A Re-Defining Moment: The Evolving and Creative Practice of Preservation in 2022

By Katherine Malone-France posted 01-05-2022 15:19


By Katherine Malone-France

On Main Street in New Iberia, Louisiana, there is a restaurant called Preservation. The first time I ate there, I asked the bartender about the reason for the name and he said, “Everything we do here is about the process of preservation.”

He meant, of course, the techniques and cultural traditions of smoking, salting, fermenting, and other ways to preserve food, but that phrase—the process of preservation—has stuck in my mind ever since. In the face of all the challenges and uncertainties of the moment, it seems more important than ever to commit to the idea that preservation is an ongoing and evolving effort that is a means, not an end. 

A menu with the words Preservation and a list of small plates with a cocktail on a black napkin next to it.
The menu of Preservation Bar and Grill in New Iberia, Louisiana | Credit: Katherine Malone France.

Preservation is not a steady state that we are working towards or a moment when everything is finally secured and settled. Far more in keeping with our current moment, preservation is a dynamic effort that is messy, humbling, inspiring, and surprising. It can be both exhausting and exhilarating, sometimes at the same time. Just like those forms of preserving food, the ongoing alchemy of preservation carries forward the essential qualities of a place by fostering new interactions that create different flavors and textures, that create new life, that make new history. 

But none of that can happen if places that tell our full history disappear from our shared landscape. We have to use every tool at our disposal—and develop new ones—to ensure that preservation comes into its own as a force for building a better world.  I’m not looking for 2022 to be a defining moment for the historic preservation movement or for our country; instead, I’m hopeful that it will be re-defining moment for all of us.     

Here are three ways that preservation can serve as a catalyst for positive change that are at the top of my mind as the new year begins, and a few of the inspiring people and places that embody them.  

Preservation Affirms our Shared Narrative

An important part of restoring a building is searching for elements that have been obscured or overlooked, and then uncovering and celebrating them so that the building can be everything it should be. Our shared history as a nation is the same way. There are important stories that have been neglected and ignored.  Without them, we are not as beautiful, as real, and as strong as we can be.  

Thankfully, historic places hold their stories in tangible and compelling ways. In spite of what we might obscure or overlook at times, historic places tell us the truth about ourselves. And how we elevate, protect, interpret, and activate historic places can offer what we desperately need—ways to explore the truths of who we are, collectively and individually, and ways to demonstrate our respect for each other’s strengths, achievements, and legacies.  

Even as we recognize this, we are confronted by the fact that so many places that tell the pluralistic story of our country are threatened. Looking back at the National Trust’s 2021 America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, every site was associated with historically excluded communities—we didn’t set out with this as a goal, but the breadth of what could be lost and how it would diminish us all emerged clearly through the selection process. Places like the Trujillo Adobe, a property in Riverside, California. The Adobe was constructed by Lorenzo Trujillo, who was a Genízaro, one of the many Native Americans who were captured, sometimes held in slavery, sometimes baptized and raised by Spanish colonists. The Adobe is situated on the Old Spanish Trail, a commercial route first established by Native Americans and used as a trading route that ran from Santa Fe to Los Angeles when the area was a part of Spain and, later, the Mexican province of Alta California. 

One adult and two children stand at the front of a modest adobe building.
Historic of Trujillo Adobe | Credit: Spanish Town Heritage Foundation.

The Trujillo Adobe embodies a multiplicity of stories—each of them important, all of them inextricable from each other and from our contemporary world. As Nancy Melendez, a descendant of Lorenzo Trujillo (who remembers visiting her grandmother at the Adobe as a child) said of the Trujillo Adobe this summer, "It is empowering because we’ve been made to feel we don’t belong and we do," said Melendez. "We need to knock down barriers that prevent us from communicating with one another and understanding one another."  

Last year’s 11 Most list also included the Summit Tunnels 6 & 7, located in Truckee, California, which made it possible for the Transcontinental Railroad to extend through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Transcontinental Railroad in our history and it would not have existed if these tunnels had not been excavated, inch by inch, primarily by men who had immigrated from China, working under brutal, dangerous conditions and often being paid less than their white counterparts.

Currently, the National Park Service is preparing a nomination for the tunnels to be designated as a National Historic Landmark, with support from the 1882 Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service.  

