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The Art and Economics of Historic Preservation 

12-09-2015 17:35

The most important statement I will make today is this: Thanks to each and every one of you for what you’re doing for America. You are passionate preservationists, the best example of what public service is all about in America. You give, and you give a lot—of your time, your talent, and your treasures.

In doing this, you make us proud as Americans. In fact, I would argue that you are one of the strongest examples of what is required to keep a democracy healthy. You are a lifeline to the past for the American people—and therefore a guide to their future. You stimulate the relationships of people with their past. You remind us that we are only as good as the legacy that we will leave. Yet you must feel sometimes that you are swimming against the tide. Americans are so beset, you might say besieged, by the present that we typically ignore our history. We do so only at our own peril. Without understanding its value, we too often let it be swept aside through demolition—ironically, in the name of progress. You are only too familiar with a corrosive cynicism that has spread across our land, an attitude that considers all problems too big, all solutions too painful. We run the risk of letting that cynicism rewrite history—a debilitating and even dangerous course. We need to be reminded that our political processes are an experiment in self-governance. We have a set of rights, but it comes with an equally important set of responsibilities to be active, not passive, citizens. Just as we cherish our rights, we should rise to our responsibilities. You, in fact, do that. You understand, better than anyone, that place matters, connecting us to community and to one another. Your good work penetrates the consciousness of Americans. It shows us that we have roots, which connect us to our neighbors and to civic society at large. You provide connections, not to an abstract past, but to a full engagement with life. You transform. You provide essential roots to what it means to be an American, to be a proud citizen of this great country.

To prepare for my visit to Savannah, I tapped into the city’s web site. After I clicked on "points of interest," I was directed to two specific places: the Savannah mall and the 22 historic squares. The virtual reality of cyberspace introduced me to sites that not only are physical realities, but more: It seemed to me that the combination of the two makes a statement about the past and the present. Savannah started with 24 squares, so 22 squares after more than two centuries isn’t bad preservation. It’s probable, of course, that many more would be long gone, if it were not for people like you. Under the guise of progress, urban sprawl would have plowed them under, and built on their space and in their surrounding neighborhoods a city of a very different character.

Much undoubtedly would have been lost. Some people might argue that a certain amount of loss was irrelevant. After all, after a time, the squares were surely not used as market areas, part of the idea behind the work of James Oglethorpe and William Bull in 1730s, when they laid out the squares. But markets are not everything, and certainly the good citizens of Savannah would have lost a lot in sheer livability. And they would have lost a part of their civic soul. The later generations would not have had real places that connected their history with their present. That sort of renewal is taking place all over America, thanks to people like you and Lee Adler and to the work you are engaged in. We are reclaiming our public areas as intersections for social interaction. I’m not talking about nostalgia. If we wanted nostalgia, we could make do with photographs and individual memory. We need real places. Town squares and parks—properly kept, inviting, perceived as essential—are real places. A little-understood characteristic of democracy is that it requires association: People must come together. That’s how individuals become a body politic. Green areas help us come together. We don’t build those kinds of squares anymore. We can’t lose the ones we have. We do, of course, build malls. Not many people think that malls may have a mission in our civic life, but Paul Goldberger, of all people, comes close. A writer on architecture and culture for both The New Yorker and The New York Times, Goldberger understands great buildings and the importance of historic preservation. In talking about the democratic essence of association, which he calls "the urban impulse," he says: "Even though many people never get to express that impulse anywhere better than a mall, there is still some kind of public experience to that. Going to the mall is not shopping on QVC, and this public experience, meager though it is, counts for something." For an intense, intricate experience of place, many people think of Grand Central Station. It’s not grass, and it’s not where people come to linger, but it’s certainly where they congregate—500,000 each day—and it most definitely is a place for the commuters who use it. Tony Hiss, in his book The Experience of Place, has written movingly about being swept up in the current of humanity passing through, aware that they cannot halt the stream, yet intensely absorbing the ambience. He put his finger on a fascinating contradiction of that station: You are moving swiftly toward your train or the city streets, yet you are aware of an intimacy—so tuned in to your neighbors that if the person in front of you makes a sudden turn, you easily go around; and the person behind you moves appropriately, too. It’s magic—and real. It’s not for commuters alone, of course. The much-welcomed and heralded renovation brought amenities—shops and restaurants—that will give other people a reason to pass through. Most of all, perhaps, the work of renewal renews us all. A New York Times headline on the station’s reopening caught the spirit: "Restoration Liberates Grand Vistas—and Ideas."

