This week marks forty years since I began my career in heritage conservation, a journey over much time and vast space. I am incredibly blessed. Last week I got to take Sarah Bronin, the Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation on a quick tour of preservation challenges and successes in San Antonio at her specific request. I recently visited by Zoom with my 7 roommates from the 2018 Harvard Business School Non Profit Management class and next week I will be in Washington DC lobbying for the Historic Preservation Fund, among other things.
Forty years is a long time, and a fun thought experiment is to take another 40 year chunk – for example the century before, 1883-1923 and see what changed. That period witnessed electrification, automobiles, movies, radio, analgesics, relativity, psychoanalysis and modern architecture. Mine witnessed personal computers, the internet, digital photography, smartphones, microbreweries, quantum entanglement, global warming and email. Both had global pandemics and both ended up with eight planets in the solar system.
The last forty years in heritage conservation/historic preservation have seen the rise of heritage areas in the 1980s, the expansion of historic tax credits in the 1990s, new approaches to intangible heritage and cultural history in the 2000s, to the current focus on affordable housing, climate change, diversity and historic trades. Some things persist, like the importance of public-private partnerships, public relations, and networking, and some things evolve, like architectural history and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards (we hope).
I am usually struck more by similarity than difference, but there has been some serious evolution in the field, even though you can find preservation initiatives dealing with trades, diversity, affordability and climate all the way back in the 1970s. To me the most significant shift has been the ongoing arc away from museum curation to community activism, and the attendant emphasis on the economic everyday.
In my dissertation, I traced the evolution of preservation from a museum-focused antiquarian enterprise in the early 20th century to a part of the neighborhood activist’s toolbox in the 1960s and 1970s. Historic districts, which were still a new thing in the 1960s (in the 1960s the Municipal Arts Society imagined there would be no more than three or four historic districts EVER in New York City). The next step came with the invention of Main Street in 1975 by Mary Means, where traditional architectural preservation was only 1/4 of the cocktail, combined with promotion, organization and economic restructuring. I arrived in the field in 1983 as the first heritage area was introduced in Congress, where again traditional preservation was only a 1/4 of the cocktail, combined now with natural area conservation, recreation and economic development.
I was asked in 1990 by Metropolitan Review to write an article about the coming decade of preservation and my answer was couched in terms of expanding audiences and expanding targets for preservation – more modern buildings, more diverse constituencies, and a greater focus on the community issues that had driven districts, Main Streets and heritage areas.
Architectural history had always lagged the community activists who had saved the Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1961 when all the experts hated High Victorian Queen Anne design. By the 1980s and 1990s the pesky public were not only fully on board with Victorian and 1920s bungalows, but they were already going after Mid-Century Modern and dragging the eggheads along reluctantly, as Richard Longstreth pointed out.
Probably the most dramatic fact of 40 years is that we are already trying to save buildings that were built during that period, some of which were decried at the time of construction, like the maligned and then beloved State of Illinois/Thompson Center in Chicago.
Diversity is perhaps the most important, and has been a leitmotif throughout my preservation career, from working for landmark designation of North Kenwood 1988-1993 to serving on no less than three diversity committees and task forces for the National Trust in the last 15 years. For the last ten years I have been leading panels and trying to find ways to bring more diversity to the National Register of Historic Places, efforts embraced by many that are starting to bear fruit. I am also very grateful to have been a part of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building here in San Antonio and today a part of the Alamo Museum Planning Civil Rights Exhibit Subcommittee planning that portion of the rehabilitated Woolworth Building. (See our video on the history here.)
Diversity is essential to the private sector for innovation and to the public sector for justice. It is essential to the heritage conservation field because our basic mission is not simply to save historic buildings, sites and places, but to save those places that will continue to have meaning to subsequent generations. After forty years in this fascinating field, I have seen many historic places “saved” more than once.
Since my first day I have understood that a key to heritage conservation is conveying the importance of a preservation ethic. Preservation is a process that a community uses to identify what elements of its past are essential to its future. Demographics have shifted significantly in 40 years, and the communities of today are measurably different than 1983.
Preservation is always a future oriented decision, and the diverse generations of the future are key. How do you insure that the next generation also believes in the importance of saving places? Listen to them and give them power.