Remarks by Jay Turnbull, 2018 Recipient of the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award

By Special Contributor posted 11-16-2018 16:05


Thanks to Stephanie [Meeks] and the [National Trust for Historic Preservation Board of] Trustees. I am overwhelmed—[I] can’t believe this honor has come to me. This award is really for all who made the buildings, spaces, or landscapes [that] my colleagues and I in the world of preservation have had a chance to conserve. 

Thanks to my wife, Anne, and to my sons, Gordon and Davis, for being there over about 40 years! And to successive directors and staff at San Francisco Heritage, from the 1970s forward—including Mike Buhler, [current] president of [San Francisco] Heritage. And to my partners, [including] Charles Page, well known to the National Trust, who taught me just about everything. And [to] Tom, Ruth, Carolyn, John, Lada, and Peter—really, thanks to the whole Page & Turnbull team!

In the 1950s and ’60s, those vanished days, there weren’t many preservation programs available in schools of architecture—at least, I wasn’t in one! But I had mentors and professors who told me things that I never forgot. One such person, Jaque Robertson, who was my boss for a while, said, “Old or new, everything is design. It’s all architecture, whether you’re designing a spoon or a city!” If you’re working on old buildings, it’s mostly individual spoons you’re polishing, but it’s always fun.

When we speak of preservation today, we are really talking of community and continuity. A thought strikes us: Wasn’t it in this room [that] I heard something true? Wasn’t it on that street that I understood something about the heart of this city? We have these thoughts, and when enough people have them, we start to honor—or set aside, or simply keep—what we remember and revere.

These days I’m thinking about preservation at a crossroads. (What isn’t at a crossroads in this time of change? I seem to be hitting more things that are about what this concept isn’t than what it is.) Historic preservation doesn’t necessarily arise:

  • Out of privilege—though it has: the houses of early presidents are certainly sacred places within our society and worthy of being set aside, even though the forces that built them may have been flawed;
  • Out of exclusion—though it can: The country’s first prisons, some of which are great buildings, were known as penitentiaries. The operative idea was to put people aside so they could be penitent and emerge as better persons. There are many examples of exclusion today, not necessarily allied with memorable monuments;
  • Or out of social conflict—though remembered conflict can produce eloquent memorials: In August of this year, the routes of 1970s protest marches in southern California [were] listed by the California Historic Resources Commission.

But what historic preservation is—what it can be, especially if it retains value in an age of conflict—that seems to come from the bonds we have with each other.

Defining our field, our cause beyond that will involve making sense of many a question. What we need most … is [to] integrate our work with the shared task of rebuilding our urban environment.

Here are some dilemmas I’ve encountered so far: 

  • We’re being inundated in recent antiques! The explosion of building after the close of World War II is the cause, and we need to choose well what and how we keep.
  • We need to use preservation standards—but creatively.
  • Honoring historic resources is too often used as an excuse to avoid addressing hard needs, including particularly the pressure of housing shortages.
  • We are too wedded to process.
  • We aren’t facing the dire problems of the natural world: climate, sea level rise, and the need for sustainability. 

If these are challenges, what can we do to make things right?

  • Weave well-designed new fabric into existing districts;
  • Work to create/adopt more effective regional planning;
  • Expand advocacy;
  • Answer environmental challenges;
  • Streamline process;
  • Design in an orderly, humane and thoughtful way—a voice from another time said the right adjectives were “masterly,” “correct,” and “magnificent”; and
  • Practice without cant—with and without the apostrophe. 

In fact, maybe our slogan going forward ought to be “no can’t”—by which I mean there is nothing we cannot do. 

Again, thanks to you all. I still can’t believe this honor.


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