This post is adapted from remarks at the February 23, 2019, National Trust for Historic Preservation Board of Trustees meeting. Board chairman Timothy Whalen invited me to speak at my last board meeting after more than two decades with the National Trust.
Over the past 22 years, I made it a practice to regularly reflect on both the legacy and the promise of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We were founded by Congressional Charter after America’s leaders had seen the destruction that war could inflict not only on people but also on a nation’s culture and heritage. Our founding chairman, David Finley, was one of the famous Monuments Men who risked their lives to save the cultural patrimony of Europe during World War II. Bill Murtagh, an early predecessor of mine in senior management, went on to a distinguished career in preservation as the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, establishing the tool to tell America’s story. Clearly, we stand on the shoulders of giants.
The National Trust led the successful fight to save the West Front of the U.S. Capitol from an expansion proposal that would have desecrated one of the sacred spaces of our democracy. Great names and families from American History—Rockefeller, Gould, Woodrow Wilson—have entrusted this organization with their property and their stories. But others—who didn’t have access to wealth and power—have also turned to the National Trust to tell their stories and protect the places that matter to them.
The places we choose to preserve tell us who we are as a people and as a nation. Every one of us has personal stories that help define us, and often those stories are rooted in place.
The Franklin Theatre and the Future of Preservation
My grandmother believed that idle hands were the devil’s workshop, and I’ll never forget the times she told me, “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental!” My father, having heard those same words, got his first job when he was still a teenager. Franklin, Tennessee—my parents’ hometown—has a lively Main Street, and that is where he went to work—selling tickets, making popcorn, and serving as the back‐up projectionist at the Franklin Theatre. I’ve heard stories of that theater all my life. My parents went there on dates. And I saw films there in the 1960s, though the area was slowly deteriorating with the arrival of the malls.
Fortunately, a dedicated group of people loved downtown Franklin and led a Main Street comeback. This Great American Main Street award–winning community is now a cultural and economic engine in Middle Tennessee, and my father’s beloved Franklin Theatre is part of that renaissance. New music stars and current films play in the same space where his generation went to dream about a brighter future during the darkest days of the Depression.
Before he passed away two years ago, my father was able to attend the re‐lighting of the marquee and to see the restored theater. We “bought a seat” in his honor, so that Tom Brown’s name—a name from the theater’s past—would be connected to its future.
Individual and collective memories, connecting over a continuum of time to create community and national identity, are at the heart of why we save old places—why old places matter.
As I look to the future of preservation, two key points from my family’s story stand out to me. First, relevance is more important than ever. The Franklin Theatre remains a place where entertainment, music, and stories bind us together in the 21st century, just as it was during the Great Depression and WWII.
Second, for a movement that many assume is resistant to change, the way we save places keeps changing—and that’s a good thing. The Main Street program began as a push against both modern mall development and traditional preservation practice. Main Street buildings like the Franklin Theatre weren’t the crown jewels of American architecture—but they were places that mattered to local communities for reasons that went well beyond their architectural style.
The National Trust conceived and nurtured the Main Street movement and supported the adaptive reuse of buildings for changing needs. We initially pushed for Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits and then, just last year, led the charge to save those credits. So much of what led to the renaissance of downtown Franklin came from the work of the Trust. We are well positioned to lead future change, but we must understand how and why change is important. Saving the past has a past—and that history is worth knowing as we look to the future.
A Look at Relevance
Former New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp said that “the essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory.”
The A. G. Gaston Motel was described in 1955 as the “most lavish Negro owned hotel in the nation,” but this Birmingham, Alabama, landmark was abandoned and decaying just five decades later. Built by the state’s first African American millionaire, it became the epicenter for those campaigning to break the back of segregation in 1963. The infamous bombing and murder of four young black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church occurred one block away.
Well-coordinated National Trust advocacy, public affairs, and legal efforts led the city to donate a portion of the motel to the Trust in 2016. We immediately transferred it to the National Park Service, which enabled President Barack Obama to create the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
This is clearly a place of memory and relevance.
Over my time in the field, I’ve seen that when many people think about historic preservation, they think only of “great architecture” or places “preserved in amber.” Unfortunately, they often don’t connect the work of saving places with helping people express meaning for the present and hope for the future. Why is that? Well, we haven’t always connected places to the lives of real people. Perhaps our tools, like the National Register, push us to see our cultural heritage as something rare and unique to be carefully preserved, as opposed to something ubiquitous, ordinary, and everyday to be celebrated.
In preservation, we reference the “period of significance” that is always somewhere in the past. I’ve pushed our staff to answer the question, “What if the period of significance is now?” Why is the A.G. Gaston Motel significant in 2019? President Lincoln’s Cottage? The President Woodrow Wilson House? Why is the National Trust’s headquarters, the Watergate Building, relevant to people today? These questions give our work new relevance.
