Forum Journal & Forum Focus

2001 President’s Report: The Power of Place 

12-09-2015 17:35

I`m very glad you`re all here.

We`ve spoken and heard those words often in recent weeks, as we`ve sought comfort and reassurance in the presence of family, friends, and colleagues. It`s a sentiment that`s totally appropriate here, because we are a family. That is really why I`m so glad you`re here, so grateful that we can gather together, can strengthen and support each another as we try to make sense out of what has happened and try to figure out where we fit in the new world into which we`ve been thrust.

We`ve heard it said over and over: "Things will never be the same again." Thousands of lives have been changed forever. The skyline of our biggest city has been changed. It`s probably no exaggeration to say that the very shape of our future has changed too -- in some ways that we can already see and in others that aren`t yet clear and we cannot yet see.

But some things remain Intact -- and maybe even stronger than before: our appreciation of the traditions and values that have shaped our country and that still shape our lives; the bravery, compassion, and generosity that we demonstrate when our fellow citizens are in need; the sense of common purpose that unites us.

So much has changed since the morning of September 11 -- but one thing, above all, remains true and constant: The American spirit endures.

September 14 -- just three days after these terrible events -- was the anniversary of the firing on Fort McHenry. That was in 1814. One hundred eighty-seven years later, we have all taken comfort from the same sight that inspired Francis Scott Key. On the tops of skyscrapers, in front of government buildings, on police cars and fire trucks and taxis, on the front porches of thousands of homes, on millions of shirts and blouses and coats, draped on the blackened wall of the Pentagon, we all saw it: Our flag was still there.

That`s proof that the American spirit endures-and you can find it on just about every block in every community in this country. This simple, reassuring fact provides a firm foundation, I believe, for the work we have to do.

In times like these, our first thoughts naturally are for the well-being of our families and our fellow citizens. But beyond these immediate personal concerns, I believe we have a specific and critically important responsibility as preservationists. We`re all aware of the importance of healing the nation`s physical wounds, of strengthening the nation`s defenses -- but we can`t lose sight of the importance of nurturing the nation`s soul.

In the context of this pressing need to heal and move on, our work as preservationists has an importance -- a relevance -- that is greater than ever before.

Think for a moment about where the blows fell on September 11. Not on missile bases or factories or power plants or shipyards. No, the targets were people and buildings that symbolize America`s military and economic strength. Did the terrorists really believe that an attack on the Pentagon would bring our military to its knees? Or that destroying the World Trade Center would shatter America`s financial structure? Probably not -- but they recognized the enormous importance of symbols.

As preservationists, we recognize their importance too. We know that place has power.

We know that we can read about our history in books, but we also know that facts on paper are no more or less important than truth on the ground -- truth made tangible in place.

History says, "This is what happened." Preservation says, "Right here" -- and that simple addition gives our knowledge of history an immediacy that is absolutely essential if we hope to make an understanding of the past a springboard to a better future.

Similarly, we can learn about shared values from mentors at home, in school or a house of worship, but those values take on a new and amplified reality when we can see them embodied in a place. Back in 1966, the visionaries who sought to define the work of preservation in the groundbreaking report With Heritage So Rich encapsulated this concept when they wrote that our movement`s ultimate success would be determined by its ability to "give a sense of orientation to our society, using structures and objects of the past to establish values of time and place."

The places we cherish -- the places that we, as preservationists, work to save -- are symbols, but they are not abstractions. They are real and tangible. They surround, support, and illuminate almost every aspect of our daily lives. And they embody our most fundamental values.

The nation`s schools symbolize the value of education, the importance of good citizenship. Our courthouses embody our commitment to the rule of law. State capitols and city halls are monumental representations of the grandeur and stability of democratic government. Shrines like the Lincoln Memorial and the Statue of Liberty refresh the wells of patriotism that lie deep within us. Churches and synagogues and mosques symbolize our freedom to worship as we please. Barns and fields and farmhouses remind us of our strong ties to the land and summon images of the restless, adventurous spirit that pushed us across a continent. Main Streets from coast to coast are a bricks-and-mortar textbook on the virtues of hard work and free enterprise. Residential neighborhoods everywhere speak eloquently about the things that we cherish most: community, family, home.

They are buildings, certainly. But they are much more than that. They are the places we depend on as anchors in a restless, uncertain world. They are the wellsprings of the sense of continuity that one historian has called "part of the very backbone of human dignity." They are the magnets that pull us together to commemorate, to celebrate, to mourn, to mark the major passages in our national life. They are, in effect, the story of us as a nation and a people-a powerful story written in wood and stone and steel. We need them. Preservationists have been saying that for a long time, and now -- probably more than ever before -- people understand what we mean. A part of what makes us human is our need to belong to a specific place with a history, a geography, and a set of values.

A nation at war needs these places more than ever. Arthur Schlesinger has written that the recent history of America is a story of "too much pluribus and not enough unum."

In times like these, unity is essential. An understanding of the history and values that we share is part of the cultural "glue" that binds us together, that keeps our society from cracking apart into dozens of separate pieces. If we`re to meet the challenge of living in a changed world, it is imperative that we pledge our best efforts to recognizing and safeguarding the places that help give us a sense of community -- and a sense of continuity.

We need these places -- but we can lose them. We`ve always known they are fragile, but last month, in images that will stay with us for the rest of our lives, we were reminded of just how quickly and stunningly our symbols can be taken from us. For some time now, we`ve been saying that the National Trust`s mission is to protect the irreplaceable. In the aftermath of September 11 we realize anew, with a terrible clarity, how important this mission is.

More than 150 years ago, the English artist and critic John Ruskin wrote, "Architecture is to be regarded by us with the most serious thought. We may live without her, we may worship without her, but we cannot remember without her."

