What We Really Do: Changing Perceptions

Preservationists say “no.”
House Museums are “behind the velvet ropes.”
Historians live within an “ivory tower.”

Does this sound familiar?

Historians serve as stewards of the past, disseminating history to a variety of different publics. However, segments of that public view historians and preservationists as obstacles–individuals who set up barriers, keep research confined within the academy, or prevent progress. Despite our efforts, this is how they perceive the work of history professionals.  Of course, those of us who work in the field know that history professionals are working to broaden outreach in museums (albeit with increasingly limited budgets), to spread literature and research, and to present a more open and accessible past by saving places across the country.

Credit: Peabody’s Lament

This past week I staffed the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis. While I didn’t get a chance to fully attend sessions, I observed a discipline actively working to remove barriers. Sessions sought to think past restrictions and standards and focused on aligning the needs of preservationists with the needs of community.

Continue reading “What We Really Do: Changing Perceptions”

Flinging Ourselves into the Unknown: The Preservation Lesson of Buffalo

Delay. Delay. Delay. I’m going to be honest—this post has been a challenge to conceive and write. Not because I had nothing to say, but because I didn’t know how to frame my lessons from the 2011 National Preservation Conference. Much of this has to do with the fact that I wasn’t able to see the closing plenary—which serves not only as an end cap to a week of knowledge sharing, and networking, but as a launching point for where we are going.

Thankfully, that changed with the magic of the internet. First, the usual acknowledgement: I wasn’t a normal attendee of the conference. My daily job was to serve as conference staff—sitting in on sessions, passing out evaluations, taking tickets, which meant that with the exception of a session or two (and the major plenaries) what I saw and heard was often confined to the room in which I was assigned (or the Twitterverse), but what I did hear and learn afforded a glimpse into the future.

In closing her speech (and the conference), Isabel Wilkerson, author of a book about the migration of African Americans from Jim Crow South, quoted Richard Wright re his decision to migrate to New York City.

“I was leaving the South
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom”

This may be an awkward analogy but preservation is, has been, migrating. In the last ten years alone, the way we do business, the way we interact with others has changed dramatically. And it all started by sticking our toe, and in some places, jumping right headlong, into the unknown. We’ve seen how important our work is in regards to community development, we’ve stepped up about the importance of character, and how where we live, how we live, and why we live there matters. We’ve also spoken out about the importance of existing buildings in the sustainability movement. We are getting involved, making partners in ways that those outside the movement don’t expect.

But we are a reflection of events in the larger, broader world—where we as a country, as a global system have to re-think the way we’ve always done business or else run ourselves into the ground. We have to change the way we live in order to survive. Everything will not just work out “in the long run.”

That’s a pretty awful phrase, “the long run.” Often a justification to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done, because in “the long run” everything will work out the way it was meant to. It isn’t a phrase we can depend on anymore. As preservationists—heck, as historians—we have the ability to see where we’ve been and embrace change—bucking perception of our work. This conference showed me this. That all around this country there are preservation professionals taking risks, and finding new ways to meet the challenges of the coming years. So perhaps that is the biggest preservation lesson of Buffalo—that change is going to come, whether we want it to or not—but that we as a movement are prepared to meet it, to take our ethic, and transplant it in new directions, to cultivate it to respond to the the warmth of other suns…and bloom.

There are a few ways to catch some of the sessions from this National Preservation Conference. Visit www.preservationnation.org/conference for more information.

Landscape & “Look at what you see, and then see beyond that”

So I’m actually writing this blog from the middle of the social media session (have you been following us on #presconf this week?) but I’ll save that conversation for the wrap up post on Sunday/Monday.

Yesterday was the day for “Next American Landscape” and we started again with a large general session to frame out the day. Panelists included John Bullard (Mayor of New Bedford former Mayor of New Bedford and director of  Sea Education Association) who has a different view on the role of preservation and environmentalism (especially in the case of Cape Wind), Preservation magazine editor James Schwartz and Director of our Southern Field Office Rob Nieweg. Bullard asked two questions: What’s going on here & What are we going to do about it?

