PART 1 PRESERVATION MONTH 2020 SERIES
It is officially Preservation Month. In honor of this, we’ll be sharing a series of blog posts specifically related to preservation and the spirit behind it. But, what does preservation mean? And where does Preservation Month come from? As to its formal inception, the National Trust for Historic Preservation shared information last year about the establishment of May as Preservation Month. In 1972, Donald T. Sheehan first proposed a preservation week as a “means of relating local and state preservation progress to the national effort for the mutual benefits of both.” Preservation week was signed into law by President Nixon on May 5th, 1973. In 2005, the National Trust extended the celebration for the entire month of May to provide more opportunity to celebrate the nation’s heritage. However, we’ve previously discussed how the history of formal preservation efforts in the United States extends at least as far back as the 1700’s. Preservation needs have certainly changed in just the last half-century. The future of preservation is less clear, particularly given issues like climate change and COVID-19, which has triggered the National Trust for Historic Preservation to create a virtual Preservation Month for the first time in its history. In keeping with this virtual learning, read on for more of why preservation matters.
Interior of Franklin Street Station, beautifully restored and saved from decay or demolition.
WHY DOES PRESERVATION MATTER?
The best way to answer this question is by turning to the positive benefits and contributions of preservation.
Tom Mayes – attorney and preservationist at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who started a popular series of essays on Why Old Places Matter on the National Trust’s Preservation Leadership Forum and compiled those into his book – shared a photo essay highlighting the main reasons old places matter. Some of his most compelling points in the essay include that old places offer a sense of continuity in a world of constant change; they relate to our individual and collective identities; and they give one a sense of the history that occurred in that place.
These points may be seen as merely sentimental by some. However, they hold even more validity in light of practical implications, especially when contrasted with negative misconceptions about historic preservation. Rhonda Sincavage dispelled some common myths in her Ted Talk, and discussed how much of what people do on a daily basis could be construed as preservation without their even realizing it. Ken Bernstein, Principal City Planner and Manager of the City of Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, also highlighted some of the benefits that can come along with preservation, including things that are often misconstrued in a negative light. To name a few comparisons by Bernstein (and echoed by Sincavage):
- Property Value. Instead of reducing property values, studies show that historic designation and historic districts tend to increase property values.
- Diversity and Inclusivity. While we do agree that there is still much work to do in increasing preservation’s diversity, preservation has evolved to become more inclusive, and is no longer reserved for the “rich and elite.” Many buildings and neighborhoods associated with ethnic minorities and people who were not wealthy have been preserved for their social and cultural relevance.
- Business Impact. Historic preservation is actually good for business in many cases, supported by heritage tourism and revitalization efforts by programs like the National Main Street Center. These programs have created jobs and contributed to economic reinvestment.
- Cost. While Bernstein acknowledges that historic preservation can be quite costly at times (and regular readers of this blog and our other resources will note that Danielle frequently acknowledges that costs generally increase for skilled labor, etc.), he notes that it is typically more cost-effective than new construction. The reason is that upgrades needed are usually cheaper than building entirely new buildings.
- Development Impact. Despite popular belief, preservationists are not simply trying to save everything at the cost of all new development. Their goal extends beyond pure sentiment, and focuses on saving relevant historical places in ways that work with transition and change. This is concretely evident in adaptive re-use projects that are commonly seen today.
WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES OF NOT PRESERVING?
It is often helpful to be aware of known consequences of not preserving things in order to truly see the value of preserving them in the first place – even if we already know the potential benefits of preservation. Many people are aware of the now-infamous razing of New York City’s Penn Station in the early 1960’s. This was only one of many losses in the U.S., as well as the world. Although a positive consequence of this – as pointed out by the National Trust’s former president and CEO Stephanie Meeks in an excerpt from her book – was that preservationists and preservation-minded law-makers worked together to create a movement to learn from past mistakes, create more avenues for protection via new landmark laws, and to bring greater attention to these issues. Essentially, this marked the beginning of the modern preservationist movement. Beyond these positive impacts, many lament the loss of an architectural icon and gorgeous gateway to the city, as others compare the current underground station as somewhat deplorable in comparison to the old one in terms of functionality. In this and other cases around the U.S., we not only lose buildings that cannot be replaced, but also historical information, and even a sense of identity for people who live in the community associated with these buildings. Expanding our scope outside of the U.S., we can examine the extent of losses involved for everyone in world heritage sites (you can read more here, here, and here). No matter the cause, whether due to profit, bids for “progress,” war and terrorism, or environmental damage caused by humans, any type of lost heritage can be devastating to human communities. Stephanie Meeks underscored the value of preserving our built and cultural history in her speech at the Saving Places Conference in Denver, Colorado, in 2011. In responding to an oft-repeated question as to why someone should consider donation to historic preservation in the same way they would to food banks and homeless shelters, she asserted:
“Preservation matters for the same reason those other causes matter—because it addresses a very fundamental need. Of course, food and shelter are the most basic needs. No one would argue with that. But just above them on Maslow’s hierarchy, and nearly as fundamental to our survival, is community. Preservation speaks directly to that need. It binds us to one another and to the past.”
This is why preservation matters and why we do what we do.
Next week: PART 2 OF THIS SERIES focuses on How to Preserve a Building.