Forum Connect

What makes a property significant?

  • 1.  What makes a property significant?

    Ambassador
    Posted 19 days ago
    I'm conducting research that will dispel a myth about a historic property most people believe to be the first of its kind. Although the property is important for other reasons, it wasn't the first - it was simply marketed as such (very successfully). The same can be said of many historic properties for which significance has been claimed because they are thought to be the "biggest" or "last" or "only."

    While mulling how often we assume "first" equals "significant" in the world of preservation, I've become sensitive (perhaps overly so) to other claims of "firsts" shown to be untrue or taken out of context. In some cases, claims of significant work are clearly tied to outright deceptions or attempts to steal or trivialize the work of others (see for example the scientific firsts of Rosalind Franklin or Evelyn Berezin). In a world where storytelling, exaggerations, and successful marketing can create an illusion of significance to even the most reliable researchers, we often get it wrong and amplify/disseminate the deception.

    So, getting back to the very basics of our field, and setting aside the National Park Service's criteria and explanations in Bulletin 15 (at least for a moment), I would love to get a sense of what Forum members believe (in your heart, mind, and/or soul) makes a place "significant"?​ How often does "first," "last," "biggest," and "only" factor into significance for you? And, how do we document significance in a world where "truths" aren't always factual?

    ------------------------------
    Barbara Howard
    Stonebridge Learning, LLC
    Minneapolis MN
    ------------------------------


  • 2.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 18 days ago

    As the steward of the "only" surviving studio and residence of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner (the others were either demolished or renovated), who were the "first" artists to settle full-time in the hamlet of Springs, I think your questions are very relevant. In my opinion, the fact that this is their only extant workplace is not in itself significant. What matters is what they accomplished here. This is where both artists painted the masterpieces for which they are best known, and which made the most important contributions to modern art. Moreover, their creative process was deeply influenced by the natural environment on and around their property. When visitors experience the surroundings, they gain greater understanding and appreciation of the artists' achievements.


    Being the first full-time artist residents of Springs, a working class neighborhood in the Town of East Hampton, Long Island, Pollock and Krasner attracted others to join them, making the area a magnet for the New York School. Among those who followed them to become seasonal or year-round residents are Willem and Elaine de Kooning, James Brooks and Charlotte Park, Ibram Lassaw, John Little, Perle Fine, Nicolas Carone, Joan Mitchell-the list goes on. So the fact that Pollock and Krasner were the first is significant, since they pioneered the establishment of Springs as an artists' community that continues to thrive, with current residents Cindy Sherman, Laurie Anderson, and Ross Bleckner, as well as many others who are less well known.


    We are all responsible for interpreting our properties as accurately as possible. Whatever claims we make for them must be well documented. Whoever is responsible for developing interpretive material is ethically bound to ensure that the facts are correct and the conjectures have a basis in research, realizing that there may be more than one side to the story. I don't agree with you that we often get it wrong, but I do think that we may not have all the information we need to tell the story with certainty, so we should continually strive to learn as we go, and update and revise when necessary. Exaggeration and boasting should have no place in our narratives. And if those narratives are challenged or refuted, we should correct the inaccuracies. 


    --
    Helen A. Harrison
    Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Director
    Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center
    830 Springs-Fireplace Road, East Hampton, NY 11937
    Phone 631-324-4929 Fax 631-324-8768





  • 3.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 17 days ago
    Helen Harrison and Steven Semes, I so appreciate your responses. I am on the board of the Newburyport Preservation Trust, an all-volunteer organization in an historic New England seaport, and I came into the organization as a professor of American history and American music history. Our organization is a new member of the Forum, and your remarks alone made membership worth the cost; there is much wisdom and constructive provocation/inspiration there. Thank you!

    ------------------------------
    Patricia Peknik
    Newburyport Preservation Trust
    Newburyport MA
    ------------------------------



  • 4.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 18 days ago
    Thank you for posing this question, as it is perhaps the most fundamental question of all (which may also be why it is so rarely asked). Conservation thinking has long recognized multiple sources of significance, principally artistic, historical, commemorative, and communal (to borrow terms from Historic England's Conservation Principles publication). The ICOMOS Burra Charter is based on the preservation of "cultural significance" which is always defined by and in reference to a community. Ultimately, significance will be defined by those who feel a site is significant to them, whether they are a local group of residents, a consensus of scholars, or humanity in general. Often significance of a physical site is in some way about place-attachment and the sense of belonging and identity the site evokes,  less about claims made for the site like those you listed. In other words, significance is qualitative rather than quantitative.

