The final event at the National Preservation Conference in Nashville was a lunch featuring speaker Donovan Rypkema, a longtime preservation contributor whose specialty is the economics of historic preservation. Don always has numerous inspiring insights, and this presentation was no exception. His focus was preservation in 50 years, and it was a call to action that called for significant change. I agree with 99 percent of it, and here is why.
First, Don talked about the recent and virally successful “This Place Matters” photo contest which the National Trust held on its website (link on the right). The event was standard 21st century user interface: people print out “This Place Matters” signs from the Trust, and photograph them in front of places that mattered to them. Then people voted on their favorites. It was an exercise in the democracy of the built environment, and it was a revelation.
It was a revelation because, as Don pointed out, almost all of the finalists were NOT monumental buildings in the traditional sense of historic preservation. They weren’t outstanding architectural landmarks or the homes of famous people. The winner was a Humble Oil station in San Antonio, second place was a boathouse in Door County, Wisconsin and third place was a graveyard with a sailor holding the sign near a gravestone. But the effort was a huge success, because PEOPLE were deciding what PLACES mattered to them.
Don took this as a call for preservationists to reestablish the relationship between why something is important and how we preserve it. This is so true and so important. For too long, we have used curatorial procedures designed for fine art museums to determine how we treat elements of the built environment. Treating the Humble Oil station or the Door County boathouse like a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt is not necessary or even useful. There are physical elements of those properties that need to be maintained, but so does their relationship to their environment. In fact, their connection to PLACE is what is MOST IMPORTANT. It is similar to the philosophy of the historic district, where individual significance or individual artistry, elegance or craftsmanship are subservient to the whole thing. The whole thing is a PLACE, and it is what is most important.
I think we can do this, even without revising the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, although that needs to be done too. We must remember that preservation is a PROCESS, not a set of rules but a set of procedures. When we IDENTIFY something as significant, that identification should indicate WHAT about it needs to be saved. In our Chicago Landmarks Ordinance, for example, each designation report indicates WHAT the significant architectural and historic features are that need to be preserved in order to preserve the significance of the property. That list is different for every building, site or structure. As I have often said, preservation treats everything as an individual, not a category.
This is something that English Heritage in the UK already does, and indeed the English have always listed their buildings in categories based on significance. I did this 20 years ago when we surveyed historic churches in Chicago, so I understand the possibility, and I also understand the reticence preservationists had 40 years ago in doing such a ranking: because it would consign some buildings to demolition based on their low ranking.
But the point of going beyond the Rembrandt rule (treating every bit of historic fabric as if it were a Rembrandt) is to get beyond RULES and focus on PROCESS. Preserving a great design done in a short-lived material might mean re-creation, because the design is what is important, whereas for the Star-Spangled banner, the material artifact is primary. House museums need to go beyond the Rembrandt rule for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that some artifacts may be Rembrandts but others are not.
Rypkema talked about the need for more land-use tools beyond the historic district, which is true, and conservation districts and buffer districts and heritage areas (which involve no necessary regulation) are examples we can build on. We need these because preservation IS NOT ABOUT FIXING SOMETHING IN A CERTAIN PERIOD OF TIME. It is, instead, ABOUT MANAGING CHANGE OVER TIME.
The rest of the English-speaking world does not have historic preservation. They have building conservation, or more broadly and appropriately, HERITAGE CONSERVATION. Most of the National Preservation Honor Awards we gave out Thursday night were about heritage conservation, not historic preservation of buildings as museums. This is not a new direction, it is what we are already doing. But we may need to rename it.
To preserve means to fix at a point in time – in effect, to remove something from history. I began my preservation career nearly 27 years ago by helping create the first heritage area, and our goal then, and now, was managing change, not stopping change. Heritage conservation is about managing change – planning – based on the inherited culture and cultural artifacts of a place. It is about the individuality and uniqueness of place. What we do is follow a process that insures that change happens in concert with a place’s values and valuables. I am extremely privileged to be able to be a part of this.
images from nashville: