By Barbara Wyatt
The Pocantico Center Preservation Fellowship, now in its fifth year, is funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This two-week residential fellowship provides preservation professionals with the opportunity to reside in the historic Marcel Breuer House in Pocantico Hills, New York, while working on a defined project with significant benefit to the preservation field. Through April 19, we are accepting applications for the 2019 Pocantico Fellowship, which will run July 22–August 4.
The Pocantico Fellowship afforded me an opportunity to write about the relationship between the National Register of Historic Places and cultural landscapes. As a federal government employee, I find it particularly difficult to find blocks of time for contemplative study, which is so essential for developing ideas and writing thoughtfully. Two weeks of absolute quiet and isolation at the Marcel Breuer House provided me with just the setting I needed to delve into the material I had accumulated. It’s fortunate that I was close enough to drive to Pocantico, because I brought three large boxes of books and files to study in detail.
I am a landscape architect and the primary National Park Service staff member responsible for providing guidance on landscape issues for the National Register and the National Historic Landmarks program. Landscapes are still not as well represented as they should be in either program; thus, I consider encouraging the nomination of landscapes and supplementing the available guidance my ongoing responsibility. Although the existing guidance remains relevant, it is dated and needs revising and supplementing.
Cultural landscapes are an important aspect of our design heritage and essential for explaining any culture’s use of and imprint on the land. Landscapes and a society’s relationship to the land can reveal what that society values, whether and how its economy depends on the land, and even its spiritual values related to the land. For example, the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin values its forests as a resource, a commodity, and a way of life. It values the Wolf River that runs through its reservation as a source of physical and spiritual sustenance and as a natural and cultural resource. Any piece of land can tell a story and reveal values, but those with historical significance and integrity may also be eligible for the National Register.
In addition to better guidance, landscapes would benefit from broader representation and discussion. Landscapes should be a topic at any preservation gathering, whether sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions, Main Street, or local governments. When people engage in dialogue and have the tools to proceed, they can make real progress in identifying, evaluating, and protecting the landscapes that are important to our shared heritage.
Since my July 2017 stay at Pocantico, I’ve made some inroads into this project, which seeks to standardize cultural landscape terminology used in the National Register program, develop a theoretical basis for evaluating the eligibility of cultural landscapes for the National Register, and improve our landscape guidance. I made good progress on assessing scholarly works and programmatic approaches and applying them to a framework for the National Register. I hope the new guidance will help people—particularly those without landscape expertise—see landscapes as important cultural resources. I hope that they will be able to look a little closer to see the details that lend a landscape its composition and structure; compose a description of the landscape; and, finally, evaluate its significance. I still have a great deal to accomplish, but my work at the Breuer House was a critical first step.
Generally, what benefits the National Register also benefits preservation carried out by state and local governments, private groups, and individuals. If landscapes are described and evaluated in National Register documentation, property stewards are more likely to incorporate landscape considerations into treatment, management, and interpretation planning. Thus, preservation benefits across the board.
For me, the peace, quiet, and beauty of the Rockefeller estate were inspirational. The setting allowed me to delve into my topic without distraction, and the conveniences of the Breuer House made living there effortless. I believe anyone who has serious writing to accomplish would benefit from this delightful and inspiring retreat. I am so grateful to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the National Trust for awarding me the Pocantico Fellowship!
Barbara Wyatt, ASLA, is a historian working with the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmarks Program for the National Park Service.