    We should remember that preservation has different motives: to prevent loss of culturally significant sites, to encourage the maintenance of places deemed sustainable or that provide good models of sustainability, and as opportunities to teach the "intangible heritage" of design know-how and craftsmanship. Historic places can also teach us about beauty. I always like to remember the words of the French writer Francoise Choay: "We restore in order to learn how to build." One way of defining significance, then, would be to ask which sites might inform us how to build better in the future?

    If we look forward in this way, we might avoid the temptation to see preservation as a kind of architectural Noah's Ark where two specimens of every type of building and style are preserved for the sake of "documentation"no matter how bad they might be as environments for people. (What is the point of preserving sprawl, for example?) Preservation directed to saving simply the historical record is, in my view, at best a secondary motive; more important is determining how what we value from the past can help us to make a better future. So, returning to significance, we might ask, is this site likely to inform us how to build a future city that is beautiful, sustainable, and just?

    ------------------------------
    Steven Semes
    Professor of Architecture
    Director, Graduate Program in Historic Preservation
    University of Notre Dame
    Notre Dame Indiana
    ------------------------------



  • 5.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 16 days ago
    Steven Semes points to Australia's Burra Charter and its reference to "cultural significance," but needs to go further.  While cultural significance was discussed in the USA in the 1960s, it was not formalized as a criterion for listing in the National Register in the way that historical significance and architectural significance were.  Although the Park Services's policies for TCPs address this cultural significance for Native American groups, cultural significance for others has generally not been addressed.  Holly Taylor provides a good discussion of this issue in her essay in the US ICOMOS collection responding to the 1966 publication WITH HERITAGE SO RICH and considering possible directions for the next 50 years.  See:  https://www.usicomos.org/about/wwhsr/
    For Holly Taylor's essay see:  https://www.usicomos.org/mainsite/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Taylor.pdf

    ------------------------------
    Jeffrey Ochsner
    Seattle WA
    (206)285-6634
    ------------------------------



  • 6.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 15 days ago
    Also as far as applying TCPs to non-Native American contexts, see this special Preservation Education & Research issue on this topic (vol. 8, 2016), which was from a conference that I helped co-organize with Rebecca Sheppard (U of DE) and Robin Krawitz (DE State). -Jeremy






  • 7.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 14 days ago
    Thanks for these posts on TCPs. The American Folklore Society's Working Group on Integrating Folklore and Historic Preservation, which I co-chair, has been working to create and identify model TCP nominations that reflect the more expansive interpretation of culture and the range of communities – occupational, ethnic, religious, and rural – found in Bulletin 38's original language.  As you may know, the NR doesn't keep an official list of TCPs. Our unofficial list  includes Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Grotto, Queens, NY; Bohemian Hall, Astoria, NY; Greektown Historic District, Tarpon Springs, FL; Green River Drift Trail, WY; St. Augustine Catholic Church and Cemetery, Natchez, LA; The Ardens Historic District, New Castle County, DE; Union Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church Complex, Clarksville, DE; Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Monastery, Jordanville, NY; Los Matachines de El Rancho, NM (the latter only recently declared eligible). Our group continues work to try to list the  Casita Rincón Criollo in the South Bronx. Folklorists working in preservation have long been interested in intangible cultural resources. A folkloristic perspective on significance would foreground the use of a place, and what makes it significant/meaningful to the associated cultural communities. This is a grass roots approach that involves ethnography and hands on interaction with communities to discern what they think is important to preserve and why.  

    The exemplar of activist, inclusive, and community-driven placemaking is New York City's Place Matters, a program of the city's public folklore program, City Lore. https://placematters.net/ The program counters the typical preservationist focus on buildings and instead (in the words of founder Steve Zeitlin) highlights the culture that brings those buildings to life – cherished places central to the vitality of particular communities in New York City. At the heart of the advocacy strategy is the Census of Places that Matter, a grassroots survey/ guidebook/encyclopedia of places that the public finds significant in New York's five boroughs. The Census was created to broaden the ways that preservation is understood and practiced by emphasizing use and meaning of place.  The TCP listing of Bohemian Hall was due to involvement from City Lore, and they are spearheading the effort to list the Casita.

    Certainly, architecture and history are important, but we should be more in the business of community engagement and supporting stories/places/cultural traditions that are important to the communities we work with.

