Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Celebrating Preservation’s Story: “It’s your memory. It’s our history. It’s worth saving.”  

12-09-2015 17:35

I hope the irony of my being here is obvious to us all. Before me is a room full of serious preservationists, many of you professionals, most of you having traveled countless miles at great expense. On top of that, you plunked down an extra $35 dollars to hear the earth-shattering and cutting edge message that preserving history is important.

What’s wrong with this picture?

I think it is safe to assume that most of you regularly climb up on your soapbox to passionately preach to your neighbors, your elected officials, property owners, and the press that preserving history is the right thing to do. Now I’m here on my soapbox proclaiming that your history— the work you do, the work your predecessors have done, the accomplishments of your organizations—is a valuable and extremely fragile legacy. It is a rich resource to be managed and mined, a crop of intellectual capital to be harvested, a treasure trove of knowledge and inspiration— you get the point: It’s valuable and needs to be protected.

Well, brothers and sisters in preservation, I’m here today to preach that indeed the history of preservation, like the history of our country, like the history of the place you call home, like the history of dead boring white men, or dynamic dead women, or like the history of immigration, slavery, organized labor, or roadside architecture—our history is important. After all it’s your memory, it’s our history, and it’s worth saving.

Is there a need for me to preach this gospel today? Sadly, yes. How many of your hometowns have a written history of their preservation movement? New York City is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the passage of our landmarks law and we still lack a history of how the law came into being. How many of your organizations have a written history of their accomplishments? Routinely I work with young preservation colleagues who have no sense of preservation’s recent past, let alone its distant past, let alone the history of the organization for which they work. It is not their fault; how would they know it? Through osmosis?

So why have we as preservationists devoted so little energy and shown seemingly such little interest in our own history? Is this a case of the shoemaker’s children going barefoot? I like to think that we have been so busy saving other people’s history that we haven’t had time for our own. I do not want to think it is because we don’t believe our own history is important. Actually, I think the real explanation mirrors one theory on the evolution of civilizations. As a community, for decades and decades, preservation has needed all hands on deck to confront the issue of basic survival: keeping the wrecking ball at bay, keeping the roof patched, building a constituency for preservation, passing legislation—so there has not been the capacity to devote significant energy to gathering and preserving our history. The good news is times have changed—and not a moment too soon.

Why Document Our History?

Why is it so important to document our own history? First, it has practical application. For example it provides you that insider knowledge needed to appreciate preservation in-jokes like the title of this talk. How many of you recognize the phrase: “It’s your memory. It’s our history. It’s worth saving?” If you knew history you’d recognize it as the National Trust’s tag lines from more than a decade ago.

Why is preservation’s history important?

Lost in the rubble of many a cherished demolished building are lessons that could save the next threatened gem. Behind the passage of a local landmarks ordinance is frequently found the tale of a threatened or lost local icon. Scratch the surface of a preservation victory and one is likely to find an “average citizen” whose David vs. Goliath struggle verges on the miraculous.

Again, if you knew preservation’s recent history you’d recognize these last few sentences as having been lifted verbatim from an article that appeared in Historic Preservation News in l994 entitled “Preservation Starts at Home: Preserving Our Own Story.” OK, so no one listened to me then but this time I’ve got a captive audience. No one leaves until they take the pledge that they will go home and start documenting, preserving, and celebrating their own chapter of preservation’s history.

Those of you who know me are aware that first and foremost I am a preservation advocate. So why am I beating this drum, and why did I and a small band of likeminded preservationists launch a group, the New York Preservation Archive Project, dedicated to documenting, preserving, and celebrating the history of preservation in New York? I consider documenting, preserving, and celebrating preservation’s story one of the greatest advocacy acts imaginable. For preservationists, knowing our own history is empowering in countless ways. There is the sense of power that comes from belonging to a grand tradition. We have heroes and heroines of our own to inspire and guide us. I frequently take comfort in lessons learned from the life of Albert Bard, the forgotten civic leader whose name is on the authorizing legislation providing the legal foundation for New York’s landmarks law. For more than 40 years he fought to advance the notion that aesthetic regulation was a proper use of the police power. Finally at the age of 89 he saw it come to pass. Lesson learned: If one lives long enough and is persistent enough, one can prevail.

The thoughtful preservationists Randy Mason and Max Page ask in their book, Giving Preservation a History, “How might preservation look different in the future if practitioners examined critically their movement’s history.” How can we begin to “examine critically” our work if we haven’t even documented it?