You have to count yourself lucky to grow up with the rootedness of place. I grew up in a place that’s all about history—Charlottesville, Virginia. People from Charlottesville never think of simply the name of the town. In our minds, the name is actually "Charlottesville: Home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, and the University of Virginia." Whenever you go there, you can’t help but be imbued by the architecture and the symbolism. When you grow up there, the meaning of it simply gets into your bloodstream. When I was a child, Monticello had just emerged from a phase of restoration. It was coming into its own as a museum that spoke to the present as much as about the past. I’d give tours to visiting relatives and friends. I took pride in showing them around. They were invariably moved, as they connected with their nation’s history. As for me, I felt good about being from a place that had a heritage, a place that mattered. I was from somewhere. I’m not sure when I realized that this was not exclusively due to Thomas Jefferson. It was also due to generations of public-spirited preservationists who made sure that Monticello was ready to receive me when I was ready to understand what it meant.
Fate put me in a position to deepen those feelings and then build on them. I came to Philadelphia. Charlottesville has two grand things. Philadelphia, many more. The most noted ones are from the same period as Monticello, but Philadelphia had gone on to build many more treasures through the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian era, and other periods. What also was new to me was how much was taken for granted and—to be polite about it—neglected. One example is the Fairmount Water Works, a complex of buildings done in the Greek Revival Style in 1811. At first, it gave Philadelphians a constant source of clean water. In 1909, when the demand for filtered water made the facility obsolete, it was converted into one of the country’s first aquariums. But the fish left long ago. It might be the second-most illustrated building in the city, the first being Independence Hall. It was a highlight of a photographic exhibition of American cities sent to London in 1851 for the first world’s fair, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. In eight daguerreotypes, it showed "the sweep and scope of this grand American vision." It should have been a proud site. It has been designated a national landmark for history and both mechanical and civil engineering. It has a prime location, along the banks of the Schuylkill River, well used by locals and visitors to the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art. But local citizens somehow forgot its pedigree and grandeur. The Water Works fell into neglect and decay. It became a highly visible eyesore, less a mark of 19th-century industrial progress than a symbol of 20th-century urban decline and embarrassment. In 1980 it earned one more landmark designation: "endangered." Perhaps worst of all, Philadelphians were debating not how it should be restored, but whether to restore it at all. Some recommended simply pushing it into the Schuylkill River. Happily the tide has turned for the Fairmount Water Works, thanks initially to two bold citizens. Now, the city and state, foundations, and individuals have committed some $12 million to restore this treasure. This wide base of support proves that the Water Works has a community that cares about it. In fact, once the ball got rolling, the money flowed rather quickly. Soon this facility will stand gleaming in a thriving public place. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has new landscaping. The waterfront trail is being extended farther toward Center City. A new recreation center anchoring our famous Boathouse Row is nearly completed. At the Pew Trusts, we consider this kind of historic preservation and urban revitalization not simply a contribution to the urban ambience, but also a symbol of civic spirit. We think it helps Philadelphians feel better about their city, and it helps suburbanites and tourists think better of us. We’re betting that it improves the quality of civic life and the willingness of individual citizens to come together as a community. The renovation of Independence Mall, currently under way, is a similar call to action. Crisscrossing an area where the Founding Fathers strolled and worked, looking at our national treasures, all within a modern context that helps them interpret the experience, visitors will return home, across town or across the country, energized to carry the democratic spirit, ready to participate in the issues of the day. In a thematically related initiative, the Pew Trusts are partnering with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the Millennium Project: Save America’s Treasures. We have committed funds to restore and protect the Charters of Freedom—the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Star-Spangled Banner—and to increase public awareness that many of our national historic objects and facilities desperately need repair. We have also committed resources to editing and publishing the papers of the Founding Fathers, returning some of our most important historic documents to their proper home at Independence Hall, and restoring the diaries of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Our reasons are philanthropic, but also very personal. The founders of the Pew Charitable Trusts believed fervently that this country had given them many blessings: not simply financial means but also a deep understanding of what it means to live in a strong and healthy democracy. They understood America as a place that values freedom of speech and conscience as well as freedom of action, a place that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship, that supports volunteerism and philanthropy—without which organizations like the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Pew Charitable Trusts wouldn’t exist. The strong convictions of our founders live in their foundation today; our grants to protect our national icons reflect our