    Laurie Sommers


     

    --
    Laurie Sommers, PhD
    Laurie Kay Sommers Consulting, LLC
    4292 Tacoma Blvd.
    Okemos, MI 48864
    517-899-6964
    email: folklaurie@gmail.com






  • 8.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 14 days ago
    Hi Laurie,

    Another resource you may find of interest is Richard Vidutis's article, "Missed Opportunities: The Absence of Ethnography in America's Culture Heritage Programs" in the book, Human-Centered Built Environment Heritage Preservation that I co-edited with Barry Stiefel. Vidutis goes into a lot of detail about the history of folklore in the US, including the work done in the 1970s and early 80's on the subject in collaboration with the National Park Service. It's actually kind of a sad read, really, because there was so much potential back then for the US to really take a lead on intangible heritage that was lost. 

    On that note, I applaud the work you're doing in the American Folklore Society - much needed. Thank you!






  • 9.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 6 days ago
    Thank you for this post. This is important and relates to the essential relationship between tangible and intangible heritage.

    ------------------------------
    Steven Semes
    Professor of Architecture
    Director, Graduate Program in Historic Preservation
    University of Notre Dame
    Notre Dame Indiana
    ------------------------------



  • 10.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 14 days ago

    Jeffrey Ochsner,

     

    Your comments are timely.  We have a property just outside the city limits (so falls under county jurisdiction) that is being threatened with demolition that holds an important place in the community.  My counterpart with the county and I have been looking at how intangible heritage could be used to save this place, but of course the examples out there tend to focus on Native American sites. I was just going to post this morning on the Forum looking for non-Native examples.  Taylor's article is most helpful, but would love to see more examples.

     

     

    Harry Klinkhamer

    Historical Resources Manager

    City of Venice

    941-486-2490

    hklinkhamer@venicegov.com

     

    Venice Museum & Archives

    http://www.venicemuseum.org/

    City of Venice

    http://venicegov.com

     

    Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably

    impossible for vigorous streets and districts to

    grow without them....

    – Jane Jacobs from The Death and Life of Great American Cities

     

     






  • 11.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 17 days ago

    This is the question I ask more than any other during our demolition/alteration reviews of property (in which we're giving a fairly cursory determination of eligibility). I think the way I connect with significance most easily is in asking, does this resource help to tell our story? (And by "our" I mean the sum of people who have lived in this area over time.)

    I have to laugh about the "first," "last," "only" part of the question. We have a proving-up house that was recently rehabilitated and the woman who was foundational to the project loves to tout that it's the only remaining proving-up house in the county. ... to which I and others can immediately think of several others that she just doesn't know about, apparently. It really does undercut the strength of your argument if that's one of the strongest pillars of support... and it's really quite flimsy.

    Thanks for starting this discussion. I appreciate all the answers so far and look forward to hearing from others. 



    ------------------------------
    Meg Dunn
    Fort Collins CO
    ------------------------------



  • 12.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Ambassador
    Posted 17 days ago
    Hi Barbara. When I evaluate historic properties on a personal basis, I am less concerned with the uniqueness of the property, or if it is associated with someone or something of significance, than I am with its quality of design and construction, and how it is similar and how it differs from other examples of its architectural style in other locations. To me, it is fascinating to consider how the property interacted with its local context and how it influenced, and was influenced by, its community, and the lives of the people who came in contact with it everyday. I realize, though, that when it comes to evaluating significance, that the objective and documentable  characteristics carry more weight than the more intangible, subjective  qualities of design and context. So, a professional assignment of significance might be very different than a personal one.

    ------------------------------
    Jim Sparks
    Glasgow KY
    ------------------------------



  • 13.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Ambassador
    Posted 17 days ago
    @Helen Harrison and @Steven Semes, thank you so much for your thought-provoking responses. This is exactly the type of feedback I hoped for as I continue my research. @Patricia Peknik is right - the inspiration I get from conversations in Forum Connect is invaluable. And, @Meg Dunn, as an HPC member, I feel your pain on the property review! Your example perfectly illustrates my concern about the "first" or "only." By emphasizing the "first" instead of any other significance, we can inadvertently marginalize or bury important stories of those that don't have the same influence. In some cases, history can be lost.

    Place-attachment is one key aspect of the motive in my research (and a key part of the work Thomas Mayes has done on why old places matter). I am personally attached to the property that came before the one I referenced in my original post. It did not have notoriety or significance to anyone outside my childhood home, but it was an important part of our community's story (and still is, even though it is now lost).