The benefits of preservation extend across many areas that we would identify as relevant today—environmental sustainability, economic growth, health, and more. But to be relevant, historic preservationists need to get comfortable with the emotional ways most people see their past. Once we can understand how most people perceive and value older places, we can then make our case through their lens, not ours.
Continuing to Change the Way We Save Our Past
Fortunately, we’ve proven ourselves good at change. Forty years ago, preservation was an outsider movement with citizens working against the grain of normal policies, plans, and development practice. Many preservation tools were created as exceptions and Band-Aids, designed to give older buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods a chance to survive in an otherwise hostile environment. Tens of thousands of citizens across the country rose up to fight the nature and pace of change in their neighborhoods. This instinct to shape the communities we want, instead of accepting what others conceive for us, remains.
Here’s a powerful example: The residents around Memphis, Tennessee’s Crosstown Concourse (winner of a 2018 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award) recently came together to push for new zoning to preserve their neighborhood’s historic fabric. “Suddenly, the impossible has happened,” one resident said. “So let’s figure out what’s next.” What had seemed impossible? Taking a decaying 1920s former Sears distribution facility three football fields in length—filled with rats, standing water, and wild dogs—and turning it into a thriving, urban vertical village. One of the largest LEED-certified rehabs ever completed, the Crosstown Concourse is almost fully occupied with hundreds of residents, an arts auditorium, a school, a YMCA, restaurants, and health-care providers. The National Trust Community Investment Corporation was a New Markets Tax Credits investor in this project. This is what preservation can do when the right tools are in place.
But while America’s cities are now magnets for the young, the challenge for the next 50 years is taking the values and proven benefits of preservation to scale while adapting our tools for today’s environment and issues. In contrast to the amazing success story of the Crosstown Concourse, let me tell you about how America’s only World Heritage City and the birthplace of our constitution—a city rich with architectural landmarks, walkable neighborhoods, and diverse ethnic communities—is currently facing a preservation crisis.
In Philadelphia, demolition rates are climbing while the percentage of buildings protected through landmark designation is far lower than the national average. City leaders turned to the National Trust for help; working with the Mayor’s Task Force, we evaluated Philadelphia’s preservation programs, gathered national best practices, and provided data-driven research. The 2018 Task Force Report is a blueprint for preservation practice in a new urban era—one we look forward to sharing with other cities nationwide. Recommendations for advancing the future of preservation in cities include:
- We are far behind in the use of technology, and we must leverage open data and geographic information system (GIS) technology to move beyond survey exclusively focused on architectural attributes and completed by preservation professionals. Let’s find out what people value in their communities and then engage with them in accessible and compelling ways to save it.
- We should reconsider our one-size-fits-all classification tools. We need a variety of methods and tools to effectively encourage the preservation of a diversity of buildings.
- In a country where more than half of the structures in many communities were built before WWII, but only an average of 5 percent are protected through traditional preservation tools, we need to consider alternatives to historic district zoning. Conservation and sustainability districts are not “preservation lite”—they are preservation for the future.
- The change from working against to working with marginalized communities in retaining their community structures—both social and spatial—is among the central challenges for preservation today.
- Finally, we need to conceptualize cultural and environmental conservation as the same thing, but along a continuum. Our ReUrbanism principles note that historic preservation is an environmentally conscious activity, but our work should also be about the conservation of landscapes, including their living components and ecological systems. That puts preservation in the mix of the efforts to address the impacts of climate change.
Pushing the Envelope for Change
Over my two decades here, the National Trust—together with a variety of partners—has saved some of the country’s most important places, connecting past to present to future. The Trust also has a record of pushing the envelope for change.
With a long history of fighting development that threatens historic properties, why would we partner with a shopping center developer to radically re-imagine a shuttered historic site? Because saving Cooper-Molera Adobe—a National Trust Historic Site that has been a locus of community and commerce in Monterey for longer than California has been a part of the United States—required new perspectives.
Today, a sign on the entrance advises visitors that “this is not your usual house museum.” At Cooper-Molera, they choose their own path through bilingual exhibits that mix historic collections with contemporary art. It is truly an astounding transformation, and—just as it did five decades ago at Drayton Hall—our work at Cooper Molera gives other historic sites permission to try new approaches. The National Trust has been at the forefront of the effort to transform preservation through the years. Belief in, and support for, staff who are eager to test new models is necessary to stay there.
My colleagues and I have worked to share and celebrate stories from our nation’s past that opened new understandings of its history and of why we are who we are today. Together we have made the National Trust a leader in the fight to ensure that old places are part of our individual and collective memories, connecting over a continuum of time to create community and national identity. Together we have shown that there is a future for our past.
I look forward to what’s next. Thank you.
David J. Brown is the executive vice president and chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He extends his appreciation for the work and writings of National Trust colleagues Tom Mayes, acting chief legal officer and general counsel, and James Lindberg, vice president of the Research and Policy Lab—as well as Jeremy C. Wells, Ph.D., assistant professor in the historic preservation program at the University of Maryland and chair of the Environmental Design Research Association.