continuing pride in America’s past and faith in its future. This year happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Pew Trusts. What better way to celebrate, and remind ourselves of our shared heritage, than to contribute to the preservation of our national treasures. We regard these efforts as our way of renewing our Pledge of Allegiance. Underlying all of our optimism is a changed approach at the Pew Trusts. Our goal is the same: We are working for the public good. But, in 1948, when our doors opened, grant making was closer to a personal act of charity. Today’s world has greater needs, tougher challenges, and more competition for limited resources. Grant making, accordingly, is closer to a strategic investment; and at the Pew Trusts, we are thinking more like venture capitalists, seeking to derive the greatest benefit from every strategic application of time, people, and capital. In our case, return on investment is not measured in profits but in long-lasting, positive and powerful benefits to the public.
When we cannot determine that a grant will have leverage, input, and a long-term public benefit, I’m afraid we sometimes have to walk away. So some of our stories do not have happy endings, and this is one of them. Ninety years ago, opera impresario Oscar Hammerstein built the Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia. Our Met, in the Renaissance Revival Style, was a huge public space. It seated more than 3,000 people. Its stage handled the full cast of Aida, elephants and all. The orchestra pit is large enough for a full-court basketball game—and it has been used for that. This Met was internationally known for its superb acoustics, surpassing even current technical standards; audiences heard Caruso there. One of the most thrilling moments of my tenure at the Pew Trusts involves the Met’s acoustics. Luciano Pavarotti came to town several years ago, and he wanted to stand on the stage where Caruso sang. We had an option on the building at the time to keep it from the wrecking ball. Mr. Pavarotti and I went there, and he directed me to a distant balcony; it seemed miles away. He stood on the stage and whispered. I heard his every word as if he had been standing next to me. Then he began to sing. And he filled the hall. Those impeccable acoustics took the compass of his voice to the farthest reaches, despite fallen plaster and an enormous plastic tarpaulin over the seating and the disarray. During the year that we held the option, we commissioned a study that recommended saving this cultural landmark, restoring it to use for large-scale popular entertainment. Restoration was tied into fuller economic development of the area. But the Met stands in a community dominated by empty lots and abandoned buildings; hundreds of residential structures are vacant or substandard. The recommendations were very specific. Without a huge financial and economic investment, a restored Met would be an island unto itself, even though the Met is only 18 blocks from City Hall. No one would come to its shows, and, worse, it would mean nothing to the community and fall back into decay. The vision presented in the study was ambitious, and there was no opposition to it. But the price tag was enormous, and the climate for the project was poor. Well, the option expired and, with the advice we had received, we could not go forward. The Met stands today, but it’s a likely bet that some day it won’t. No one’s civic pride or sense of community will be expanded on that day. On the other hand, we wouldn’t want a blanket policy that protects only what history has told us is important. Too many places deserve our attention, and resources are finite. The preservation movement, in communities as well as nationally, has to think hard about the competing claims for priority, and then exercise a form of triage. That’s very hard, and there’s no single, right answer. But I feel certain that those not bold enough to set priorities are going to spread themselves too thin to succeed. The hardest thing in life is to make choices. Even at my own institution, we remind ourselves constantly to focus, and stay focused, in order to make tough, informed choices. Grant making has this approach in common with the preservation movement: We want to consolidate our wins in order to build on them. Smart, well-informed leadership can make conscious, realistic decisions, or else one’s programs will be at the whim of decisions made by the market. We’d rather be in control of our destiny; we keep in mind the truism that nothing succeeds like success. That does not mean that we don’t take risks. Rather, we use triage skills to help us set priorities and think strategically. You have to do the same. It’s idealism and vision, but with an anchor.
Idealism needs an anchor, and aspiration needs accountability. We consider the Independence Mall project a positive example of putting those lofty yet pragmatic concepts to work. Independence Mall, of course, is national in implication, since it involves what is arguably America’s most historic square mile. Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell are two pendants of inestimable value to this nation and to every citizen. You may well know the vicissitudes of use and ownership that once brought both the hall and the bell, early in the 19th century, to the edge of extinction, and how they were rescued by the good work and wisdom of your predecessors in historic preservation. I won’t recount those valiant struggles. In recent decades Philadelphia has tried to give those treasures a suitable home. In the 1950s, a mall was created northward for three blocks from Independence Hall. But it’s trisected by city streets, and the farther north you stroll, the less company you have; the farthest reaches are virtually deserted. In 1996, the American Institute of Architects gave it a withering review: "Independence Mall is a space, but it is not yet a place." The Trusts have played an active role in two current projects that will help re-create the rich sense of place at Independence Mall, correct the miscalculations of the past, and