Why Old Places Matter: The Book

By Tom Mayes posted 08-31-2018 09:15


I am delighted to share the news that “Why Old Places Matter”—the book—is coming out on September 1, 2018. This compilation of essays, which originally appeared on Preservation Leadership Forum, is now being published by Rowman and Littlefield as part of the American Association for State and Local History book series, with all proceeds benefiting the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The book will include a new foreword by Stephanie Meeks, president and CEO of the National Trust; a new introduction and conclusion; and more than 70 full-color photographs. I hope you’ll give it a try.

The church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome, Italy, is widely regarded a beautiful masterpiece of baroque architect Francesco Borromini . | Credit: Catie Newell

The original purpose of these essays was to give people the words and phrases to express why the old places of their lives matter. Whether it’s a simple Rosenwald school, a Main Street store, a country church, a county courthouse, a beautiful architectural icon like the Farnsworth House, the lively streets of Little Havana, or a gentle timeworn homeplace, these old places trigger powerful emotional responses. Yet people don’t necessarily have the words to articulate why these places matter to them, and no single publication had brought these ideas together in accessible language. 

The essays articulate 14 ways in which old places contribute to people’s well-being and help them flourish. These were essentially crowdsourced from the hundreds of people I spoke to about why old places matter—preservation colleagues, affordable housing advocates, architects, developers, artists, writers, musicians, politicians, lawyers, historians, genealogists, neuroscientists, medical professionals, academics, and people who simply love old places.

Caffe Reggio in New York City's Greenwich Village. | Tom Mayes/National Trust for Historic Preservation

I think that those of you who followed the essays as they were issued will find new themes when you read all of them together, as well as new thoughts in the introduction and conclusion. And I hope that those who have not read them before will find words and ideas to help express why old places matter to you and to others, as well as new ideas to explore. 

As many of you know, I’ve spent my entire career supporting efforts to save historic places through my work at the National Trust, through teaching at the University of Maryland and other institutions, and through providing preservation training and advice. Nonetheless, despite a lifetime as a preservationist, the conversations behind these essays radically changed how I view preservation and people’s relationship with place.

Here are just three of the ways in which writing these essays changed my thinking: 

  • I now believe that preservation—or, more precisely, the stability of place—is more important to people than I originally thought. Preservation, which fosters stability, is not simply something nice to do, it’s vital. It gives people a sense of continuity and belonging in an ever-changing world. Although sometimes viewed as expendable or trivial, it is essential to the way people orient themselves in the world. 
  • Second, recognizing places that give people a sense of their own identity is deeply powerful. That’s why the recognition of sites associated with underrepresented groups such as LGBTQ people like me, African Americans, or women is essential—and may even be considered a right. It confirms that the people whose identities they embody are valued and that those people have a place in their communities and in the world. 
  • Third, these old places serve as the vortex and venue for changing perceptions of history, memory, and even beauty. Preservation is the field where buildings and places that were once considered ugly become beautiful simply because we begin to look at them differently, perhaps through the tempering effect of time. The old in Old Places can change a building from a throwaway—a tear-down—to a revered place that inspires creativity, boosts the economy, and moves people with its beauty. 
The Sloan House in Davidson, North Carolina, contributes to the beauty and charm of the town.| Credit: Tom Mayes/National Trust for Historic Preservation

I hope this book introduces new audiences to the many reasons for preservation and inspires people to express for themselves why these places matter to them. The old places of people’s lives are deeply important—more important than is generally recognized—because these neighborhoods, churches, temples, old houses, stone-walled fields, landmark trees, and courthouses contribute to people’s well-being, from that sense of identity and belonging, to the awe inspired by beauty, to the drive to build and sustain a greener and more equitable world. I hope you’ll explore these ideas in “Why Old Places Matter.”

Tom Mayes is vice president and senior counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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