Raising the Bar on Preservation

By Anthony Veerkamp posted 12-17-2013 09:56


I’ve been on a quest recently. I want to find exactly what it is that ties the many complicated aspects of our heritage to our equally complex motivations to protect it. Rather conveniently, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer may lurk in the corner tavern.

 Gold Dust Lounge | Credit: Gideon Wright via Creative Commons on Flickr
 Gold Dust Lounge | Credit: Gideon Wright via Creative Commons on Flickr

Historic bars and restaurants aren’t just places to eat and drink—they are containers for memory. In fact, they have a unique capacity to magnify memory. We all know that smell is a powerful trigger for both memory and emotion. A huge part of the experience of a pub or restaurant is the smell and sound of the place. A colleague tells me that the smell of freshly popped popcorn transports her directly to the now long-gone lunch counter at the Woolworths in Fredericksburg, Va.

Combine those senses with the fact that taverns and restaurants are the venues of so many important moments in our lives, and you start to understand why people respond so emotionally when these gathering places are threatened. In my hometown of San Francisco, threats to the Tonga Room and the Gold Dust Lounge had preservation-minded bar patrons (or was it bar-minded preservationists?) ready to man the barricades, but it was an ill-conceived proposal earlier this year to sell the Pied Piper Bar and Grill’s namesake Maxfield Parrish painting that really got our collective knickers in a twist.  If all preservation controversies were resolved as quickly as Pied Pipergate we’d all have a lot more time to go out for drinks.

Despite the passions that our favorite drinking and eating places inflame, these places remain at the periphery of the modern preservation agenda. Historic bars and restaurants (along with other historic places of commerce) are important both as tangible places, but just as significantly, for the intangible activities they house. We preservationists—and especially we American preservationists—are fundamentally materialists; while we have no problem with the physical piece, we struggle a bit with resources that embody both tangible and intangible heritage. As a result, the historic significance of these places often goes unrecognized, creating a false impression that we don’t value the corner bar as legitimate heritage.

You’ll often hear that “you can’t designate use,” as if that means we have no other tools at our disposal to protect heritage businesses. Preservationists need to get more creative and consider a wider range of regulatory and nonregulatory approaches. A great place to start is by patronizing these places—consider buying a round of drinks to be your civic duty.

Pubs, Cafes, & Coffee Houses

 Tsonga Room | Credit: Neekoh.fi via Creative Commons on Flickr
Tonga Room | Credit: Neekoh.fi via Creative Commons on Flickr

Other cultures are finding creative ways to embrace intangible culture as part and parcel of preservation. Take London, for example, where students at Kingston University are working on a nomination to designate London’s pubs to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. According to the leader of the effort, “We’re not focusing on the fixtures and fittings but rather on the role a pub plays in a community and what it means to the people who use it. People normally expect protection to apply to Stonehenge, the city of Bath or the pyramids, but it also applies to the cultural character of a place.”

In Paris, heritage businesses are protected according to the French national law on cultural heritage, which allows for the designation and protection of iconic cultural property as Historical Monuments. In the cases of heritage businesses, in addition to the physical property, the business itself can be designated when it is considered “a traditional living element that is part of the cultural heritage and way of life in the city.”

Barcelona has a program called “Guapos per Sempre” or “Forever Beautiful" that recognizes more than 100 places of commerce over a century old that “distinguish the city and make it what it is.”  Recognizing the threats posed to these businesses by skyrocketing retail rents, the City Council recently introduced legislation that would create a new intangible historic resource category, allowing for the development of policies to protect businesses and shops as "a guarantee to prevent degradation, de-humanization and banalization of urban space."

 Logo for Bares Notables | Credit: www.54bares.com.ar/
 Logo for Bares Notables | Credit: www.54bares.com.ar/

Buenos Aires is a city where café culture is so strong that making a “C” shape with your thumb and index finger is universally recognized as “un café, por favor.” Given the importance of bars and cafes in the life of the city, it’s little surprise that the city has a formal program focusing on what are called “Bares Notables,” or notable bars. Passed in 1998, Law 35 created the “Commission on Protection and Promotion of Notable Cafes, Bars, Billiard Halls, and Pastry Shops of the City of Buenos Aires.” The law recognizes businesses “whose setting or activities have cultural significance due to their architectural design or their relation to significant cultural events or local history.”

Legacy Bars and Restaurants

Closer to home (well, in my case, at home) one organization that has gotten very creative is San Francisco Heritage, which has launched what it calls the Legacy Bars and Restaurants initiative, an honorific program that celebrates and promotes the city’s historic venues for eating, drinking, music, and dancing. In developing the Legacy initiative, Heritage has recognized that while it’s essential to hang on to regulatory tools (and we have some good ones in California), it’s equally important to take the additional step of educating and inspiring San Franciscans and our visitors about our shared heritage.

 SF Heritage Legacy Bars and Restaurants | Credit:  SF Heritage
 SF Heritage Legacy Bars and Restaurants | Credit: SF Heritage

San Francisco Heritage’s program is noteworthy for two reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it’s an important step to protecting these cherished businesses that contribute so much to the cultural, social, and economic life of the city. But just as significantly, it presents San Francisco Heritage with a unique portal through which to lure the public—and especially impressionable youth—into the world of preservation. If we want to attract new audiences, what better way to reach them than in the places they congregate?  Everyone is more susceptible to a sales pitch if they already have a drink in hand, and with the drink of choice for so many these days being a Sazerac, Sidecar, or Old-fashioned, half of our work is already done.

The goal, of course, is to translate those attachments into something more tangible—to monetize those feelings, as the marketers insist on saying. But ultimately, if we can influence how and where people spend their dollars, we have the opportunity to achieve far greater success than could be achieved through regulatory tools alone. Emboldened by the immediate success of its Legacy initiative, San Francisco Heritage is thinking about benefits both to the member businesses as well as to its own bottom line. Whether the Legacy initiative leads to new government regulations or incentives like those overseas is an open question, but it’s not the question. The question is, “What are you having?”

More from Anthony Veerkamp in his post If Nostalgia Is Wrong I Don’t Want to Be Right.

Anthony Veerkamp is a field director in the San Francisco Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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