The core mission of preservation is to save the material culture of our past and interpret history. But how do the evaluation processes we use align with what the communities we work in value? What if there is no “material” to preserve? Whose history do we interpret, and who gets to say? To truly connect with the communities we hope to serve, we must use more inclusive, holistic approaches in our evaluation processes.
Nominating Tillie’s Corner
Like many African Americans, Lillie Pearson left the rural South in search of opportunity during the Great Migration. In 1948 she purchased a grocery store in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood of St. Louis for $246. Mrs. Pearson went on to buy two more 19th-century row houses—with 20th-century storefronts—in the same corner lot. Together, these would come to be known as Tillie’s Corner. Tillie’s Corner Food Shop not only supported Mrs. Pearson’s family after the death of her husband but also became a fixture in her community. Until it closed in 1988, the shop allowed Mrs. Pearson to provide employment and housing; distribute food for disadvantaged neighbors; and perhaps, most importantly, create a community gathering place.
After Mrs. Pearson’s death in 2006, her granddaughter, Carla Alexander, began efforts to restore Tillie’s Corner, which had fallen victim to the urban blight of the surrounding neighborhood. She did not want her grandmother’s legacy to be forgotten, but was initially unable to secure funding. Thinking that historic preservation tax credits might be the key, Carla Alexander—along with her husband Miguel Alexander—sought to have Tillie’s Corner listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They enlisted the help of historic preservation consultant Karen Bode Baxter, who wrote the nomination, and Dr. Sonia Lee of Washington University in St. Louis, whose students helped research and document the site.
The Alexanders nominated Tillie’s Corner—a small, African American woman–owned business—as locally significant under Criterion A for its association with the “Ethnic Heritage: Black” and “Commerce” areas of significance. Although it was established in 1949, the property’s periods of significance were tied to the neighborhood’s rise as an African American community in the 1950s. And Tillie’s Corner remained the focus of community cohesion and activism from the 1960s through the urban blight and decline of the neighborhood in the 1980s, thus meeting the “50-year rule” exception laid out in Criteria Consideration G.
The nomination had been presented to the Missouri state review board for National Register consideration and was awaiting approval when a windstorm hit in August 2012, partially collapsing the southernmost building in Tillie’s Corner—a building that shared a wall with Tillie’s Food Shop. In December of that year, the National Park Service decision regarding the National Register was pending when another storm hit. This time, Tillie’s Food Shop itself collapsed, destabilizing the remaining north building where the Alexanders lived. It, too, collapsed and was subsequently condemned by the city.
A Place of Memory
Tillie’s Corner had lost its integrity. The buildings were now a pile of rubble, which affected the property’s historic significance and changed its determination of eligibility. Could a pile of rubble still have historic significance? Perhaps—based on its present-day cultural significance to the community. It was never about the rubble itself—it was about the site, what had been there, and what the property had meant to the community. According to National Register policy, a site—even in a ruined state—can possess historic, cultural, or archaeological value. Safety and aesthetic issues aside, the community ascribed Tillie’s Corner value because it is a site of place memory.
With the buildings lost, the efforts to preserve Lillie Pearson’s legacy might have been lost as well. However, the Alexanders created the Tillie’s Corner Historical Project, a nonprofit historic preservation and community advocacy group. Like Tillie’s Food Shop, the project creates community cohesion, enabling residents to learn about the history and buildings in their neighborhood. Betsy Bradley, former director of the Cultural Resource Office of the city of St. Louis explains:
Carla was interested in her grandmother’s story initially, but it [became] about … the larger story. She is using the historic idea of her grandmother’s store in a tangible [and] intangible way to build community. It is not an official approach to preservation, but one that is a breath of fresh air. They are following in the footsteps of Mrs. Pearson, working in the community to make it better. … That is the heritage that she is continuing: more of a heritage cultural practice and wanting to know more about history and how it affects those in the present, not just to preserve buildings.
The Alexanders have relied on the relationships they had cultivated during the nomination process. E.M. Harris Construction, a local construction company that had been consulting on the original structures, donated the building of a new structure on the lot. The new building, called the Butterfly House, contains their home, their office, and a memorial telling the story of Tillie’s Corner. The Alexanders have also added a community garden to the property and have plans for an educational expansion. It is considered an active, memorializing site. “It is not just about Tillie’s Corner,” Carla Alexander said. “It is about … building and advocating for the whole community.”
The city of St. Louis declared the site a local landmark in recognition and commemoration of its history and in honor of Mrs. Pearson’s contributions to the community. As the current structures—the Butterfly House and a 1953 garage addition—are non-contributing, the resource is the site itself.
If evaluated under the eligibility requirements of National Register Bulletin 38, would Tillie’s Corner qualify as a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP)? When the city landmarked it, Tillie’s Corner was recognized as a place—a site. The National Register defines a site as the “location of a significant event, a prehistoric or historic occupation or activity, or a building or structure, whether standing, ruined or vanished, where the location itself possesses historic, cultural, or archeological value regardless of the value of any existing structure.” Tillie’s Corner is a site that has meaning and value to its traditional, living community. By continuing the traditions and legacy of Mrs. Pearson, the site continues community cultural tradition and heritage practices. Community knowledge-holders provided oral history interviews to ascertain its significance.
Under Step One of the evaluation process in Bulletin 38, Tillie’s Corner can be understood as a site—similar to an archaeological site under Criterion D, but from a cultural perspective. The second step involves ascertaining the site’s integrity as a place of community gathering and activism. And the third step is ensuring that the site meets one of the National Register criteria. While Tillie’s Corner was originally nominated under Criterion A for “Ethnic Heritage: Black” and “Commerce” areas of significance, the loss of the buildings meant the loss not only of its “Commerce” association but also of its integrity as traditionally understood from National Register policies and criteria. However, its association with African American history has not changed, which means Tillie’s Corner could be eligible as a TCP.
Although the buildings have been lost, the property’s connection, importance, and significance to the community remain. “It was important to keep sharing the history,” says Carla Alexander. “To me, significance is everyone’s story, not just one person’s. Yes, Tillie’s Corner is now a landmark, but our story is no more important than the man across the street telling me about his grandmother being a seamstress. It’s a bigger part.”
Historic preservationists must ask ourselves what our goals are: to preserve a structure or to preserve a community? By considering inclusive approaches and philosophies as outlined in Bulletin 38—and through ethnographic processes such as oral histories, consultations with community knowledge-holders, and cultural mapping—preservationists can do both. This challenges us to totally rethink how we work.
Lawana Holland-Moore is the program assistant for the National Trust for Historic Preservation African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.