The Cape Wind issue is large, complex and hard to explain in brief—so I ‘ll just send you here for more information but Bullard’s essential point is this: with the parts per million of carbon emissions higher then it has ever been, we cannot afford to not put up renewable energy resources as quickly as possible, because if we do not, everything else won’t matter. We can fight for old buildings and historic sites, but what good will that do us if we’re all suffering the effects of global warming.

He also says that while everyone was focusing on the visible intrusion of the windmills, they are ignoring the other terrible things going on in Nantucket (heavy boat traffic, sewage dumping etc.)

In the same vein Nieweg talked about the fight against high powered transmission lines through the Journey through Hallowed Ground. Some of which rely on coal plants and become “industrial intrusions on the landscape”

Both of them are asking us to think about the relationship between power, the landscape, and the preservation of our historic past. At one point Niewig asked “Do we want to sacrifice landscape for cheap power?”

These are the tough questions right? On the Next American City day a lot of the conversation was about finding balance, and looking at ways to bring sustainable design into adaptive re-use buildings, here we are talking about the same thing—but from the opposite angle, where environmentalism clashes with the tenants of historic preservation (saving viewsheds and shaped land).

It was a thought provoking session that once again stayed on my mind throughout the rest of the day—and what I found through my three sessions (Nominating Large Cultural Landscapes to the National Register, Land Conversation and Ranching, and a fantastic session on culinary agritourism in Washington State) is the need to ask those tough questions and find creative solutions because dealing with landscapes is a lot harder than dealing with a physical structure.

In the first session of the morning (the breakout on Nominating Large Cultural Landscapes) we saw that very complexity in identifying and discerning the different pieces of a a historic landscape (structures, layers of history, changes to the land). Unlike a building or a neighborhood with finite boundaries, a landscape has no start or no end, and often has multiple owners (some public, others private). The second session gave two case studies in Colorado. At one point one of the panelists mentioned that the driving force to doing the ranching survey projects was the fact that developmental threat (I think the Army was going to use the land for exercises) stated that the space was perfect because “there was nothing there.”

My third session, was about the world of agritourism. I first learned about the role of food in telling stories about a place and the past during my undergrad at William & Mary—and it is also the idea that pulled me down the rabbit whole hole into looking at history and culture writ large. That is telling the story of a space through music, film, art and food. So this session looked at the land and the landscape of farming and turned it into a central part of Washington State Tourism.

So how does this link to the general session this morning? I think that it has to do with looking at the big picture taking a deep breath, and trying to figure out a new way of doing business. In Thursday’s general session they talked about changing the rules—and for the real world maybe that’s what is on the horizon.


Later on yesterday night I attended the National Preservation Awards at gorgeous Paramount Theatre. You can see the winners on www.preservationnation.org but the videos are the real star and will be rolled out on the web in the next few weeks. From Main Street Iowa, a school in Las Vegas, and the 2010 Crowninshield winner Tony Goldman it was a night of pride. I think some of you will be interested in seeing all the work he has done in Philadelphia, New York and Miami. During his acceptance speech he said his one advice for preservation is to take a look at what you see before you, and then to look beyond that to a broader, complete vision.  Words to live by.

Check out pictures here.

We’re packing up now, and I’ll be on my way to DC in a few hours. In the wrap up post next week I’ll talk about the last session I attended, the Forum Lunch and put a few final thoughts down for closure.

Forces of Nature, Misconceptions and Changing the Rules

I think it might be best to start discussing Thursday at the National Preservation Conference by talking about the “Next American City” general session. During this presentation we heard from Kennedy Smith (of CLUE group, and an expert in community revitalization and main street development) and Charles Buki whose foci includes neighborhood revitalization.

For those of you who read my blog and aren’t plugged into the preservation movement are probably asking what this has to do with preservation and history. Think about it as a means of preserving where we live, and stopping neighborhoods and cities from becoming in-distinctive, and a one-size fit all look. It is a part of preserving Americana in a different way.

The two panelists posed three questions:

  1. What are the major forces driving development?
  2. If we could rewrite the rules what rules would you rewrite
  3. If you could change one misconception about Historic Preservation what would it be.