Preservation’s history provides a needed sense of perspective and context for our work. Perhaps this is the most important reason to capture it. Do you want to go to a doctor practicing medicine the same way doctors did 40 years ago? Preservation often seems oblivious to the fact that it too is subject to the passage of time; it too happens within a historic context. Lacking a sense of time, self-reflection, and context, preservationists can either find themselves reinventing the wheel or desperately clinging to the wheel when it should be abandoned for jet propulsion.

Developing an Archival Mindset

In speaking today, I have a modest goal—to transform the entire culture of the historic preservation movement. I want us to be a movement that consciously documents, preserves, and celebrates its own history. However, I am willing to redefine success as having won over a handful of converts.

As preservationists we need to develop an archival mindset as we go about our work. Now I understand you and your organizations have lots of free time and oodles of extra money to take on a new assignment. Hence, you will be disappointed to learn you don’t need them for this task. They are nice but not essential. In New York we’ve managed to move this agenda forward without lots of either.

In part we do this by following three operating mantras. The first is: “One is the loneliest number.” We always try to work in partnership with other organizations. We are fully aware that our mission and cause are not at the top of anyone’s priority list but our own; we realize to reach a broader audience we have to “imbed” ourselves in other organizations.

When we did our program on the long-forgotten civic leader Robert Weinberg —an architect, a passionate defender of Greenwich Village, and a member of multiple civic organizations— we first reminded the organizations in which he had been involved of his existence and then partnered with them to bring our program to their audience. In true Tom Sawyer paint-the-fence fashion, we were able to leverage their membership lists, mailings, websites, you name it, to get our message before new and broader audiences.

Our second operational mantra is captured in the old farm adage, “No part of the pig is wasted except the squeal.” And when we are audio taping we don’t even waste that. The point is we get double or triple duty out of almost every project we undertake. Take our oral history work. Those transcripts become content for our website; we videotape the interview and it becomes part of our cable television series. We invite an audience to watch and, voilà, we have a public program.

Our final operating mantra is to “walk the talk.” We have to live the archival mindset, which means document, document, document. Obvious as this is, if you don’t think about documenting your work, it does not happen. We try to capture all that we do on video or audiotape. Since many of our events not only present information but gather it from the speakers and from guests in the audience, if we don’t document it, we lose it.

Five Easy Steps

I know at this moment you are asking yourself, “How can I help Tony change the culture of preservation? What are the five easy, low-cost/no-cost things I can do when I get back home?” Well, here’s the list:

  1. Make sure that preservation’s story is included in all the stories you are already telling. Do your historic house tours and your walking tours of historic districts tell the story of how these places got saved? They should. Yes, it is important to know the architect of the building but what of the preservationists whose efforts spared it from demolition? If there hadn’t been citizens fighting to save those buildings, the public would be seeing them in a book, not on your walking tour.
  2. Use naming opportunities to keep the legacies of preservation heroes and heroines alive. Name your existing awards, your donor categories, your events after early leaders or great events in the history of preservation in your community. Our annual fundraising event is the Bard Birthday Benefit Breakfast Bash. We keep Bard’s memory alive while filling our coffers.
  3. Use your anniversaries. At the archive project, we consider ourselves the Hallmark Cards of preservation; we are the anniversary people. Celebrate your anniversaries and make those celebrations substantial and meaningful.

    On October 28, 2003, we commemorated the 40th anniversary of the start of the demolition of Pennsylvania Station. As part of this we wanted to salute the courageous individuals who took some concrete action to try and save the station. We researched old newspaper stories, old hearing records, and unearthed other archival material. We developed a database of almost 300 people who had written letters, testified, or picketed in defense of Penn Station. We went to work to track them down. We learned that about a third had already “gone to their reward.” We did make contact with dozens of surviving veterans spread across the country and even some in Europe. They were moved that someone remembered.

    The program featured a series of readings about Penn Station, ranging from the lyrical passage in Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again to the now-famous New York Times editorial:
    Until the first blow fell no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism…

    It concludes:
    Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.

    Yes, preservation has its own literary classics. Isn’t it time we rediscover them?

    Reading at the event were preservation luminaries such as the authors Tony Hiss and Roberta Gratz; participants from the original picketing of Penn Station, Peter Samton and Richard Kaplan; and preservation leaders Tony Tung and Adele Chatfield Taylor. Projected images of the station and its demolition accompanied the readings. The sense of outrage over this loss, even 40 years later, was still palpable in the room. Many eyes in the audience filled with tears. Of course, we videotaped it.

