Remarks at PastForward 2019 by Paul Edmondson

By Paul Edmondson posted 10-11-2019 01:25


Good afternoon. Welcome to Denver, and welcome to PastForward, the National Preservation Conference. 

First, let me thank you for being here. You are what makes the preservation movement what it is – a vibrant community of people committed to saving places that matter – in our cities, on our main streets, in our small towns, and across the countryside. I’m fortunate to count all of you as colleagues in this important work. 

And that’s why I’m deeply honored to serve as the 9th president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

As Tim [Whalen] mentioned, earlier this year I was asked by our board to serve as the interim president of the National Trust.  I told Tim at the time that I felt as though I had been handed the keys to the family station-wagon, with my main responsibility simply to keep the car on the road.  With my move from interim president to actual president, my responsibilities are not just to steer the station-wagon, but to navigate the trip forward.  And, as with any family road-trip that I have taken, I’m finding that there are plenty of back-seat drivers, with many different views about the correct way forward, as well as some with strong opinions about wrong turns we may have made in the past.  But I welcome hearing from all members of the preservation family as we continue on this journey together. 

This afternoon, by way of introducing myself and talking about my priorities for the National Trust and my hopes for the preservation movement, I want to highlight three themes that I think have defined my own career.  I want to do so because I see those themes as key to the success of the National Trust, and to the success of the preservation movement.

Power of Preservation Advocacy

The first theme I want to touch on is the Power of Preservation Advocacy

Considering my background as a long-time National Trust lawyer, this should not come as a surprise. As many of you already know, I’ve worked for the Trust for more than three decades, all of that time spent in our Law Division, which has a national reputation for effective advocacy.  

Let me say from the outset that preservation is often rightly criticized as being the movement of no – and I’ll talk about that further in a minute.  But there are times when one simply has to stand up and say “no.”  

My views about advocacy as an essential tool for preservation were established early in my career. 

In 1993, the Walt Disney corporation announced plans to create “Disney’s America” – a massive history-based theme park in the Virginia countryside – ironically in an area that was itself historically significant.  A coalition of organizations including the National Trust joined forces, and together we convinced one of the country’s largest and most powerful corporations to change its mind.  Litigation in that case was not the driving force.  What really changed Disney’s mind was the attitude of the public.   By showing the deep and layered significance of this place, and reminding the public that this would be lost forever, we were able to bring together powerful new voices for preservation.

The National Trust has continued to be engaged in this type of advocacy throughout my career. 

Just last month, together with a local preservation organization, Friends of the Frank J. Woods Bridge, and a national partner, the Historic Bridge Foundation, we filed suit to prevent demolition of this beautiful 87-year old steel truss bridge between the Towns of Brunswick and Topsham, Maine.

Frank J. Woods Bridge credit NathanHolth
Frank J. Woods Bridge | Credit Nathan Holth

State and federal highway agencies are seeking to justify a new “modern” bridge by using questionable cost estimates, when it would make better sense simply to repair the historic bridge.   As with many other preservation battles over the years, a dedicated group of community members is partnering with us to take on this battle – not only in federal court but also in the court of public opinion.  They are engaged and fighting back, because this is about saving something that enriches their quality of life and defines their shared identity.  We are honored to join them in this.

At a much larger scale, 500 miles from where we are this afternoon, is the Bears Ears National Monument, a highly significant and sacred cultural landscape—representing more than 12,000 years of human history, and originally totaling almost 1.4 million acres.  Nine Native American nations have ties to Bears Ears, and tribes still return to the twin buttes to connect with their ancestors. This largely undeveloped area is filled with cultural and natural resources, which is why it was designated as a National Monument by President Obama in 2009.  Yet in 2017, the current Administration reduced that designation by 85% – a reduction that is unprecedented in the history of U.S. national monuments.  

The National Trust is working with the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, together with a host of conservation groups, to fight this reduction that would leave the area’s cultural sites at risk from a variety of land use activities, as well as by looting and vandalism.  I began my career in preservation as an archaeologist, not a lawyer, so I have a first-hand idea of what is at stake at Bears Ears, and why it is ­so important that we fight to protect this special place. 

Bears Ears Credit: Tim Peterson
Bears Ears at Sunset| Credit: Tim Peterson

My last advocacy example, also still pending, is another David and Goliath battle, in which we are taking on one of the most powerful energy companies in the country.  

There are few places as central to our complex American story as Jamestown, Virginia, which is not only the place where our American experiment in democracy began, but also the place where the roots of slavery first took hold in North America. And the lower James River is a cultural landscape that is steeped in Native American history.  