While Kennedy looked at the continued need to save each community’s distinctive character (she had a great presentation that included images along roadways in 5 different American communities, that all looked the same, cluttered with McDonalds, gas stations, Pizza Huts etc. Her point: you cannot tell where you are just by looking at the street). Buki came from the perspective that “he is not a preservationist” (though many in the room, including me disagreed, but we’ll get to that later). His main assertion was an encouragement of diversity in development and the recognition that sometimes we revitalize/rehabilitate/re-develop and end up creating neighborhoods and places where the old inhabitants no longer feel welcome.

He says for any neighborhood development one should ask the following question: What is the extant to which the project you are working on will be useful to your customers when they are at 60% of their income. Considering the economic recession it isn’t a question to be taken lightly.

So let’s talk about identity, since I found, through my following three sessions, that preservationists are looking—not necessarily to re-define our mission and our goals—but to let the outside world know that we are more than a steward of historic sites.

I think my favorite conversation about asserting our identity more loudly and proudly was in the panel on “Solar Panels, Wind Turbines, and More: Is Preservation Ready.” Val Talmage, from Preserve Rhode Island put up two lists of adjectives. The left side included words like entrepreneurial, visionary, inventive, flexible; while the other list included adjectives like rigid, inflexible, obstructionist. Val asked the audience: “What list do you think we ourselves as being, and what list do you think others perceive us as.”  Then she asked what list represents the public perception of environmentalists or those supporting green building. The answers are fairly obvious.

It came up again in the Habitat for Humanity session, albeit in a different way. Instead of outwardly talking about changing how we act this session showed how we as preservationists can pro-actively work with new partners and show that we are not what everyone expects us to be. Make sure to check out the amazing case studies that show how Habitat for Humanity is working with preservation organizations on new ideas that stray away from their typical model.

The first session of the morning was a breakout directly related to the general session entitled “Everyone Wants to Live Within Walking Distance: What Does this Mean for Preservation?” The panelists included rockstars like David Dixon, Mary Means, and Roberta Gratz and looked at the principles of Jane Jacobs. Gratz at one point posited the following quote of Jacobs:

“You cannot build the ovens and expect the loaves to jump in.”

Development equals the ovens, and Preservation includes the Loaves. You can construct the building, but without a preservation ethic you cannot build, or bake a community. That is we have a responsibility to put the loaves (er preservation) into the developmental process instead of just expecting them to think of us. We have to stop sitting on the sidelines and yelling stop and start taking initiative. Again, in another session (the one on Solar energy), Val Talmage said that what she would love to see is preservationists aggressively going after a plan to cut the carbon footprint of America’s heritage and then going after projects to build a bank of case studies and best practices. So then we have something to point to and say—look, yes we can.

Before I go one more word on identity. I think it is interesting that we as preservationists are trying to tell those in the conservation, environmental, and green movement that we are one of them. It is a conversation that I heard in the halls of the National Council on Public History conference earlier that year—that preservationists are public historians, but that a lot of preservationists don’t identify as public historians. (Though I did appreciate that as preservation moves a little bit further away from the preserving “history” in the purest sense, that in the Solar Panels session we got a great quick history of energy development in America). Buki asked if it was possible for us to “be in two places at one time.” I think we can—we all do wear many hats, and we have to stop waiting to be asked to the table and jump in.

Click here to check out my pictures from last night (including a few from the Candlelight House Tour. Make sure to look at the image below which is from the Max Bickler House. Apparently the architect chronicled his life in pencil on the underpart of the stairs. Here is the notation from the surrender of Japan in 1945.

Etching from the stairway beneath the Max Bickler House

Up Next: Next American Landscape Day! National Preservation Awards! Mad about Mod Party!

“Even if You Do Everything Right….Without Time It Won’t Ring True”

….and we have lift off. Yesterday was the first day of the National Preservation Conference here in Austin, Texas. Last minute preparations, the dispatching of the first round of field sessions were just lead ins to the big event in the evening. The Opening Plenary.

There were many expected to speak—the Mayor of Austin, former first lady Laura W. Bush (who is the honorary co-chair of the conference) and, of course, Stephanie Meeks the new president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The City from the Long Center

Since I was conference staff I missed the first twenty minutes of the convening (which meant I missed the Mayor’s welcome, the musical interlude, and the voting in of new Trustees). However I was lucky enough to hear the band play in rehearsal—and it is something quite special Check them out on the video here.

