All Preservation Is Local

April 17, 2011 Chicago Buildings, History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (1) 1722

Consulting at Tustan, Ukraine, 2006

So what am I doing on statewide, national and international boards?

“All preservation is local” is a mantra in our field, one as true as its source analogue: “all politics is local”. This poses challenges for organizations like the Global Heritage Fund (where I serve on the Senior Advisory Board), National Trust for Historic Preservation (where I am a Trustee) and Landmarks Illinois (where I serve on the Board.) In each case, the larger organizations are often working with and supporting the efforts of local preservationists.

I worked as a preservationist for 13 years before becoming an academic, and I am still a preservationist because I have been involved in local issues at the local level. Local building conservation advocates do the “heavy lifting” in any given attempt to prevent an unwarranted demolition, alter a political decision, or pressure a combination of public and private entities to preserve a significant historic resource.

What does an organization dealing with a state, a nation, or indeed the whole world, offer to the local preservationists? After all, if locals are doing most of the work, the bigger organization needs to justify its own existence and relevance by providing something the locals can’t on their own. I think the value that these organizations bring to bear on actual, local issues, falls into several categories:

Capacity Building

Local advocates are often amateurs who love a historic resource and work hard to save it, but they do not have a complete understanding of how that is done. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has developed a variety of programs over the years that help build local capacity, from providing case studies and information sheets on everything from dealing with chain drugstores to developing design guidelines for historic districts. The National Trust’s Preservation Press provides a host of useful capacity-building publications on a wide range of topics, and these tend to be in the arena of political, economic and organizational activity, although some also deal with technical issues (how DO you save a steel casement window?) but the technical issues are largely left to publications of the National Park Service or the Association for Preservation Technology, which is international (US and Canada).

Country Club Plaza, Kansas City – See National Trust blogs website

At Global Heritage Fund, the ongoing effort is to build local capacity to save important historic resources (World Heritage Sites) in the developing countries of the world. It is not enough to simply provide a grant now and then: give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime; hence the objective is to train and build local capacity. GHF recently enlisted the participation of professionals and advocates worldwide to develop an “early warning system” for World Heritage Sites in danger.

Heilongtan, Lijiang, Yunnan, China

Training is a vital aspect to building local capacity. The National Trust has developed a range of programs, from Main Street to Preservation Leadership Training, that help local advocates become more professional. Conferences held by statewide and national organizations are also extraordinarily useful, because they not only provide sessions that help local preservationists work more effectively, but they also build camaraderie and a sense that YOU ARE NOT ALONE, the unquantifiable but necessary component of effective activism. This also brings up the second way larger organizations help locals.

Credibility: Making Local Issues Significant in a Larger Context.

When I worked as Chicago Programs Director for Landmarks Illinois in the 1980s and 1990s, I went to various neighborhoods around the city and supported their efforts to save buildings. While I brought expertise in understanding laws and agencies and tools to BUILD CAPACITY, I also lent a CREDIBILITY that a local organization can never generate on its own. This is also extremely tricky to quantify, because like the support network generated by a preservation conference, the value of making a local issue significant in a larger context can be motivational. I was fighting to save something that is important in my neighborhood, and now I can say with confidence – thanks to my regional partner – that our efforts are significant citywide. Or statewide. Or nationwide.


That also helps in terms of political sway. If an issue is local, then the local city council or village board is the highest authority. But if a statewide or national partner says that the resource is valuable and worth preserving, the local authority no longer is the highest authority, EVEN if they retain the political control, as they usually do. Suddenly someone is looking down on them and their actions will be witnessed in a broader context.

Much as I helped local neighborhood groups by reassuring them of the value of their efforts on a citywide or even statewide scale, on those occasions when our Chicago or Illinois efforts grew challenging, the support of the National Trust for Historic Preservation carried more weight with local authorities. When the City of Chicago threatened to weaken its landmarks ordinance in 1996, the National Trust weighed in with op-ed pieces and national magazine coverage that raised the stakes on the game the local politicians were playing. And the local leadership responded by strengthening the law, leading the National Trust and others to laud the Mayor for his actions.