In times like these, we need to remember who we are. It`s essential to remember the long process that made us Americans, to remember the struggles, the crises, the triumphs that we`ve known in the past -- and to be sustained and empowered by that memory. This means that, more than ever before, we preservationists must work to ensure that the places that embody what America stands for are kept safe, firm, and alive so that we can continue to learn from them, be enriched by them, draw strength and inspiration from them.

So what happens now? It`s a complicated question, but it has, I think, a deceptively simple answer: We go on.

As individual Americans, we`ll go on with our lives. As preservationists, we`ll go on with our job, strengthened by a renewed conviction that our job is essential to the unity and well-being of the nation we love.

There is plenty of work to be done right now. There is an entire sector of a city to be repaired or rebuilt. There are thousands of businesses, institutions, and individuals to be housed. Perhaps most important, there is a wound in the nation`s soul to be healed.

It`s an enormous job -- and I`m very pleased to report that the National Trust has already rolled up its sleeves and started to work. Here`s a quick snapshot of what we`re doing:

  • The Trust is participating in a working group of ten public- and private-sector organizations that will undertake a comprehensive, coordinated effort to assess damage to historic buildings in lower Manhattan and deal with other preservation issues stemming from the tremendous damage in that area.

  • As an outgrowth of this collaboration with our New York partners, the National Trust is one of five organizations that have established the Lower Manhattan Emergency Preservation Fund, which will make grants to help alleviate the impact of the disaster and to stabilize, renovate, and restore damaged historic sites in Lower Manhattan. We`ve already pledged $10,000 to this fund, and we`re prepared to do more.

  • The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a National Trust historic site located within sight of Ground Zero, opened its doors to shelter those fleeing the financial district on September 11. Now, as part of its longstanding commitment to programs that promote cultural tolerance and understanding, the museum-with support from Trust employee contributions -- is launching new initiatives focusing on understanding the Arab- American experience.

  • National Trust staff are also contributing to the Service Employees September 11th Relief Fund, established to provide assistance to the thousands of janitors, day porters, security guards, tour guides, and other service employees working in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon who were injured in the attacks, or who are out of work indefinitely because of the damage to these buildings, as well as help to the survivors of those killed.

These efforts mark the mere beginning of what will be a long process of recovery and rebuilding. I`m convinced that it will challenge this organization and the preservation movement as a whole. Fortunately we are positioned to meet the challenge effectively. Our financial base is strong and getting stronger. And our programs to help Americans appreciate their heritage and strengthen efforts to save it are meeting unprecedented success.

My confidence in the National Trust`s ability to meet this challenge extends to the preservation movement as a whole. We`ve never been stronger. Historic sites across the country are doing a better job than ever of linking us with our past and reminding us of its relevance to our daily lives. There are more -- and more effective -- statewide and local organizations than ever before. Together, we`re making a real difference -- a difference you can see in landmark buildings put to innovative uses; in traditional downtowns given new economic life; in historic neighborhood schools adapted to provide state-of-the-art learning environments for today`s students; in farmland and open spaces protected from wasteful sprawl; in historic sites where interpretive programs bring our heritage alive; and in communities rescued from decades of disinvestment and deterioration.

Because of the great strides our movement has made in recent decades, it`s hard to find a city or town where preservation`s benefits aren`t clearly and proudly -- and even profitably -- displayed. This widespread success is helping vast new audiences learn what you and I have always known: that preservation is not about buildings, it`s about lives. It`s about saving historic places, not just as isolated bits of architecture and landscape, not just as lifeless monuments, but as environments where we can connect with the lives of the generations that came before us, places where we can build and maintain safe, rich, meaningful lives for ourselves and the generations that will come after us.

Our strengths, our skills, our experience, and our unique perspective will see us through this challenge. But I am convinced that it won`t be easy -- and what`s more, it certainly won`t be quick. In the altered context in which we now operate, many questions remain to be answered:

  • How will the changing and uncertain state of the economy affect us?

  • How will the events of September 11 affect the growing momentum of the back-to-the-city movement?

  • Can we take steps to ensure that smart-growth issues such as improved passenger rail and mass-transit options and increased development density are included in the national recovery agenda?

  • Can we develop innovative yet sensitive ways to address the very real concerns for public safety in historic buildings and gathering places?

  • How can we best help the public understand the importance of a strong commitment to historic preservation as an essential component of building our national unity?

These are tough questions. There are dozens more, all equally challenging. We`ll need time and perspective and lots of serious conversation before we find answers to them.

As Americans, one of our greatest strengths is our identity. Knowing who we are makes us strong. Knowing where we came from makes us confident. Knowing the legacy we have inherited makes us part of a powerful partnership between past, present, and future.

Passing on that knowledge -- of who we are, where we came from, and what is the legacy that shapes and enriches us -- is what preservation is all about. It`s what makes preservation such important -- and yes, noble -- work.

The Talmud tells us, "We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are." As preservationists, we have a unique way of seeing things. Our vision can help America find its way through the uncertainties of this new world. We will pass on that vision.

As preservationists, we understand the strength that comes from a shared sense of the rich heritage that is ours as Americans. We will pass on that heritage -- and the strength that grows with it.

We know that our work is America`s work. We know that the heritage we share is worthy of our best efforts to save it. We know that the skills and vision we offer have never been more important -- or more needed. We have an enormous job to do -- but it`s the same job we`ve been doing for a long time, and we know how to do it well.

So let us go forward with a renewed sense of purpose. The heritage we preserve will sustain us in these very different and trying times. The heritage we pass on will enrich and inspire generations of Americans to come.

Publication Date: Winter 2002

#whypreserve #ForumJournal

Author(s):Richard Moe