I have been Vice Chair of the Diversity Task Force for the National Trust for Historic Preservation for several years and yesterday at the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis we held a Conversation Starter that represented one of the results of our work.
Exactly 20 National Preservation Conferences ago I did my first national presentation and it was part of a session on Inner-City Preservation that sought to answer the question: how do we get more minorities and inner-city dwellers involved in preservation? My answer was: Wrong Question. They are involved. I chronicled a long list of Landmarks Illinois efforts in Chicago to that date, including my experience with the North Kenwood community, which I wrote about in the Future Anterior journal in 2005. The question was more appropriately, how do we integrate our efforts with theirs? This is the same question National Trust President Stephanie Meeks has been asking – how do we reach local preservationists?
The difference twenty years later? Well, for one, the Diversity Task Force has been talking with the National Park Service about Standards and Practices and how they might be amended or altered to create and recognize more diverse historic sites. Ray Rast of Gonzaga described his challenge surveying and documenting sites associated with labor organizer Cesar Chavez. He kept running into issues of INTEGRITY, which is the word we use in the U.S., because back when we created the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, the international word “authenticity” was too scary.
Now, both words are difficult to define, but integrity is slightly more problematic because it tracks more closely with the strong visual, formal and architectural focus of the preservation movement over time. This is why the redefinitions of preservation as process in the last fifteen years have focused on how authenticity is determined. Integrity is loads easier. It means simply: Does the architecture look like it did historically? Does it convey its significance?
This question is relatively easy for architectural historians to answer, but it makes much less sense to regular historians and to many of our minority cultures whose significance lies in narratives or other elements of intangible heritage.
Rast also noted that Standards and Practices present an either-or proposition rather than a continuum. Either a property has integrity or it does not. It is a Pass/Fail system: you either get an A or an F. He suggested degrees of integrity and I find this idea intriguing.
Whattya think? A C+?
How do you measure how well a property conveys historical significance that has little to do with architecture? Where Lincoln died, or where the Declaration of Independence was signed, for example? ALL sites of historic significance require interpretation, yet we judge their ability to convey significance by the same standards we use for sites exemplifying great architecture or craftsmanship. Shouldn’t the sites listed under Criterion A for History have a different relationship to integrity than those sites listed under Criterion C, where their significance REALLY is contained in their architectural fabric?
We need to recognize that not everyone is trained visually. We don’t all see the same thing, because our eyes (and other senses) have not been trained equally. I began my career as an historian, and I can actually remember a time over 30 years ago when I did not yet SEE the architectural world around me. My eyes were opened. It was a dramatic transformation.
The other issue that ALSO affects buildings of architectural significance is the one of “period of significance.” A building’s initial construction is usually where the period of significance begins, but even within the architectural world this can change: these houses were built in a Federal or Italianate style but heavily altered in the 1920s to a completely different style. What is their period of significance?
These buildings actually DO convey their significance: the rehabilitation of the Old Town neighborhood by artists in the 1920s. They actually convey the story BETTER due to their lack of integrity because you can see the transformation that occurred. The convey the history of community preservation, of people fixing up houses and promoting their historic neighborhood.
This is not to say that standards should be discarded. As fellow paneliest Irvin Henderson pointed out, their is a healthy give-and-take in the debates over integrity between the expert preservationists and the community activists: we don’t EITHER side to simply do what they want. But we need a more precise, sliding scale of significance that filters the concept of integrity differently when faced with different kinds of significance.