be in tune with the expectations of visitors. The Gateway Visitors Center and mall restoration effort was initiated with a $10 million grant, on condition that others follow suit. The state and city met the challenge, and the Walter and Lenore Annenberg Foundation and others added their support. In addition to a new interpretive visitors’ center and a National Constitution Center, the first museum and educational site dedicated to the seminal governing document of the United States, the mall will include a new home for the Liberty Bell, new landscaping, and other visitor amenities. When it’s complete, visitors will feel comfortable. They’ll be entertained and educated and uplifted. They’ll experience those goose bumps we all get when we first see a shrine. Most of all, they’ll have a sense of belonging. They’ll connect. The Pew Trusts have heard some criticism for promoting tourism. Obviously, we’re not selling souvenirs or hotel packages. But the vitality of Philadelphia is crucial to us, and the economic picture is integral to that. In some sectors of the arts and culture world, the idea of paying attention to economics borders on heresy. But ignore the purse strings, and you introduce a disastrous mind-set for an ongoing enterprise. Like the arts generally, if historic preservation is to have staying power, it has to be relevant to people’s lives. The Field of Dreams strategy—build it or preserve it and they will come—is simply not viable. We’re obliged, as good stewards, to think about the long-term consequences of our initiatives. Good governance and management demand no less.
That kind of rigor is also a sign of good board stewardship. The traditional view was that, since what we do is for the public good, we need not be as accountable as for-profit organizations. That approach is dead wrong. If anything, the boards of our organizations should and often do hold themselves to a higher standard. Members must be involved in seeing that the organization is well run and uses its resources wisely. They cannot be inward-looking. They must be accountable, because historic preservation affects the cultural legacy of all citizens. Board members who are "no-shows" and provide only the prestige of their names on the letterhead infect the organization as a whole with their own inefficiency. The board is too pivotal an asset for dead wood. You will some day be asked to support a specific project that you know should not go forward. As a strong steward, you might be alone in leading your institution into making a tough decision, but in fact, in the long run, be better serving your organization and the broader community interest. Wise stewards lead with their heads as well as their hearts. You need to be tough and talented, competent and committed, creative and clever, politic and persuasive and—most of all—smart and very successful. The stakes are too high for slack. There’s a telling observation in a new book, Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown by Roberta Brandes Gratz: "Preservation is the most underrated catalyst for urban rebirth nationwide." To me, that’s a call to action. We know resources will always be limited, but we can’t underrate our ability to mobilize them strategically and multiply their effect—and turn an outcast into a beauty. A favorite among our recent examples is the Ridgway Library in Philadelphia. When film director Terry Gilliam was scouting sites for the 1995 sci-fi thriller 12 Monkeys, he needed an example of what he called "rotting America." One perfect find was the Ridgway Library, on Broad Street, a Greek Revival building designed by Addison Hutton in 1878. By the time Gilliam and his cast, including Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis, arrived, it had been abandoned and neglected for 30 years. After they left, the Pew Trusts and others combined resources to overhaul the building. Some elements were restored. Others were renovated or created for a compatible use as a school, not a library. Today, the new Ridgway—Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts—has taken its place as a southern anchor of the city’s exuberant Avenue of the Arts. This year Ridgway won two awards: the Preservation Achievement Award, for adaptive use of a derelict landmark, from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia; and a National Preservation Award from the National Trust. We appreciate the accolade. Like each of you, however, we’re in the game not for praise but to make a difference, to help citizens connect with their communities and their nation. Historic preservation is not an ornament in the process, but its center. No one knows this synergy better than you. At the Pew Trusts, we see our efforts to encourage civic engagement as key in preserving and promoting this great experiment in self-governance—and, as with any experiment, we refine our processes as we go on. Our focus is sharp: We want a more involved, informed, engaged, and energized citizenry. Citizens are more likely to carry out their civic responsibilities when they have abiding attachment to their immediate locales and to the historical sites we share as a nation. That’s the deep meaning of place, and why place counts. In giving us back our important places, historic preservation doesn’t simply preserve. It nurtures, and it creates. The historian David McCullough once said that in times of peace and prosperity we build and restore and rejuvenate cathedrals. Well, this is the most prosperous time that anyone can remember in America, and it is peaceful. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our cathedral were to be the rebuilding of our civic fabric: realizing that place does matter, celebrating everything in this great country that binds us together, understanding and accommodating to the differences that divide. That truly would be the best cathedral that we could pass to those who follow us: a healthy appreciation of history and a big dose of hopefulness about our future.

Publication Date: Winter 1999


Author(s):Rebecca W. Rimel

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