As this process moves forward in 2022, I’m hopeful that the discussion will not focus on whether the tunnels are worthy of such recognition because their surfaces are not pristine, or because the people who labored to build them are not famous. The Summit Tunnels are profound achievements of skill and perseverance, where  discrimination and resilience are intertwined, and precisely because of that, they should be given the highest level of honor that we accord to historic places in this country.      

Preservation Advances Justice and Equity

Sixty years after she first walked through its doors, as a six-year-old girl guarded by U.S. Marshals and surrounded by protestors spouting racist epithets, Leona Tate became the owner of the McDonogh 19 Elementary School in New Orleans. Today, the Leona Tate Foundation for Change and its partner Alembic Community Development are well into the process of re-activating the Lower Ninth Ward campus as a place to learn about the history of the Civil Rights movement in New Orleans, develop skills to bring about racial reconciliation and healing, and provide affordable housing for residents aged 55 and up. Named for Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost, who integrated the school together, it will be known as the Tate, Etienne, & Provost (TEP) Interpretive Center  and will serve as “a safe space built on anti-racist principles.”  

In the past two years, state and federal historic tax credits and other incentives have been utilized to realize this vision, along with a grant from the National Park Service and a host of additional partnerships. In 2020, the National Trust was honored to support this project with a grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and, last year, our HOPE Crew program partnered with the New Orleans Technical Education Provider (NOTEP) to engage local young people in its rehabilitation as a part of training in the preservation trades.

Leona Tate has said that she remembers every one of the eighteen steps that she climbed to enter the front door of McDonogh 19 Elementary School in 1960.  She and her foundation and their partners have made another memorable journey to realize their vision for the next chapter in the school’s history, with every step along the way contributing to a more just and equitable world. Certainly, one of the preservation highlights of 2022 will be the opening of the TEP Center and we will all benefit and learn from what happens next there.  

Five years before Leona Tate walked through the door of McDonogh 19, two women in San Francisco took the courageous step of buying a home together in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. Phyllis Lyon (1924-2020) and Del Martin (1921-2008) would spend the next sixty-five years using this home as a safe space for activism and outreach related to LGBTQ discrimination and legal rights, marriage equality, women’s rights, and elder rights. 

On May 21, 2021, San Francisco Mayor London Breed signed an ordinance establishing the landmark status of the Lyon-Martin home, the first property associated with lesbian history to receive landmark status in the western United States. The National Trust advocated for this designation as a part of our Where Women Made History campaign, along with a host of other organizations including the GLBT Historical Society, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, San Francisco Heritage, and the Friends of Lyon-Martin House. Future projects at the Lyon-Martin House include working with partners to conduct oral histories as well as 3D and virtual documentation, and supporting a new use that builds on Lyon and Martin's legacy of LGBTQ activism.

At both the TEP Center and the Lyon-Martin House, preserving places of activism is a form of activism itself, echoing forward in meaningful ways. It is in the process of doing this work—gathering the stories, documenting the fabric, strengthening the structure, finding common ground with partners, and imagining new uses—that we connect with each other, take a stand together, and demonstrate that preserving and rehabilitating historic places can advance justice and equity for individuals and communities.

Preservation is Climate Action

One of most powerful things about preservation is the multitude of interrelated activities that take place under its very large tent—among them advocacy, policy, planning, design, research, stewardship, conservation, interpretation, and economic development.  Similarly, climate change is a complex and interconnected challenge, and preservation—in all its forms—offers a critical set of tools and practices to adapt to present day climate change impacts, advance environmental justice, and mitigate future change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A critically important leader in this work is the Climate Heritage Network (CHN), which has supported diverse, cultural voices at the United Nation’s Climate Conference (COP26) and worked to secure inclusion of culture in the UN’s new Race to Resilience campaign. As Andrew Potts, the founder and coordinator of CHN, wrote recently, “It is increasingly clear that one key to tackling the climate emergency is helping people imagine what a post-carbon, climate resilience future looks like— and how we can get there together. . . .arts, culture and heritage have unrivaled power to do just that.”

Last year, we tested our own assumptions about the forms that climate action would take at our own National Trust Historic Sites with an inaugural round of Climate Action Grants.  We funded projects that demonstrate a variety of ways in which preservation is climate action—promoting biodiversity by protecting and educating visitors about the habitat of the spotted salamander at Chesterwood; re-activating historic climate control features and pairing them with smart technology at Lyndhurst and Wilson House; identifying the location for a new well at Filoli that will reduce their carbon footprint, and provide additional fire protection; and designing of a geothermal climate control system at Brucemore.    