Laura Bush spoke eloquently about growing up in Texas, and how important courthouses in the state are to daily community life. She made the case for preservation while also providing those in attendance with one Texan’s perspective.

Then came Stephanie Meeks—who did a great job introducing herself to the NTHP community with personal stories, hints at her experiences before and since coming on board, and issued a challenge for the next 5 years leading up to the 2016 anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. She asked that we look for ways to make preservation more accessible, visible, and fully funded. The challenge was in a word, ambitious—but with ideas that I think, with a lot of work, might be feasible. One of my favorite parts of the speech was when she introduced a group of middle schoolers who had won a commendation from a national design competition for the school of the future—their design was the only one not asking for new construction, instead they worked on a rehab for their historic school building in Tucson, Arizona.

Now for the main event: Paul Goldberger. I have to say that I wasn’t sure what to expect from him. I know he’s a pretty big name in the preservation community but my knowledge of his ideas and work was largely limited to what I read up on him in preparation for the conference. His talk had three main parts—the first to talk about Austin as the ideal place to have the conversation about the Next American City and Next American Landscape. He emphasized that the work we do is essential and that preservationists need to be the obvious choice i.e. that the other side has to make the argument to destroy and rebuild instead of us always having to make the argument of how historic landscapes and streetscapes provide more value to a community than anything else.

He also spent some time forcing us to think about the phrase: “In a city, time becomes visible”. He described how even if an area is built up to be walkable, sustainable, and beautiful—it rings false if not “covered in the patina of time”. That without the shared history, or experiences it feels false and disconcerting.

Austin in Reflection

Goldberger then talked about public space and the idea of how the Next American city is creating a new public realm in spaces like the High Line in New York City or Millenium Park in Chicago. That these are places where the Next American City and the Next American Landscape are meeting. If we take care of the cities, we are also preserving landscape through the prevention of sprawl etc.

In the end though, the most profound message Goldberger gave us that preservationists need to be honest. We approach preservation as a method of making our lives better right here right now, and that those who believe historic preservation is an excuse to ignore “progress” or the “present” don’t know what preservation is.

Tonight or tomorrow I”ll fill you in on “Next American City” day. Also you can follow me on Twitter at PC_PresNation. Check out pictures here. If you want to watch the opening plenary you can here.

ATX Revealed


The last time I came to Austin it was a whirlwind—a quick cab ride to the city with an hour for the state capitol (majestic dome etched in color, open, expansive), and forty minutes for the Lyndon Johnson library (exterior—an image in white, interior thoughtful, humorous, inspiring). Both sites I would recommend to anyone coming to this city.

In short—the Texas state capitol is easily summed up in one word. Awesome. The architecture is phenomenal, and it apparently is one of the few capitol buildings that stands taller than the National Capitol in Washington, DC. Nearby on the campus of the University of Texas, Austin is the LBJ Library—a building that includes an animatronic LBJ cracking his trademark jokes, while one floor beneath is a testament to his work on civil rights in this country. This library, if anything, emphasizes just how complex one man could be—and how he has the power to effect so much.

This trip has been a bit leisurely in that I still have plenty of time to see the city, and instead spent time setting up for the swarms of preservationists descending on this city. I have, however, eaten well

  1. Moonshine Grill (Apparently the Trout is fantastic, I loved my chicken Almondine).
  2. Polvos—a Mexican food place in the South Congress area. Chicken Enchilada with Mole, be still my heart.

Sixth street feels a little bit like Nashville’s main drag—music piping out of every building (though I heard it is the place to hang out for the students of UT). And the bat’s are only a few blocks away.

The Driskill Hotel

I also stopped by the Driskill Hotel (a member of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels Program). The building as a whole is pretty cool, but I loved the wood paneling on the ceiling, the mustangs and the glass domes on the interior. I also think it is pretty cool that it is the site of LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson’s first date and, like many old hotels, might be haunted.

More to come: Tonight is the opening plenary and reception so I’ll be tweeting up a storm—and will report back if I can by early tomorrow. In case you haven’t heard yet you can also watch the opening plenary live. It will be streaming on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s webpage (www.preservationnation.org).

More pictures from the conference will be uploaded here (and on the NPC Flickr page soon). Want to be a virtual attendee? Check out the Virtual Attendee page here.