Forum Bulletin

Reflecting on Nearly Four Decades in Preservation - 10 Thoughts 

12-01-2009 00:00

I thought it would be interesting and hopefully valuable to share with you 10 insights from my perspective of 17 years as executive director of a citywide preservation organization and then 20 years with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  

1. The most valuable perspective is from the ground up. In a community, one knows every day whether a key building or place is saved or not. One walks the streets, and a priority historic building is either there, or not; rehabilitated or deteriorated; full of activity and life, or not. The same is true more broadly of a historic commercial district or residential neighborhood. One's test of success is immediate and unavoidable.

2. The National Trust is the leader of the preservation movement, but it is a servant leader. We are serving all those preservationists across our country who care about historic places, communities, and heritage. We do this, with our national and state partners, by focusing on policy changes, media impact, financial assistance, guidance, and encouragement so that local preservation organizations and communities can better succeed on the ground. The National Trust exists primarily to help local and state preservation efforts succeed. 

3. We need to be there when national calamities threaten, whether man-made or natural, or when huge opportunities beckon.  When huge forces collide with national repercussions, we need to be all hands on deck, despite our work plans, and stand with our local and state partners. Thus, I'm tremendously proud of the National Trust joining all-out with local organizations to fight and defeat the building of Disney's America in the historic countryside of Virginia (Imagine turning this land into a sprawling commercial development replicating American history...with battles between the Monitor and Merrimack on the hour!)  And, the National Trust joining with partners in New Orleans to do whatever it takes to help the city and people recover in a way that its unique character and culture remain intact...and the jury is still out on this. Or when First Lady Hillary Clinton was considering creating the Save America’s Treasures program and asked for examples of need, and Richard Moe called on several of us to create within a few days a booklet of 100 special historic places and materials at risk. These are the times we will always remember.

4. We need to be part of the solution. 

  • Sometimes we find a common threat to a type of historic places, and we and our partners respond with a broader initiative. A few examples. More than 25 years ago our Midwest Office saw the decline of historic downtowns and formulated the Main Street Program. More than 20 years ago our Mountains/Plains Office created BARN AGAIN! to encourage farmers to adapt rather than tear down their barns. Eleven years ago our Northeast Office saw a surge of demolitions in historic areas by chain drugstores, and we created the Chain Drugstore Initiative that engaged Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid and helped save scores if not hundreds of historic buildings. Later the Neighborhood Schools Initiative resulted in the rewriting of publications of the key school designers’ trade organization. And the Modernism + Recent Past Initiative has now been created to raise appreciation of these threatened historic places. 
  • At other times, we identify a need and launch a proactive program. This was the case when preservationists convinced Congress to create the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits, which have now leveraged $50 billion in private investment. Or when the National Trust created the Heritage Tourism Program, which for nearly 20 years has been providing the best in preservation-based assistance to communities. This is now the case with the multi-pronged and critical Sustainability Initiative. And, the Rural Heritage Development Initiative is doing great things with two pilots—but its expansion is a potentiality rather than a reality. 
  • Finally, as we all understood at the National Preservation Conference in Nashville, events are moving at breakneck speed: funding for high-speed trains, solar and wind energy systems, massive power corridors, densification of older urban areas, and so on.

5. Always raise the visibility of preservation.  In the battles to save historic places, the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List is one of the National Trust's great creations. It has now expanded so that 29 states and scores of local organizations also utilize such lists. We need to continue to build the 11 Most list both as a major communications vehicle, but also back it up with greater financial and programmatic assistance.

6. The National Trust is building—and must build—a network, not a single organization. Thus the network of Statewide and Local Partners is critical. The network of Advisors is critical.  And the network of Forum members, Main Street leaders, and National Trust members are all critical parts of this whole.  So are partnerships with other national organizations and government agencies, especially state historic preservation offices—we have to build mutual trust and work like a band of brothers and sisters.

7.  Personal relationships are central to preservation, like most things in life. There is nothing like the bonding that occurs when a committed group fights through a preservation battle or wages an ongoing effort to save and revitalize an area.  One makes friends—and enemies—for life. It is out of such relationships of mutual trust and respect that come long-term support and collaboration. My four-decades relationship with George Mitchell, Dan Thorne, the Favrot family, and more recently Richard Driehaus, are very special examples for me; my sincere hope and expectation is that they will be ongoing partnerships with the National Trust. 

8.  The preservation world is changing.  We see the wonderful proliferation of university and college preservation programs—some 59 at present. We also see the communications revolution with social networking—and thank heaven, David Brown has led the effort to revolutionize our website with PreservationNation. At the same time, we need to be attracting persons skilled in business and law and politics and planning. It is this mix of disciplines—and the mix of nonprofits, for-profits, and government—that will make us a more powerful network and make preservation a valued part of American life. And, in all of this, we need to remember the importance of actual in-person relationships.

9.  Make diversity part of all we do.  Make the historic preservation movement reflect the face of America.

10.  Seek guidance outside preservation.  I know we each have our special books. One of my guides in seeking to work effectively is Steven Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  It is no longer a new book, but it has timeless guidance: habits such as Beginning with the End in Mind, Putting First Things First, and Balancing Production and Production Capacity. I commend it to everyone.

Thank you for allowing me to pursue a passion. This has been nearly four decades of working for historic preservation. I've never regretted my choice. I will also value my friendships with all of you.


Author(s):Peter Brink