    Thank you all again for the inspiration! You are giving me much more food for thought and I look forward to more.
    ​​​​

    ------------------------------
    Barbara Howard
    Stonebridge Learning, LLC
    Minneapolis MN
    ------------------------------



  • 14.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Ambassador
    Posted 13 days ago
    Thank you to all who have responded to my query. I am heartened to know that some of you, including @Jim Sparks and @Harry Klinkhamer, are wrestling with similar issues in your regular work. @Jeffrey Ochsner and @Jeremy Wells, thank you for sharing Holly Taylor's essay and the PER issue. @Laurie Sommers, I am especially excited to hear of the work you are doing to connect the folklore and preservation communities. A few years ago as I contemplated the Advisory Council's request for input on the national preservation program, one of the things I touched on was the need to build better interdisciplinary partnerships. Noting that the American Folklife Center and National Heritage Area programs were strangely missing from the Advisory Council's partnership "ideas," my response included the following:

    Imagine a nationwide private-public effort (using the work of UNESCO, ICOMOS, and others as a model and partnering with all federal entities involved in documenting and preserving our heritage) to 1) document how all types of cultural heritage are currently addressed in all federal programs and policies, 2) identify gaps and inappropriately assigned federal mandates and programs, and 3) recommend changes for immediate action. This assessment should include looking at the current structure of the federal historic preservation program.

    I still personally debate what sort of regulatory or program changes may (or may not) be needed in the federal program. I have long held that rather than attempting to shove everything into our existing preservation framework, we need more tools designed for things that don't fit the current National Register mold, including entirely new programs meant to safeguard intangible heritage. Part of that concern is based on the risk we take in opening up tools like the National Register to statutory or regulatory changes. With the repeal of the 10% tax credit in recent tax reforms, we lost what I believed to be an important community revitalization tool specifically designed for non-National Register properties.
    ​​​​​​​

    Thanks again for all of your input. Your responses went well beyond my original question in the best way possible. I appreciate the time and effort you all took to engage with me (and each other) on this topic!



    ------------------------------
    Barbara Howard
    Stonebridge Learning, LLC
    Minneapolis MN
    ------------------------------



  • 15.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 13 days ago
    Barbara:

    As you enjoyed the Holly Taylor essay for which I sent a link, you might also enjoy Holly's paper "Preservation's Cultural Turn," which you can access here:  https://www.academia.edu/36923333/Preservations_Cultural_Turn_Recognizing_Contemporary_Significance_of_Historic_Places

    Jeffrey Ochsner

    ------------------------------
    Jeffrey Ochsner
    Seattle WA
    (206)285-6634
    ------------------------------



  • 16.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 8 days ago
    significance is so classist.  and not important.  the thing ultimately that makes old buildings significant is their durability, and nobility of the materials and methods used to construct them...  from a sustainability standpoint: lime putty mortars and masonry have an extreme life cycle, and low impact if they must be dismantled.  the timber as well, since sourced from old growth forrest; is now priceless.  the collective knowledge of the builders that created these things pre-oil.  their human sacrifice in terms of tendons and lungs.  honor that.

    ------------------------------
    ------------------------------
    Kurtis Hord: Architectural design / Lime putty masonry / Pattern making / European guild-influenced roofing
    tradroofing.com / (412) 228-0241
    all honor to god / the meek and humble shall inherit the earth
    ------------------------------



  • 17.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 8 days ago
    I really resonate with your comments, Kurtis. I struggle with the fact that without being able to offer a historic designation, we don't really have any other way to encourage reuse of buildings. (I know Portland has their deconstruction rule, but Fort Collins doesn't seem interested in doing anything similar. There is a recycle rule for building materials, but it's not enforced at all for single family residential demolitions, and for larger projects I hear only about 20% of materials are recycled.)

    It seems to me like building reuse (and to a lesser extent building material reuse) should be a huge component in LEED certification. But I haven't gotten the impression that that's the case.

