Preservation in the 21st Century: Change Is the Constant

By David Brown posted 07-01-2014 15:15

The preservation movement’s most important piece of legislation—the National Historic Preservation Act —will mark its 50th anniversary in 2016. That same year, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Parks—often called America’s best idea. Chief Preservation Officer David Brown has been considering what it takes for organizations and movements to not only survive but thrive past 50 or 100 years of age. In this series of three blog posts (one a week for the next three weeks), he looks at the future of the preservation movement and how we adapt to change, remain relevant, and win new supporters for our work.

Read Post 2: Preservation in the 21st Century: Preservation Is About People
Read Post 3: Preservation in the 21st Century: Preservation is a Political Movement

Contrary to popular perception, change is constant and important to our work as preservationists. Buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods all change. Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic, says,
“[p]erhaps the most important thing to say about preservation when it is really working as it should is that it uses the past not to make us nostalgic, but to make us feel that we live in a better present, a present that has a broad reach and a great, sweeping arc, and that is not narrowly defined, but broadly defined by its connections to other eras, and its ability to embrace them in a larger, cumulative whole. Successful preservation makes time a continuum, not a series of disjointed, disconnected eras.”
Bernice Radle presenting at TedxBuffalo in 2013. | Courtesy of Bernice Radle
 Bernice Radle presenting at TedxBuffalo in 2013. | Courtesy of Bernice Radle

Continuity and change: We have to embrace both to do our work in the 21st century.

Thankfully, preservation has proven to be highly adaptable. The National Trust and many of our partners own sites that represent our movement’s initial focus on great architecture and museums. But that focus has changed over time. In a New York Times story last November, two 27-year-old Buffalo residents were lauded for their preservation skills as microdevelopers, “rehabbing derelict properties to rent (or sell)…in an attempt to save houses from demolition….” One of them, Bernice Radle, gave a TED talk, holding up a heart-shaped poster that read “Preservation is Sexy” while explaining the “preservation as social activism” manifesto that drives her and her peers.

Preservation as social activism. In the 21st century, preservation is definitely not a one-size-fits-all propositionnot with Main Street revitalization, heritage tourism, social justice, the use of urban landscapes as public history, a growing back-to-the-city movement, historic site reinvention, and the focus on economic and environmental sustainability all part of our work.

This broadening of preservation has led to a change in our tools. Smart preservationists today are often moving beyond a singular reliance on regulation, knowing we cannot focus on saving every piece of material from our historic buildings, as if that is what makes them important.

Herbert Muschamp, former architecture critic for The New York Times, said,

“A building does not have to be an important work of architecture to become a first-rate landmark. Landmarks are not created by architects. They are fashioned by those who encounter them after they are built. The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory.”
Places change as they are imbued with meaning, memory and stories. Looking at landmarks only through an architectural historian’s lensand not other character-defining aspects of place and without empirical understanding of what they contribute to city lifeseverely limits our understanding of what makes our older and historic buildings special. Daniel Solomon, writing in Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities), notes what the sustainable city must sustain…
“…is the culture of the city: the way people cook in New Orleans, the way they dress in Milan, dance in Havana, speak in London, wise-crack in New York, look cool in Tokyo.”
Group of bikers during the Seattle Capitol Hill Ecodistrict tour | Credit: Josh Okrent , Capitol Hill Housing
Group of bikers during the Capitol Hill Ecodistrict tour in Seattle. | Credit: Josh Okrent, Capitol Hill Housing
Intent on achieving the larger goal of creating and maintaining livable, sustainable communities for all our citizens, we need to boldly embrace change. Preservationists have done this for years, through adaptive use projects that provide new life for buildings in ways that couldn’t have been conceived of during their original design or construction. But we also need to embrace change in the tools we use as preservationists. We need to understand the Secretary’s Standards as the guidelines they were meant to be instead of treating them as a bible that applies equally to all matter of tax credit projects and hundreds if not thousands of historic district zoning ordinances.

Preservationists are realizing that local situations call for different tools. The National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab helped the City of Seattle pass the nation’s first outcome-based energy code, which provides developers a cost-effective path to achieving energy-saving results instead of a checklist of prescriptive actions. That code aligns with the inherent energy-saving qualities of older buildings.

Arcadia Farms at Woodlawn Plantation | Credit: Jason Clement/National Trust for Historic Preservation
 Arcadia Farms at Woodlawn Plantation | Credit: Jason Clement/National Trust for Historic Preservation
The National Trust, among others, is leading efforts to move beyond the idea that a house museum is the optimal outcome for a historic building or site. In an expanding partnership with a farm-to-table nonprofit organization named Arcadia, the National Trust is looking beyond the house museum at a new use for our historic site Woodlawn. We are opening the doors to broader public participation and setting up a 21st-century use that relates directly to the site’s 19th-century roots as a place for experimental agriculture. Sometimes embracing change entails going back to the future.

National Trust President Stephanie Meeks has suggested that we “Stop debating whether house museums are a flawed model, and instead channel that energy into the original impulse: the desire to preserve the houses where our history was made. To preserve these propertiesto sustain their place in history and advance their meaningwe need to think anew, and act accordingly.”

We have the opportunity to make preservation relevant in shaping the future of our ever-changing communities. If preservationists embrace change, we may find ourselves in the same situation as those who follow Mark Twain’s advice about always telling the truth: “It will amaze your friends and confound your enemies.”

Do you have examples of changes that you believe will help us move forward as a movement? I’d like to hear from you.


#Sustainability #Education #Woodlawn #NationalTreasure #whypreserve

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