Reid Williamson: An Originator and Champion in Preservation

By Special Contributor posted 09-20-2017 16:23


By Marsh Davis

When Reid Williamson died on September 10, the preservation community lost a leader whose impact on the field had been profound, positive, and enduring. Reid’s work in historic preservation began in 1966, when he was hired as the first executive director of the Historic Savannah Foundation. He was recruited in 1974 to lead Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, now Indiana Landmarks. Here he enjoyed a stellar 31-year run, during which he built one of the most effective organizations in the nation. All the while, he helped shape the national preservation movement as a highly engaged National Trust for Historic Preservation Advisor, Trustee, and Chair of the Statewide and Local Partners—and as a cofounder and board member of Preservation Action.


Reid Williamson in front of the Indianapolis skyline. | Credit: John Domont

Reid’s innate leadership skills and competitive instincts, which were evident at all stages of his life, could have led him to be successful in any number of more conventional—and lucrative—careers. Instead, inspired by Vincent Scully’s lectures as an American studies major at Yale University, Reid found his way into the fledgling historic preservation movement. As a member of that early generation of preservation professionals, emerging at a time when there really was no model of a preservation CEO, he set a high standard of professional excellence and businesslike comportment. As a result, he earned a seat at the table of the highest levels of leadership in communities wherever he worked, always emphasizing the economics of preservation and its potential as an agent of community revitalization. To Reid, preservation always meant business.

To many of us now working as preservation professionals across the nation, Reid was boss, mentor, and friend, sometimes all at once. Numerous “graduates” of the Williamson program now work across the land as preservation professionals. And though he retired more than 12 years ago, the trajectory of his work continues. Programs that Reid developed and grew—revolving funds, surveys of historic sites and structures, African American heritage initiatives, capacity-building support for local organizations, and an unparalleled network of field offices—all continue to thrive today. And, while he may not have originated all of them, those that he borrowed or inherited, he made better. So much of what he helped innovate has become standard practice, but we should never take for granted his work as an originator and champion of many sound programs.

Reid often said that the bottom line was, “How many buildings did you save?” He nailed the bottom line, time and again. But if there is one project that cements Reid’s legacy as a building saver, it’s the rescue of the West Baden Springs Hotel, an enormous National Historic Landmark that had become a glorious, hopeless ruin by the 1990s. When virtually everyone had given up on the place, Reid courageously convinced his board that Indiana Landmarks should purchase and stabilize it—an amazing, gutsy thing to do. And just as importantly, Reid recruited the support of the Cook Family of Bloomington, Indiana, to help fund the stabilization. The Cooks ultimately were the saving grace, taking over the property and funding the most spectacular restoration Indiana has ever seen.

During his long career, Reid received numerous rewards and recognitions. Most notable among these are the Sagamore of the Wabash (2004), a high distinction bestowed by the governor of Indiana; the Living Legend designation (2003), an honor conferred by the Indiana Historical Society; and, upon his retirement in 2005, the National Trust’s Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award for “indisputable evidence of superlative achievement.”

Reid threw himself wholeheartedly into his work in historic preservation and, as he would be the first to admit, that dedication often came at the expense of his time off the clock. Upon retirement and return to his beloved Savannah, it was wonderful to see how Reid engaged fully in the life of his family, especially his grandchildren. His grandson, J. Reid Williamson IV, spoke with remarkable poise and eloquence at Reid’s memorial service last week about how loving and supportive “Big Reid” had been to him and his sisters and about how much Reid had relished the last chapter of his life with his family.

In order to honor Reid for his enormous achievements and to ensure that future generations of preservationists will learn about Reid’s leadership in the historic preservation movement, we at Indiana Landmarks created the Williamson Prize for individual leadership in historic preservation. With Reid’s blessing we inaugurated the award in 2016. We presented the 2017 Williamson Prize on September 10, not yet knowing of his passing that morning.

Along with the sorrow of losing a friend and mentor comes much positive reflection. Reid’s legacy is varied and far reaching. Of course we can point to buildings saved and numerous preservation successes, honors, board positions, and so on. But I really believe his lasting legacy will be found in the lives of those he touched and inspired—family, friends, professional colleagues. Historic preservation may have been the connection for many of us, but to me Reid will be remembered less for what he did than for who he was—a remarkable, charismatic man who challenged individuals and organizations—and even an entire movement—to strive for excellence and to embrace a full life along the way.

Marsh Davis is the president of Indiana Landmarks.


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09-20-2017 16:43

​I am sure everyone has a Reid story, but as the young, green successor to Nellie Longsworth, at Preservation Action, Reid  invited me to Indianapolis, put me up on a stage, thrust a microphone in my hand and assured me "If you tell them what you do and why it is important, they will write checks."  I did and they did and that says way more about him and the loyalty and respect he commanded than it does about me.    He will be missed.