    During the reception we honored all the veterans who had made it to the event. Inspired by the National Trust’s advisor emeritus black ribbons, we had “Penn Station 40th” black ribbons printed up. We had two oral history stations gathering memories from the veterans and others who had a Penn Station story to tell. Some of the veterans had not seen each other for 40 years. The event honored the past but in the process inspired and energized those fighting preservation’s battles today.

  4. Go out and capture those memories. Remember, it’s all about the people. Get those who lived the story to tell it; capture it through their eyes. We do straightforward oral histories in office settings and we’ve also spiced it up, creating other formats allowing for more public engagement and involvement. Recently we did a series of programs called “Sages and Stages.” In an intimate setting, we organized cross-generational conversations on long-standing preservation issues. We paired an established preservation leader (the Sage) with a young emerging preservation leader. A series of lead questions were prepared in advance and the young leader used them to generate a conversation with the Sage. The audience was then invited to join in.

    One in our series focused on historic districts. The Sage was Otis Pratt Pearsall who was involved in the campaign to protect New York City’s first historic district, Brooklyn Heights, back before there even was a landmarks law. He was interviewed by Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the organization largely responsible for achieving the designation of the city’s then newest historic district, the Gansevoort Market Historic District. The subject and the participants brought more than 40 years of preservation history spanning over 80 historic districts to the table. Of course, the program was videoed and became part of our television series.

    We have developed another format that combines a traditional slide lecture with an oral history “open mike.” The lecture is based on original research conducted on an important yet forgotten preservationist. In the course of the research we identify individuals who knew the historic figure (and are still living) and arrange for them to come to the program. After the slide lecture they come to the mike and add their memories. We then open the mike to anyone in the audience with other memories to add. Of course, the session is taped and transcribed. And, yes, it becomes a cable television show.

  5. My last suggestion is for you to be good stewards of your own history and your own records. By you I mean both you as individual preservationists and you as members of preservation organizations. As you go about doing your work, remember at some point in the future someone could be interested in it. Don’t make them piece it together from press clippings and odd scraps of paper—I’ve tried, it isn’t pretty. Write up case studies of your efforts. Even if all you have time to do is write a memo to the file, do it. In New York today we are witnessing perhaps the most sophisticated grassroots preservation battle the city has ever seen: the battle to save 2 Columbus Circle. Win, lose, or draw—in the future preservationists are going to want to study this effort. What will they have to study if it isn’t documented along the way?

So keep and treat your files as though they are what they are, historic records. Develop an organizational archive. If you have personal papers documenting an important episode in preservation’s history, don’t expect your heirs to know they are important; make arrangements for their future. Too many important papers have gone to the dumpster instead of the archive.

“Just do it”

In closing, I urge you to embrace one final mantra, Nike’s “Just do it.” Don’t get overwhelmed by the thought of all that it will involve. Remember, as preservation’s history shows time and again, it is those who did not know that they could not save the endangered site who, indeed, do save it.

My interest in preservation’s history began innocently enough. Some years ago, when I moved to New York as an aspiring preservationist, I wanted to read the history of the movement I hoped to join. Discovering there was nothing to read, I set out in search of preservation’s story. Along the way I’ve conducted oral histories, explored archives, bent many ears, launched an organization, raised some money, and have been accused of starting a cult worshiping that great unappreciated preservationist Albert Bard.

Currently I am at work on a book you all will be buying for Christmas 2007 called Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect the City’s Landmarks. It tells the story of the people and places, the buildings and the battles, and the politics and processes that led to the passage of New York City’s landmarks law—at least that’s the rap for the Oprah show. With some luck it will be followed by a work on the great Bard—and I don’t mean that English fellow.

As you might imagine, if some 25 years ago I had known what I was getting into, I’d never have taken the first step down this path. The good news is if I can do this, you can too.

I can promise you that preservation’s history will never bore you and it never ceases to inspire. Documenting, preserving, and celebrating your community’s preservation history will better equip your community to successfully meet the challenges ahead. As a movement we need the perspective and context that only come from knowing our own past. Unfortunately, in this case, time is not on our side. So, remember, “It’s your memory. It’s our history. It’s worth saving.” Now go home and do something about it.

Publication Date: Winter 2006


Author(s):Anthony C. Wood

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