    ------------------------------
    Meg Dunn
    Fort Collins CO
    ------------------------------



  • 18.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 8 days ago
    thanks meg... it boggles the mind that conservation of embodied energy takes a back seat to all this cultural significance stuff.  performance over time should be enough to quantify some sort of measure of "true value".

    in my hometown, i see a small district of victorian mansions saved and pined over, while they tear down perfectly viable shotguns and original working class self-built communities.  most of these needing nothing more than tuck pointing, and durable roofing to make them perform and give shelter for another 120 years...

    and they continue to raze these and build 3-4 story platform framed (mixed use condo blocks), thanks: "new urbanist"

    these are somehow touted as "green" because they've got some insulation?  never mind the veneer brick, cheap cladding, rubber roofs, and all the burned oil it took to destroy the original neighborhood, and the loss of structures that were "good enough"

    it makes me sick.  it's cost me my family and most personal relationships because it's all i think about and most people just label me as mentally ill.  if you speak the truth to any situation it's the surest way to get a net thrown over you.

    ------------------------------
    ------------------------------
    Kurtis Hord: Architectural design / Lime putty masonry / Pattern making / European guild-influenced roofing
    tradroofing.com / (412) 228-0241
    all honor to god / the meek and humble shall inherit the earth
    ------------------------------



  • 19.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 7 days ago

    With regard to Kurt's and others' thoughts about SIGNIFICANCE  as a valid qualifier for listing – or for architectural and historic preservation in general – I believe the word/concept is hugely open to interpretation, and that each property's "significance" is unique.  

    Significance is a combination of so much, both architectural and cultural. Some years ago I completed a HRS of a small, northern California village the same age as the state, involving 80 buildings. Looking back at my thought processes for declaration of eligibility for each, my criteria were varied and numerous – some qualities outweighing others, but each contributing in subtle and myriad ways, to the whole.

    The subject was, and in many ways remains, a rural, agricultural, mostly working-class village. Each Significance Statement  is different, each nuanced as much as the people involved in the resource's life --  from its inception to the present. To be honest, I am not sure what even defines classism in the context of this discussion.

    The importance of preserving history through conservation of historic buildings is so obvious to me it is almost hard to defend it. These buildings and structures are the best kind of artifact, because we are able to live and work in them as they were intended, whether a mansion or a cottage, a commercial building on Main Street or a barn. Because of this, though, they are among the most vulnerable of artifacts. And they deserve the best interpretation, care, and respect possible.

    I don't give a damn about class!

     

     



    ------------------------------
    Ginny MacKenzie-Magan
    Tomales CA
    ------------------------------



  • 20.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 7 days ago
    Edited by Kurtis Hord 7 days ago
    "The importance of preserving history through conservation of historic buildings is so obvious to me it is almost hard to defend it. These buildings and structures are the best kind of artifact, because we are able to live and work in them as they were intended, whether a mansion or a cottage, a commercial building on Main Street or a barn. Because of this, though, they are among the most vulnerable of artifacts. And they deserve the best interpretation, care, and respect possible."

    Ginny, We are in agreement on the self-evident merits of conservation/preservation, but that might be the only thing we have in common.  From my perspective as homeless, and transgender: class is very important.  This perspective has allowed me to see and experience many blindspots in the preservation community.  I will expand on this further in an original post so we don't hi-jack Barbara's thread with debates on intersectionality.  I wanted to offer my perspective to help her to consider other merits beyond "significance" or novelty.  Honoring the sacrifice of the lungs and tendons of those who rendered the materials, and toiled to create the building are the primary motivation for myself.

    "I don't give a damn about class!"  -Spoken from a true place of privilege.
    ------------------------------
    ------------------------------
    Kurtis Hord: Architectural design / Lime putty masonry / Pattern making / European guild-influenced roofing
    tradroofing.com / (412) 228-0241
    all honor to god / the meek and humble shall inherit the earth
    ------------------------------



  • 21.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 7 days ago
    I have to agree with Kurtis's perspective here. We've already been down the road of trying to find the "true" way to preserve buildings and places, and look where that's gotten us. (Great book on this subject is Salvador Muñoz Viñas, Contemporary Theory of Conservation.) Opening up the black box of significance to critique (borrowing Bogusław Szmygin's analogy) is essential in an increasingly pluralistic world, but it's also a kind of Pandora's box. It's not that we're looking for the argument for why we save historic (or older) places, but the arguments - that is, if we're interested in learning about and considering them.

    For instance, I very much agree with Ginny's "older is better" argument in most respects, but that can't be the only one. For a lot of people, the fabric doesn't matter nearly as much as the way people use space or experience it. In some cultures, fabric-based arguments are pretty irrelevant while cultural ones are central.