Gage Buildings, Michigan Avenue, Chicago

We were down in Keokuk in January meeting with a local group trying to save an absolutely gorgeous – and physically challenged – Burnham & Root train station. We had a representative from the National Trust’s Midwest Office with us, and the simple fact that she was there gave the local a courage to pursue their goal they might have otherwise, even though she was clear that she was not riding to the rescue. But she did have resources to offer, which brings us to point three.

1890 rail depot, Burnham & Root, Keokuk, Iowa

There is a “branding” effect here as well, to put it is business language. Whether Global Heritage Fund or National Trust for Historic Preservation or Landmarks Illinois, lending a name of that broad scope to a local effort has an effect. It can get it in the paper (physical or on-line) or boost it from the back of the paper (bottom of the page) to the top, because a known regional or national or international BRAND is now associated with it. The value of “letterhead” even in our internet age is significant. If a local zoning authority gets a letter from 9 residents saying they want to save a resource, that counts as 9 residents. It is hard to quantify, but getting 3 letters from statewide groups or professionals affiliated with respectable institutions probably adds a lot more than 9 to the weight of the issue.

When I was down in Palm Springs for Modernism Week in February, our Australian colleagues were incredibly impressed that the National Trust was playing a prominent role in the effort to save Modernism – something they said would never happen in Australia. Besides making my association with the Trust hip (and TrustModern sounds well as a brand), it also impressed an international audience. The current support from the National Trust for the Chicago effort to save Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital is already having a similar effect when they are quoted in the media coverage along with Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago.

Alexander Steel house, Palm Springs


Often the larger organizations have greater resources. As a local advocate in the 1980s and 1990s, I often said I “needed” the National Trust for lawsuits more than anything else. Landmarks Illinois sued the City of Chicago on a couple of occasions in my tenure, for not following its landmarks ordinance or treating certain properties unfairly. In each case, the local and state judges might find Landmarks Illinois to lack “standing” in the issue, but they had to hear each case, because they were loathe to deny standing to the National Trust, which while a private organization, was chartered by Congress.

St. Mary of the Angels Church, Chicago

Similarly, each of these organizations offers grants in support of local efforts. These are not generally large grants, but they are often crucial – providing money to do an architectural study proving that a building can be restored, or to undertake a market study that identifies an economically viable use for a local landmark. The grants are not there to solve the problem – no organization has that kind of money – but they build the capacity of the locals to solve the problem in a way they could not on their own. Often they provide “seed money” to kick-start a fundraising campaign. The local advocate often wants to find “an angel” who will pay for the whole thing, and there are examples of that happening, so hope springs eternal. But that is NOT how most buildings, sites and structures are saved. Mostly they are saved the old-fashioned way, with steady, unremitting, hand-to-mouth effort over a long period of time. A small grant from the big brother organization often can make the difference between giving up and getting there.

Gardner Museum, Quincy, recipient of a Landmarks lllinois grant

Often, the bigger organization can leverage pro-bono professional support from attorneys or architects to help a cause. Our lawsuits always featured pro bono counsel, leveraged by the National Trust. Landmarks Illinois has found a niche getting pro bono architectural expertise to do re-use studies, in order to prove that places like Cook County Hospital, the Lathrop Homes or Prentice Women’s Hospital can be saved.

Lathrop Homes, Chicago


Even if local advocates do the heavy lifting in any given effort to save an historic resource, having staff or volunteers from city, state or national organizations adds crucial personpower to the effort. I recall seeing staff from Preservation Chicago, Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust sitting down in the Cultural Center to discuss the effort to save Prentice. Three heads, three voices, three letterheads and three membership lists are much better than one. In the case of Cook County Hospital, Preservation Chicago worked the streets and Landmarks Illinois worked the County Board, and together the building was saved.

Cook County Hospital

The heritage conservation field present huge challenges to those who want to repurpose historic resources for the future. There is a lot of convincing, a lot of fundraising, a lot of organizing and a lot of thinking that needs to be done. And at the end of the day you often have to share credit, not only with partners but also with politicians who may well have bided their time until the last minute. That’s okay. I have worked on saving lots of buildings and I can’t take credit for any of them. But I know I had a hand in it.

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All Preservation Is Local

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