Why Do Old Places Matter? An Introduction

By Tom Mayes posted 11-13-2013 16:05


Note: Tom Mayes' popular Why Do Old Places Matter? series is now available as a book Why Old Places Matter. Order the book today.

The Eternal City—what better place to find answers to the question: Why do old places matter? Tom Mayes, a 2013 Rome Prize winner in Historic Preservation from the American Academy, is in Rome these days and is contributing a series of posts about his experiences and research. Join us for his periodic essays and add your thoughts to the discussion.

Click here for full coverage on the Why Do Old Places Matter? series including the Spring 2015 issue of Forum Journal.

Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy occupies the site of a Roman circus and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world | Paul Edmondson/National Trust for Historic Preservation

People like old places. They like to live in places like Ghent, in Norfolk, Va., and Logan Circle in Washington, D.C. They like to live in old houses—in white farmhouses in Vermont, brick mansions in Virginia, and in Arts and Crafts bungalows in Los Angeles. People like to visit old cities for vacation. They like Santa Fe, Provincetown, Mendocino, and Saugatuck. They like Rome, New York, Paris, and Kyoto. They like Brooklyn and Charleston and thousands of towns and cities and countrysides across America and throughout the world.

They like ancient troglodytic hotels (Matera, Italy), and Greek Revival houses (Athens, Ga.).  They like adobe houses in New Mexico, farmhouses in Ohio, and townhouses in Philadelphia.

Why? Why do people like old places? And why do old places matter to people? Do old places make people’s lives better, and if so, how?

Sloan House
The Sloan House in Davidson, North Carolina, contributes to the beauty and charm of the town | Tom Mayes/National Trust for Historic Preservation

This series of essays will explore  the reasons that old places are good for people. It begins with what I consider the main reason—that old places are important for people to define who they are through memory, continuity, and identity—that “sense of orientation” referred to in With Heritage So Rich. These fundamental reasons inform all of the other reasons that follow: commemoration, beauty, civic identity, and the reasons that are more pragmatic—preservation as a tool for community revitalization, the stabilization of property values, economic development, and sustainability.

The notion that old places matter is not primarily about the past. It is about why old places matter to people today and for the future. It is about why old places are critical to people’s sense of who they are, to their capacity to find meaning in their lives, and to see a future.

I am an unabashed advocate for keeping, saving, and continuing to use old places. Immense and overwhelming economic and political forces cause the destruction of old places at an astonishing pace every minute of every day.  We see it in the loss of treasured places both large and small.  From the removal of a single, gnarled pear tree that has delighted us with its bloom in the spring and its fruit in the fall to the inexcusable demolition of public buildings such as schools and churches that give our communities their identity, we are steadily losing our old places. The loss is a soul-destroying severing of people from place, identity, and memory.

There are many critics of the idea of saving old places. Some say that saving old places stifles economic growth and that historic preservation has become too strong a force. They say that preservation is out of balance with the need for change.  I see no evidence whatsoever that the forces of preservation in the United States pose a threat to the capacity of the United States to have a vibrant and strong economy. Quite the contrary, old places actually seem to increase creativity and economic growth.

Butchertown in Louisville, Kentucky
A streetscape in the Butchertown neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky | Andy Snow

Are there things we should do better? Yes. Are there disagreements among the people who work to save old places? Yes. Are there arguments about what we retain and how we retain it? Yes. There should be. But the fundamental point remains: The history, memory, and continuity provided through old places are necessary for our self worth and are good for people.

A point about terminology. I use the term “old places” throughout these brief essays because the term includes not only places that are officially determined to be historic through the National Register of Historic Places or state or local designations, but also the majority of old places in America, most of which are not officially designated. The term also includes places that are not buildings—it captures streets, landscapes, gardens, farms, archaeological sites, cemeteries and the many other old places that people value. I have also consciously avoided using terms that create an emotional distance between people and place, such as the term “historic resource.”

These are initial thoughts about the purposes of historic preservation. I hope that many people will respond in the comment section below and contribute their thoughts to each of these as they roll out—have at it!

Tom Mayes is the deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2013 Mayes was awarded the Rome Prize in Historic Preservation from the American Academy in Rome.



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