In 2021, we were also pleased to support two innovative projects—one in Boston and one in Santa Fe— that offer more ways in which preservation is climate action. In collaboration with the National Preservation Partners Network and with the support of the Moe Family Fund, The Boston Preservation Alliance’s new C.A.R.E. (Carbon Avoided Retrofit Estimator) web-based platform will provide evidence that building re-use is climate action tailored to individual projects.  And when Cornerstones Community Partnerships completes the installation of solar panels on Santa Fe’s San Miguel Chapel, believed to be the oldest church in the United States, it will offer a model for how clean energy technologies can be adapted to landmark historic structures without compromising their character or designation.

San Miguel Chapel against a blue sky with a small courtyard in the front.
San Miguel Chapel in Sante Fe, New Mexico, is the site of a project by Cornerstones Community Partners to add rooftop solar. The 1610 site is located in the downtown historic district and believed to be the oldest church in the United States.| Credit: Cornerstones Community Partners.

Even as these projects come to fruition in 2022, we need more creative prototypes, sharper arguments, and targeted funding to demonstrate that the fate of our natural and cultural resources is intertwined, that historic places are at the heart of climate justice, and that preservation is climate action.

We were deeply honored when Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland spoke at the opening plenary of the 2021 PastForward conference, and in her remarks she delivered an urgent call to action:

Entire communities and cultures are at risk of being lost to the perils of climate change. The natural resources that have sustained indigenous peoples for centuries in forests, grasslands, rivers, coral reefs, and other natural habitats are being destroyed by extreme weather events and climatic events.  Cultural traditions are being irrevocably altered in the face of climate change.  Communities that have been marginalized throughout history face some of the most devastating impacts.

The time to act is now.

Historic Preservation Is Not About the Past

At the National Trust, we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do internally and externally to harness the ongoing process of preservation as a force for positive change.  But I’m incredibly optimistic about this when I think about all the extraordinary historic places across this country and the incredibly talented and perseverant people engaged in the work of stewarding, activating, and interpreting them.

Throughout 2021, the preservation field has continued to pivot, re-calibrate, and expand in ways that will serve us well in 2022 and beyond. I’m especially inspired by my colleagues across the National Trust because, over the past year, I’ve seen them be nimble and collaborative, humble and visionary, honest and kind—all as they are engaged in the evolving and creative practice of preservation.

About two blocks from the restaurant called Preservation in New Iberia is the Shadows on the Teche, a National Trust Historic Site. There, we are deeply engaged in exploring and sharing the histories of Black and Indigenous people—stories that we’ve failed to fully tell and legacies that we’ve failed to fully honor in the past.  We are grateful and graced to be joined in this process by descendants, scholars, artists, students, and activists.  With support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the coming year will bring the premiere of a community-generated dramatic work entitled The African Shadows. With partners including the Iberia African American Historical Society and the Bayou Teche Museum, and support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, we are also creating new programs to bridge the gaps in local collections and K-12 educational resources on race, slavery and U.S. history while activating the interests of young visitors in preserving historic spaces.        

A group of people sitting on a bridge railing in front of a brick building.
A group of Freedpeople at Grand Cote Plantation on Weeks Island. This was the primary source of the Weeks Family fortune, the owners of Shadows-on-the-Teche, and the location of the majority of the Weeks' enslaved population.

In New Iberia and in places all across the country, what we preserve and—even more importantly—how we preserve can strengthen the fabric of our civil society and advance more just, equitable, and sustainable communities.

My academic training as a preservationist is from the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia, a program that is rooted in (pun intended) an inclusive understanding of cultural landscapes. And cultural landscapes vividly remind us, again and again, that preservation can only ever hope to be a way of managing change. In fact, as counterintuitive as it may seem to some, preserving historic places creates environments for healthy change. By their very nature, historic places demonstrate the resilience required to move forward. In their layered evidence of humanity, they offer connectivity and perspective. And they provide spaces of beauty and meaning in which people can work together to define a new way forward, while still honestly excavating and restoring our shared history.

Historic preservation is not about the past, it is about building a better future together. 

Katherine Malone-France is the chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

Editor's Note: For a look back at resources on Forum from 2021 read
Creating Meaningful Change: A Look Back at 2021.