Why Do Old Places Matter? Creativity

By Tom Mayes posted 08-13-2014 16:28


Note: Tom Mayes' popular Why Do Old Places Matter? series is now available as a book Why Old Places Matter. Order the book today.

Editor's Note: Click here for full coverage on the Why Do Old Places Matter? series including the Spring 2015 issue of
Forum Journal.

Tom Mayes, a 2013 Rome Prize winner in Historic Preservation from the American Academy in Rome is back in Washington, D.C., these days. But he hasn't stopped thinking and writing about why old places matter. His series of essays about his experiences and research continues here.

Richard Florida, in his studies and writings on the rise of the creative class, noted that the creative class is drawn to certain types of places, and he’s tried to identify the qualities of places that are attractive to creative people. One of the key ingredients of creative places, according to Florida, is authenticity. Florida says: “Authenticity—and in real buildings, real people, real history—is key. A place that’s full of chain stores, chain restaurants, and chain nightclubs is seen as inauthentic. Not only do those venues look pretty much the same everywhere, but they also offer the same experiences you could have anywhere.”1

Although Florida may have been one of the first to articulate the attraction that creative people have to certain places (which, by the way, he also says is a key measure of the possible success of a city in the future), it’s not a new concept. Many of the people who started the preservation movement in America were artists and writers, such as the people from the Charleston Renaissance who were key to the beginning of the preservation movement in Charleston. We find this overlap throughout the country. And artists’ colonies are often historic places that become tourist attractions, like Carmel, Provincetown, Ogunquit, Greenwich Village and increasingly, to many people’s surprise, Brooklyn and Detroit. All were places that creative people were drawn to because they were distinctive and interesting (and at one time cheap) —and because other creative people were there.

Daniel Chester French Studio
The studio of Daniel Chester French in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the sculptor of the Seated Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, continues as a place of creativity as a National Trust Historic site | Michael Lavin Flower

These places of creativity draw other people who want to connect to the power of creativity. Just as people once travelled on pilgrimages to visit the relics of saints, they now go to visit the places where creative people worked, dreamt and struggled. The National Trust operates a network of Artists Homes and Studios to help these sites strengthen their programs and operations. From Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, Donald Judd’s loft building in Manhattan, Jackson Pollock’s house on Long Island, to William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, these places attract people who want to connect with the creative power of art and artists.

I was delighted recently to connect, through Facebook (and my network of friends from Chapel Hill), with the musician Ben Folds, who is trying to save the historic RCA Studio A in Nashville. Ben and a host of other artists, including Dolly Parton and even Elvis himself, recorded in the studio, producing hit after hit. Ben has an ear not only for music, but also for how to talk about why this old place matters to him as a songwriter and musician. Here’s what he has to say about Studio A: “...take a moment to stand in silence between the grand walls of RCA Studio A and feel the history and the echoes of the Nashville that changed the world. …listen first hand to the stories from those among us who made the countless hit records in this studio—the artists, musicians, engineers, producers, writers who built this rich music legacy note by note, brick by brick.”2

Ben’s words capture the essence of why certain places matter to creative people—the distinctive characteristics of the space itself—in this case the acoustics—and the more intangible sense that comes from the legacy of all the people—Dolly and Elvis and others—who have created music in the space. Although Ben has to leave RCA Studio A because the new landlord has jacked up the rent, he’s continuing his efforts to save the place—take a look at him talking about the place on MSNBC, and why this place of creativity is so important to him.

RCA Studio, Nashville, Tennessee
RCA Studio A, in Nashville, Tennessee, was saved through the efforts of the musician Ben Folds and philanthropist Aubrey Preston so that the studio can continue to be a place for creating music | Rick Smith

At the American Academy, I was privileged to interview the novelist Peter Bognanni, who talked about what a difference one particular old place meant to him in his journey to become a novelist. Peter studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, which has produced famous writers for decades. Peter shared with me the way the Dey House, the old Victorian where the writers meet, seemed to create an environment that gave him permission to write—that the writers who had been there before seemed to imbue the place with the possibility that he too could write, that it was possible for him. The legacy of a place dedicated to writing and talking about writing, and the ongoing use of the place by writers, nurtured his sense that he too could do it.

There are many reasons that old places foster creativity—this is just a taste—but as you listen to Ben’s music, and read Peter’s books, consider the fact that their creativity was nurtured by old places—and think of the places that inspire you to create.


1. Florida, Richard. “What Draws Creative People? Quality of Place,” UrbanLand, October 11, 2012.
2.  Folds, Ben. Open Letter, June 24, 2014, republished in Sarah Skates, “Ben Folds’ Open Letter: RCA Studio A To Be Sold,” Music Row, June 24, 2014.

Tom Mayes is the deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2013 Mayes was awarded the Rome Prize in Historic Preservation from the American Academy in Rome.

#HistoricSites #whypreserve #NationalTreasure​​