But today, this historic landscape is marred by 17 electric transmission towers constructed by Dominion Energy—reaching heights nearly as tall as a thirty-story building.  Dominion constructed them quickly under a permit unlawfully granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Why do I say unlawfully?  We know that because, in partnership with Preservation Virginia, we took them to federal court, and that’s what the court said. 

The Corps of Engineers was instructed to go back to the drawing board and explore other options.  In fact, studies have shown that there are other ways to bring reliable, affordable energy to Dominion customers without sacrificing this important part of American history. 

View of Jamestown
Jamestown, Virginia

Advocacy to save historic places has been a core part of the preservation movement since its start, and most state and local preservation organizations have “origin” stories that derive from specific fights that they have undertaken in the past – from New York’s Penn Station, to Lairimer Square here in Denver, to countless other examples across America. 

Some of those battles have been lost but many have been won.  Ultimately, if we aren’t willing to join together to fight for these special places, we aren’t doing our jobs as preservationists.  And the public will never understand the value of what we want to preserve, unless we are willing to stand up and fight for it.


The second theme I want to talk about this afternoon is Innovation.  And as I do, let me come back to that issue of preservation as the movement of “no.”  As important as it is to fight for endangered places, it is also essential to bring creative solutions to preservation challenges.  And the broader preservation community agrees: In a recent survey conducted by our Preservation Division, 85% of those who responded agreed that “Greater innovation is needed in preservation practices.”  That innovation can take many forms.  

For example, developing grassroots solutions has been the goal of an important planning effort in Miami’s Little Havana, a densely populated neighborhood, that is home to immigrants from Cuba, South and Central America, and other parts of the Caribbean. 

Little Havana Credit Steven Brooke Studios
Little Havana|  Credit Steven Brooke Studios

Little Havana is distinguished by its tree-lined streets, with small apartment buildings, bungalows, and mom-and-pop stores.  But the neighborhood is under intense pressure to develop like the adjacent areas of high-rise apartments and offices. 

Although known locally and nationally as an iconic historic place, Little Havana is also a dynamic urban neighborhood whose residents face a range of challenges and threats, including poverty, sub-standard housing, displacement, poor transportation options, and insufficient open space. 

To address these issues, we worked in partnership with civic and non-profit groups from the fields of public health, historic preservation, architectural design, and urban planning, to create the Little Havana Me Importa Revitalization Plan

Developed over the course of more than two years, and with the input of more than 2,700 residents and stakeholders, the plan relies on increasing incentives for preservation, reducing barriers to small-scale infill development, and respecting the existing heritage of Little Havana.  I would describe it as an informed grassroots approach to planning, rather than a traditional, top-down regulatory approach.  That is a big change from the usual practice. 

Now let me go from the community level, to talk about individual historic sites.  Historic sites are a vitally important part of preservation, and it is also important that we bring innovation to how we operate those properties, embracing their multi-layered stories and engaging new audiences with that history through completely new approaches.  

Stakeholder Outreach at Little Havana
Stakeholder Outreach in Little Havana

Over the past 6 years, one of the most rewarding projects that I’ve had the opportunity to work on has been to help reinvent Cooper Molera Adobe, a National Trust Historic Site in Monterey, California. 

The City of Monterey is actually 80 years older than the state of California, and it was an important part of Mexico as the capital of the sprawling Alta California province until 1846.  Cooper Molera Adobe is a 2 ½ acre property, located in the heart of Monterey’s National Historic Landmark district, and it includes two adobe residences, two adobe commercial buildings, and a distinctive pair of historic redwood barns—all surrounded by an adobe wall.  

Cooper Molera has been a National Trust Historic Site since the 1980s and was operated for many years on our behalf by California State Parks.  Several years ago, State Parks let us know that they could not continue to operate the site.  So we took the opportunity to work with partners in the for-profit sector to develop a new operating model.  We call that model “shared use,” because the property now includes both museum spaces and businesses, all sharing the site and its beautiful gardens, and all collaborating to tell the stories of the property’s rich history.  

Cooper Molera Adobe

Interior of Cooper Molera Adobe | Credit: Angela Dicenzo

Today, National Trust staff members operate the two adobe residences, where we ignore all the rules of historic house museums:  there is no admission, visitors are encouraged to sit on the furniture or play the piano, all the exhibits are bilingual, and we mix period art with contemporary art from local partners. 

