Inexorably Tied to Place: Contemplating Preservation in the New Year

By Susan West Montgomery posted 01-07-2019 16:24


As we consider the new year and the professional challenges and opportunities it is sure to bring, let me ask you this question: Why do you go to work every day? 

I asked myself that question the other day. I had just received a very nice note from my supervisor, David J. Brown, executive vice president and chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, congratulating me on my 10-year anniversary at the Trust. Ten years—a third of my preservation career, which began in Buffalo, New York, in 1988. Ten years—so many changes to the way we do our work. Ten years—I am not the same preservationist I was when I started.

Susan West Montgomery arriving at work! | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Why do I go to work every day? I thought long and hard about my answer. I hoped that it would be ennobling, that it would describe my work in a precise way that would leave no room for doubt regarding its value. But the answer I came to was not precise at all: I concluded that I go to work every day because working to save historic places makes me happy. Can it be that simple? 

Historic places—raw and real—offer us a chance to walk through, to touch, to know, to understand all our American stories. I am profoundly moved and truly exhilarated when the stories of marginalized people are told through historic places. The very fact of their existence can help erase the collective amnesia that has served to prioritize one American experience over another and one people over another. For too long, only a narrow slice of American history has made its way into the history books. I want the whole damn pie! Places of struggle, achievement, joy—all these places uplift the human experience and make those of us who visit and study them better informed and, I believe, better voters, taxpayers, Americans. 

I’ve been known to get giddy delight from reusing and recycling. It makes me feel like I am doing my part for the environment. You can imagine, then, how happy the adaptive reuse of a building—a building of any vintage—makes me. If we see the inherent value of reusable shopping bags and water bottles, how can we deny the triumph of reusing historic buildings and their materials? There is nothing more wasteful than tearing down a building, shipping its materials to a landfill, and hauling new construction materials to the site—a quarter or more of which will also become constructions waste. I won’t deny the need for new buildings or the need to modify old buildings to serve new needs, but please, make the most of what you’ve got, especially if what you’ve got is truly irreplaceable: old-growth wood, handmade bricks, historic glass. 

What really sends me over the moon, though, is knowing that the places we preserve are gathering spaces, memory makers, inspiring places, people-serving spaces. We humans are made up of all the things we know and feel, believe and cherish, what we remember. And, as we are subject to the gravitational pull of the earth and the need for shelter, we will always be inexorably tied to place. Thus, the places we occupy—our homes, work places, neighborhoods, public squares, sacred spaces—should bring us joy, comfort, security, connection, and more. That is why they are important, as Tom Mayes, vice president and senior counsel for the National Trust, so eloquently writes in Why Old Places Matter

I believe that the work of saving places—or, in my case, helping other people save places—intersects with and supports the work of so many professionals I admire: historians, community activists, social justice champions, environmentalists, school teachers, artists, small business owners, housing providers, and so many more. Our work is a necessary part of the equation, and that will put a smile on my face every day in the coming year. 

Happy new year! 

Susan West Montgomery is the vice president for preservation resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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