Two weeks ago I spoke during the meeting of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation regarding the Future of the National Register of Historic Places, which will be 50 years old next year. I detailed some of the shortcomings that have emerged over that time, including a startling “Diversity Deficit.”
Less than 5% of the buildings listed on the National Register evoke the nation’s diverse history – the rest chronicle white men, who are much less than half the country. I also detailed many of the challenges in preservation practice that we inherited from an architect-driven 1960s practice, one that has a tendency to focus too much on the formal.
The photo is one of may favorite examples, from St. Nicholas Avenue in Hamilton Heights, New York, the building lacks architectural integrity. But Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man there in 1947, a book more relevant than ever today. The building is authentic but does not have integrity. The problem is not the building but our practice – we adopted the architectural concept of “integrity” in 1966 instead of the international concept of “authenticity.” Continue Reading
This is the time of year new World Heritage sites are inscribed by UNESCO. The total number passed 1000 last year, after over 40 years of the program. As I have noted before, the United States has not taken advantage of World Heritage status in many years, partly due to a political funding dispute. Absurdly, the U.S. has refused to pay its UNESCO dues for many years, so even though we can arguably afford to take care of our sites, at World Heritage level, we are deadbeats. Continue Reading
6th Street, Austin
Two weeks ago the National Preservation Conference began in Austin, Texas and I participated in many ways: as a presenter in an Education Session, as a participant on tours, in sessions, as a member of the National Council for Preservation Education (and outgoing Chair Emeritus) and of course as a Trustee. It is a very exciting time to be involved in the National Trust, because we have a new leader, Stephanie Meeks, whom we chose as our President this summer. You don’t have to go any farther than her speech at the Opening Plenary session to realize that there are exciting times ahead in the world of cultural heritage preservation. Continue Reading
Now is always better than Then. That might seem like an odd statement coming from a historic preservationist/heritage conservationist, but it is especially true in our field. The decision to rehabilitate, restore or preserve a building, structure, site or community is a decision about the future, not the past.
Our reasons include the past: past history, past cultural achievements, even past architecture and design and art. But the decision is always about the future: we imagine the future will be better if we retain these elements of the past. And we are usually right. Now is better than Then because the best elements of the past are with us, enriching the Now, humanizing the Now, and making Now more beautiful. Continue Reading
Marfa, Texas is a town with one stop light named after a character in a Dostoevsky novel and a far drive from just about everywhere else in the world. But its isolation hasn’t prevented it from becoming a destination and famous place for longer than I have been on earth. You can begin with the lovely Second Empire Presidio County Courthouse in the center of town, preserved as part of the great courthouse preservation program of the Texas Historical Commission.
The courthouse square seems unfinished, with most of the buildings on one end of it, closer to the intersection two blocks away with the road that matters, the one that connects to Alpine, at 5700 people nearly thrice as large, and El Paso, 3 hours distant. Marfa has some great buildings from the early 20th century, most notably the Hotel Paisano, with plaques aplenty describing its architectural landmark status and shops dedicated to the Marfa’s first great film, James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Burton’s GIANT (Dennis Hopper also appeared). Continue Reading
I was at Texas A & M University this weekend for a preservation symposium. Several of the Texas schools presented their projects, notably student study trips to Mexico and Elizabeth Louden’s amazing work with a 3D Laser scanner, which her graduate design studio used to model (and animate and fly-through etc. etc.) the main street in Troy, Texas. I am no technophile but this thing is pretty neat, and apparently you can get one for less than half what they cost a few years ago. A bargain at $100,000 ( I wonder if it is Mac compatible??)
I also did a presentation about my historic districts research, which is also the subject of a graduate seminar I am teaching this semester. The reaction was pretty good to my basic thesis, which is that community planning activists have infused the preservation movement with a broader set of goals and objectives and altered its nature. The students in the seminar have done a nice job digging through the past of districts in various cities – especially the early ones in places like Boston, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Next they are going to tackle various Chicago districts. Continue Reading