Welcome Back Howard Theatre

The Marquee of the Howard Theatre
Credit: Priya Chhaya

Just a quick post to share some pictures I took at the Howard Theatre (link to info on the restoration) re-opening this week. If you want to read a great account of the night, that included performances by Trombone Shorty and George Clinton check out this post at PreservationNation — complete with great interior shots that my basic digital camera could not take successfully.

As you can tell from my previous post I love the theatre/theater, and while I often talk about the plays, movies, or performances that occur inside these buildings, these performances are enhanced by the places where they occur. Ambiance, acoustics are often what takes a concert to the next level.

One of the places I saw the Hunger Games was in the Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park, DC. It’s an old, one screen theater–complete with a balcony. While the movie was the same (I had seen it a few days earlier) there was a sense of grandeur in seeing it again, something that you sometimes miss out at the cookie cutter, stadium seating theaters.

So when an old theatre or theater is rehabbed and brought back to life it’s a wonderful thing. Often these spaces are transformed from original use, but as was the case with the Howard Theatre there is still that origin story of its original place in the community. In this case the memories of performances by musicians of the present and days gone by are about to be added to by a new generation with performances by Savion Glover, Wanda Sykes, James Brown, the Roots and the like.

For more on historic theatre’s visit the League of Historic American Theatres.

Some more pics:

Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television

I’ve been angling for a reason to write about Downton Abbey on this blog, and an opportunity presented itself in this fun Friday post that went up today on the PreservationNation.org blog. You can read the post with the awesome-as-usual Downton Abbey images here but I’ve also included the text below.

PS: I also use it as an excuse to mention other awesome shows like The West Wing, LOST, Dr. Who, and Battlestar Galactica. Because what would each of these shows be without the familiar hallways of the White House, the forests of our favorite Island, and a spaceship serving as home for a drifting civilization (or in the case of Dr. Who, the ability to hop from place to place in time)?

Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television

 

I think by now many of the regular readers on this blog know three things about me. I love history. I love writing about history. And I pretty much think about history, and place, and the past about 367 million times a day.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I think about the power of place and the past when doing the most mundane things — walking, cooking, and watching television.

Like many, many people, I’ve been enamored with the British period drama Downton Abbey, which just finished its second season run on PBS. For those that haven’t seen it, it begins in pre-World War I England and gives viewers a glimpse into the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants through the intervening years.

What I love about Downton Abbey is that the story centers around the estate, a magnificent house full of both grand (for the lords and ladies) and humble (for the staff) public and private spaces that serves as a mechanism for how a family and their employees lived in the early 20th century. The way the building is used over the two seasons reflects society and class as changes in women’s roles, war, and disease take its toll. But Downton is used as more than a set piece. The home is a crucial character in itself, and plays a crucial role for how each of the characters defines themselves.

This isn’t necessarily something new. After all, the whole premise of the show Cheers is to tell the story of a group of bar patrons in a particular space. Then there are three of my favorites — The West Wing, LOST, and (nerd alert) Battlestar Galactica — which are incredibly place-centric, as ninety percent of each episode occurs within their respective main locations: The White House, an island, or a giant spaceship that serves as the only defender against the enemies of humanity (try saying that three times fast).

What other shows out there use place to tell their story? We know of course that there are plenty of serials and sitcoms that use cities as the backdrop to their storylines. The stories in Mad Men, for example, are integrally tied to their place in mid-century New York.

The point, perhaps, that I am trying to make is that as a preservationist and a historian, I’m drawn to shows that integrate where they are with the people whose lives intersect in those spaces. And it’s the same for the real world, since the places we save are often inherently important because of the mark of individuals or groups on them, or our own modern interactions or associations with them.

I recently watched an episode of Dr. Who (a show with a time-traveling theme) where the main character presents a theory that there are fixed points in time that can never change — that events will always happen in this time and this place no matter what tries to influence them. It’s a fanciful idea, one that appeals to me as a historian because of how we think about the “power of place” — that an important way that we can tell the story of our past and make it tangible is by recognizing the confluence of people, places, and events in time.

What do you think? Do you love a television show because it reminds you of history, place, or preservation? Sound off below!

Preservation and a Pressure Cooker (A Reflection on the Materiality of Preservation)

The materiality of preservation is very much rooted in these places and objects ability to tell a story – to evoke the intangible in such a way that makes it more certain, more reliable, more real.

For work this week I wrote a piece reflecting on the stuff of preservation. I also managed to loop in a paper I wrote during my undergraduate coursework about a pressure cooker. Trust me, it makes sense.

I’m working on a few ideas for end of the year posts. So stay tuned!

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I also wanted also wanted to point out to any Baltimorians who might be reading my blog that there is an Unconference going on in Baltimore today. You can see what they’re talking about here and on Twitter #bmorehistoric.

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!

ATX Revealed

Mustangs

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.

Please Vote for History and Preservation!

Top five reasons to vote for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the American Express’ Take Part Member’s Project.

