nature of our work, whether it’s taking on established economic and political interests to save historic places, or challenging conventional thinking as to what’s historic, or leaping into a major long-term fight with a developer or a local government without knowing where the resources will be coming from, we know none of this will be risk free if it’s important. The day we become risk averse is the day we cease being effective preservationists.
So there you have it – 17 years of accumulated wisdom. I have more, but as Mies van der Rohe said, less is more.
Being president of the National Trust was the best job I ever had. I loved nearly every minute of it, but I have a confession to make: I stayed too long -- too long for the good of my health, and probably too long for the Trust’s health as well. But the consequences of staying too long fell most heavily on the person I care most about, my wife Julia. From my first day on the job to the last, she was totally supportive of the work I was doing, but only later did I fully realize the extent of the time I missed with her while I was so engaged in my work, and the toll that engagement took on my health. There are many people to whom I am indebted, but no one comes close to the debt I owe Julia. She deserves this award as much as anyone ever did, and it is to her that I dedicate it, with all my love.
There are many others who I want to thank – the state and local partners who do the real work of preservation on the ground, those who care about our main streets, the advisors, the incredible staff of the National Trust who come to work every day to faithfully and effectively serve its mission, the dedicated volunteers all over the country who care deeply about their communities and work tirelessly in their behalf.
I want to pay special tribute to the trustees of the National Trust with whom I had the privilege of working. They constitute a remarkable group of volunteers who come from all over the country, from different professions and backgrounds, but who all share the belief that we have a profound obligation to preserve the best of our past to enable those places to serve us today and tomorrow. These trustees never failed to help us to consider and then to take those risks I talked about earlier.
I have been particularly blessed in the quality and dedication of my board chairs, and I’m deeply touched that five of them are here this evening – Nancy Campbell, Bill Hart, Jonathan Kemper, Cliff Hudson, and Carolyn Brody. They have given extraordinary service to the National Trust, and I ask them to please stand and accept our thanks.
Thank you all, my friends, for the great honor you do me, but it is in fact you whom I honor for the wonderful work that you do. This award is as much yours as it is mine.
Thank you, and God bless you all.
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