    How and why we value place is a really messy combination of sociocultural and psychological contexts, many of which are hardly defensible in a scientific way, but they don't all have to be. If, as Thomas King has said, when people say that this place is significant, well, but golly it is. We just need to figure out how to align practice to respect this perspective, because we're awfully effective at de-legitimizing the values that people hold for their own cultural heritage.






  • 22.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 6 days ago
    Edited by Ashley Fallon 6 days ago
    Something--a building, a landscape, an object--can be significant regardless of class. That, I think, is probably a given--but the fact is that in practice, preservation has always tilted toward the buildings associated with the rich and famous. Class always has to matter because it's always playing some role in what happened and what will happen. That doesn't mean there isn't value in mansion houses, or that there isn't beauty in high style architecture. It does mean that, over and over again, when old workers' housing is demolished to make room for something bigger and "better" and anyone resists on the grounds of preservation, there is a repeated public refrain of "it's not like George Washington slept there." Well, maybe he didn't--and if the thing was built in the 20th century, how could he have?--but does it really matter?

    Significance can mean different things to different people. I don't think that it's wrong to consider significance--but it's misguided to attach significance only to the "biggest," "best," "oldest," etc. The everyday significance of the places that formed the backdrops for lives that pass almost unrecorded are at least as important, and in too many cases are one of the only records we have for who lived in a place and what they did. There's a line in Heinrich Heine's Die Harzreise where he says that, because an old woman had spent so much of her life before a particular carved cupboard and had so many thoughts and feelings in its presence, that a part of a human soul had entered into the cupboard. That has always spoken to me on the question of what makes something significant.

    Certainly, you can't write a NR nomination based on that. But I do think it's worth having in mind when thinking about significance.

    I think progress has been made toward recognizing significance in something more than the buildings of the rich and famous, but especially on local levels we have a long way to go. Not just among people involved with historical societies and local preservation groups--some are fixated on the mansion houses, others aren't, but often residents themselves will fall into thinking that nobody could possibly care about their houses and their neighborhoods because "nobody important lived here" or "they're just regular houses." That really isn't the story preservation should be telling.

    ------------------------------
    Ashley Fallon
    Wyandotte, MI and Hamtramck, MI
    a.fallon.91@gmail.com
    ------------------------------



  • 23.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 6 days ago
    A "significant" point that is repeatedly overlooked by many respondents to this great discussion is grass roots/community engagement and use of a place.  To whom is the property significant, i.e., meaningful? True community engagement involves seeking out and  listening to the voices of the displaced in gentrified neighborhoods, for example, or the families who live in workers housing, etc. etc.  The way to get around mea culpas about class is to listen to a broad range of community partners about what is meaningful to them, and then make sure those voices are heard.

    Laurie Sommers

    --
    Laurie Sommers, PhD
    Laurie Kay Sommers Consulting, LLC
    4292 Tacoma Blvd.
    Okemos, MI 48864
    517-899-6964
    email: folklaurie@gmail.com






  • 24.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 6 days ago
    Ashley, you write: " There's a line in Heinrich Heine's Die Harzreise where he says that, because an old woman had spent so much of her life before a particular carved cupboard and had so many thoughts and feelings in its presence, that a part of a human soul had entered into the cupboard. That has always spoken to me on the question of what makes something significant."

    There's a term for this, which is "numinism" ( related to "numinous"). It's the unspoken quality of what makes historic fabric so important in historic preservation doctrine. When you read that "x place" is important because it has "borne witness to history", this is numinism in action. We just don't talk about it in our work because it's so unscientific. Historic preservation practice and religious belief are indeed estranged bedfellows.

    If you read about human experience - across all cultures on the planet - almost all of feature numinism in relation to old places. It's in Western culture too. Ever wonder why ghost tours are so popular? Dark heritage tourism? Yeah.

    Here's numinism in practice within historic preservation:

    Let's say you have two bricks manufactured at the same time by the same people in the same place. One got put into Monticello. The other was thrown into a field. Which one is more important? Objectively they ARE THE SAME. Yet, we will always treat the brick that's in Monticello as being more important. Why? Because it somehow absorbed Thomas Jefferson's essence. Did this actually happen? Who knows. What's important here is what people believe. 

    Or, to put it another way, there is no objective, scientific reason why historic fabric should be more important just because it existed in the same space as a person or event from the past. 