1. Protection of Historic Places. Yesterday the National Trust announced the 2010 11 Most Endangered  Historic Places list.

2.  Preservation= sustainability

3.  Preservation=Jobs

4. What other organization works to preserve buildings, landscapes, main street America, and tries to save itself from a Peep invasion on a regular basis?

5.  Because the past matters, and if we don’t take care to preserve it, who will?

What is the American Express Take Part Member Challenge?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is one of nine non-profit organizations vying to win $200,000 in the first round of American Express’ latest Members Project endeavors, TakePart. We are now on the last week of the first round of voting and are tied for first.

Click here to vote!

Songs of the Preservationist

Latest post from PreservationNation.org, based on a discussion from the email list I help run.

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell

Music — a bunch of lyrics, poetry put together to a rhythm and a collection of notes that riot our emotions, pull at our heart strings, or soothe the soul. For a preservationist a song can remind us of a place, or a building; an architect or a time long past. They are sounds and words that remind us of home, a nostalgic look back that often isn’t completely rose-colored.

A few weeks ago the preservationists on Forum-L compiled a list of songs that seem to “speak” to the field. In the end, I had a list of more than 200 songs, some with obvious preservation connections, others that are more like “save our building” anthems.

Click here to read more and listen to some of the songs.

Taking a Walk Through Washington DC: Monumentalism and Mass Transit the Nation’s Capital

This post can also be read on the PreservationNation.org blog.

A few weeks ago I took a long walk through our Nation’s Capital. I started off at McPherson Square Metro Station and walked across to Chinatown for lunch. My friends and I then walked down 7th Street to the National Mall, and crossed over to the base of the Washington Monument to watch the National Cherry Blossom Festival performances. After a brief respite we meandered over to the Jefferson Memorial where I left them to travel diagonally past the World War II memorial to the Lincoln Memorial and 23rd Street. From there I walked up through Washington Circle and Foggy Bottom to make my way into Georgetown. I took a brief break, but after grabbing some time to read and some chai, I wandered along the pathway next to the C& O Canal until I could cross the Key Bridge into Rosslyn to catch a train home. Every single step was punctuated by amazing views and beautiful clear skies.

When I’m away from home I say am from DC, which is not wholly accurate and therefore is infuriating to some DC residents, but it suffices for outsiders. I am, in fact, from Northern Virginia – or more specifically from Springfield, the land of the mixing bowl (where Interstates 395, 95 and 495 meet). I am, however, an ardent defender of DC to those from who find it boring, staid, and devoid of diversity, and I recognize that there is more to this city than what tourists see. Washington is a place with running trails and hiking in the woods of Rock Creek Park, museums that aren’t all affiliated with the Smithsonian, individually unique neighborhoods, concert venues and theatres (I’m partial to the Shakespeare Theatre/Harmon Center for the Arts), and ice rinks in the winter.

Of course, there’s also my favorite thing to do when I come downtown: Walking directly into the middle of the National Mall (between the Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building) and to look first left at the Washington Monument and then right at the iconic dome of the Capitol Building. For some reason I can’t explain exactly, it’s a vista that is exhilarating and energizing.

Which is why, when I started reading the various articles floating around about the DC streetcar system that I paid attention—especially since one of the arguments against the planned version involved the wires cluttering up the grand vistas of what is often referred to as the “monumental core” of the city. Some preservationists are opposed to this, while others – as discussed in this Washington Post op-ed – disagree. In this piece Adam Irish states that, “the monumentalist vision of Washington has choked nearly all urban life from the Mall and its environs. It has fashioned large sections of our city into pleasing vistas for tourists but has given the rest of us lifeless wastelands …”

Now I suppose I should be clear. I don’t see the wires as an impediment to the current landscaping of the National Mall; in fact I think that you won’t really notice them. I also agree that the streetcar system will be a benefit for the city, especially in the parts that Metro can’t really reach. While I do take a measure of notice to the argument that the National Mall and the monumental core are only for tourists, I also agree with David Alpert’s assertion in his post on Greater Greater Washington. He argues that there are better ways to make use of the public space, that being a 21st Century city that is an example for sustainability and planning, and a city that thinks strategically about preservation (of those very sightlines that bring visitors from all around the world) are not mutually exclusive. I don’t think we have to choose one or the other. Streetcars and sustainable design can live hand in hand with the Lincoln Memorial and the White House.

I know that Alpert’s assertion that the National Mall is “unpleasantly sun-baked, too spread out, and largely devoid of convenient transportation or food, “ is not a feeling shared by him alone, but if there was one thing that I learned from my walk that gorgeous spring day was that a modern city does not need to be one of towering buildings punctuated by greenery like much of New York City, where the insanity of choices begs for an oasis like Central Park. Rather, I think that the very expansiveness and openness of that monumental core can inspire planners, residents and preservationists alike to find a compromise that everyone can enjoy.

Click here to view my pics