The Barns at Cooper Molera have been transformed into a beautiful—and profitable—event center.  Historic buildings on the site are also home to a restaurant and a bakery, and a portion of the revenue from those businesses supports preservation and museum operations.  

But shared use is so much more than simply bringing businesses on to this historic property. At Alta Bakery, named for the Mexican province, the Cooper family’s historic cattle brands hang on the wall, and are featured in their chocolates, breads, and even the latte art 

The shared use model is bringing new audiences to hear the stories of Cooper Molera – people who would never have come to visit a house museum, making it a part of their daily lives.  Together with the community of Monterey, we have opened the next chapter of the history of Cooper Molera, offering a solution for historic sites and house museums around the country as they work to sustain themselves, both culturally and financially.


Innovations at Cooper Molera would not have been possible without Partnerships, which is my third and final theme.  At Cooper Molera, our success was tied to an unexpected partnership with a shopping center developer, and we had to build trust with local preservation groups who initially opposed our plans but later became some of our strongest allies.    

To give another example of effective partnerships, this summer I visited an incredible place that is being preserved by a committed group of local partners that we are proud to support through our African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.  God’s Little Acre in Newport, Rhode Island, is our country’s oldest African Burial ground, a cultural landscape rich in both the stories of the individual people buried there and the broader narrative of American history. 

God's Little Acre, Newport, RI
God's Little Acre, Newport, RI | Credit: Leigh Schoberth

The passage of more three centuries, together with simple neglect, have resulted in the loss of many headstones and damage to many others.  But a group of individuals and organizations from across Newport have banded together to make sure that this place — and its stories — are preserved and shared.   Earlier this year, we were honored to support them with a $50,000 grant from the Action Fund.  During my visit, I learned that our grant will triple the number of headstones that will be restored over the next two years.   

Through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, we have given away 2.7 million dollars over the past two years to support bricks-and-mortar projects, interpretation, and organizational development.  This program was created with new funding partners, and it has allowed the National Trust to seed new partnerships with other organizations around the country who are engaged in the important work of interpreting and preserving African American culture and history.   

These kinds of multifaceted partnerships are critical to the work of the National Trust, and critical to the field of preservation.  To give another example, our National Fund for Sacred Places is a 20M dollar grant fund supported by the Lilly Endowment.  It brings together our expertise with that of our long-time allies at Partners for Sacred Places, the only national organization dedicated to the sound stewardship and active community use of older sacred places. 

Each year, more than 6,000 houses of worship close, many of them local landmarks.  Those closures don’t just affect individual congregations, but also the social service and community groups that use those buildings and that serve their communities.  Together with Partners for Sacred Places, we are doing something about this.  The National Trust provides capital grants and technical expertise to help restore and preserve historic churches, synagogues, and other places of worship, while Partners for Sacred Places advances the organizational development of those same congregations.  Together, our impacts on the long-term preservation of these places is greater than if we did this work alone. 

As I hope these examples illustrate, preservation just doesn’t work without partnerships.  That includes state and local preservation organizations, now well-represented by the National Preservation Partners Network, as well as other emerging and established preservation organizations, and allies in related fields.  

The bottom line is that preservation is something that we do together, and something that brings us together.  I think everyone here understands this, since that’s the way you work every day to save places that matter.  But I want you to know that strong partnerships are both a goal and a value of the National Trust.

The Future

In the coming year, you will see the National Trust continuing the work I’ve described this afternoon, but also with new efforts to expand our impacts and our supporters.  These will include a campaign to elevate the stories and preserve the places related to women’s history, as we mark the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States.  To start, with the support of American Express, we have just launched this year’s Partners in Preservation competition.  This program will provide grants totaling 2M dollars to sites where women made history, identified for us by our field staff and colleagues at Main Street America. I want to encourage each of you to go online to “” to help select the winners. 

We will also be conducting a lobbying campaign, in close collaboration with the National Trust Community Investment Corporation and the Historic Tax Credit Coalition, to expand and improve historic tax credits at the state and federal levels. And, we will be working with community leaders, business and property owners, and other neighborhood stake-holders to identify solutions to improve equity and address displacement in historically African American neighborhoods.     

We will do all of this in partnership with valued allies across the country.  And we will do this as advocates, but at the same time seeking innovative solutions, to keep historic places of all kinds vibrant and protected, cherished and beautiful, inclusive, and sustainable.  

Thank you for being here at PastForward, thank you for being a part of the preservation movement, and thank you for saving the places that tell our shared stories and bring us together.