    -Jeremy





  • 25.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 6 days ago
    Edited by Ashley Fallon 6 days ago
    No, there is no scientific justification--though I wouldn't quite take Heine's words to mean that he necessarily believed part of the woman's spirit had literally gone into the fabric of the cupboard, either (Heine was, after all, a poet--though he also writes of the effect of spending the night in a new place while traveling arousing thoughts of ghosts, I believe also in Die Harzreise, which fits into the same theme). He was not a preservationist, and I'm not suggesting we read the prose work of 19th century German Romantic poets as a textbook in preservation practice. But the cupboard, to use that example, existed as the result of human action. The choices of the builder in making the cupboard and the old woman's use of it is what made it a cupboard, and this thing that belonged to a nameless woman is significant because of its association with everyday life in the Harz in the early 19th century. (Of course, almost two centuries later, who knows if the cupboard still exists somewhere).

    A brick from Monticello is still a brick, and its significance (aside from being treated as a relic, which I guess is where the numinism comes in) is in its manufacture and use. While more can be learned about the particular conditions subjected to a brick in its particular place in its particular building through it than through a hypothetical one thrown into a field, they're equally significant as a record of the kind of brick produced to build plantation houses in the Virginia Piedmont in the 18th century. But there might be significance, too, in understanding why the brick was thrown into the field--was it merely in excess of what was needed for the project? Was there something wrong with it? Is it one of many bricks thrown away like this, or one that dropped there accidentally and can indicate something about how the bricks were brought to the building site in the first place?

    This doesn't mean I don't think there is also a value in the "witness to history" side of it, especially because it is so caught up in people's beliefs about what makes something historic and worthy of protection. Just that everything in the world is witness to something, and it all circles back around to what we end up deciding is significant. Is the brick important because Thomas Jefferson might have looked at it, or is it important as the product of human labor and ingenuity as applied to the making of bricks in a given time and place? Is the cupboard important because Heinrich Heine wrote about it, or because it was an instrumental component of the everyday experience of a person whose name was not even recorded?

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    Ashley Fallon
    Wyandotte, MI and Hamtramck, MI
    a.fallon.91@gmail.com
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  • 26.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Posted 6 days ago
    I just did a documentary of Sylva, NC, a small town with a lively and beautiful historic downtown. I also focused on a few local neighborhoods of which were working class in nature, Sunrise Park and Dills Cove, as well as a couple of others. Most of these are largely working-class though with seemingly varying income levels, with Courthouse Hill maybe a bit more upscale in spots. So, from a preservation standpoint, what if a developer decided to come in and tear these down to make way for townhouses or condos? Not likely, given they appear heavily occupied, but possible, I imagine. They're not on the register, so they're not going to be preserved in the way the downtown area is, I don't think. Yet, why not? These areas, especially Dills Cove and College Hill (so named for a long-gone former school), have historical precedence to the area. I think the interests are not always well documented as they should be within preservation circles.

    Now, say for large mansions, who says they need to be simply for the rich and famous? I mean, granted, many of them have beautiful architecture. I can't help but admire some of them and would hate to see them torn down. If we lose them, they're gone, forever. But still, who says they need to be simply for the rich and famous? A group of five people can come in with a plan to purchase the property and use the place for something or the other. I mean, reuse can take many forms. I think it's just that the richer have the money and want their houses to be something to remember. So the rich will buy them because they can. For somebody who is just trying to make ends meet, I doubt the style of his or her house is even much concern. That is something that needs to be addressed. Creating a lively downtown maybe one avenue, since it can create an atmosphere of style that would otherwise be missing. Shopping malls and those suburban shopping parks just do not do that. If there is no style, then apathy is the result.

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    Raymond Majewski
    Bryson City NC
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  • 27.  RE: What makes a property significant?

    Ambassador
    Posted 3 days ago
    What a great conversation it's been, and hopefully not over yet. As for me, significance always consisted of the architectural significance of style, proportion, material, the relationship of public and private spaces, and the context of place and time, whether those related to a single building, or the buildings, sidewalks and streets of a historic neighborhood. Now, however, I volunteer at a nonprofit museum of regional culture and history, and my perspective has changed. We recently received a request for information about a street that no longer exists, which was once a center of African-American life in our town. I know the street as it is now, but had no idea of what it once was. So now I am faced with the fact of the significance of this place that no longer exists, and was never architecturally significant, but was an important chapter in the history of our community, and still lives in the memory of some of our citizens. I recognize how common this situation must be in our country. It is a mind-broadening experience.

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    Jim Sparks
    Glasgow KY
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