why preserve?

A large part of the beginning (and middle and end) of most of the classes i’ve had so far is getting us thinking and expressing the answer to this question. A good thing too for everyone out there, yes, you lot, are always asking this of us. Why? Why historic preservation? It’s late now but let me post an expanded version of the answer to this week’s question:

From the readings create a list of five or so imperatives for preserving physical links to the past. Then select one that appeals most to you and explain how you would use it to justify the preservation of historic places.

1. sentimental – preserving landmarks both vernacular and monumental, personal and public. Note the Time article from 1987 “Isn’t the new feeling for preservation and for cities inherently romantic, clearheadedness clouded with a large does of nostalgia?” Emotion is a significant driving force behind many of us humans and, as Stipe says, “important human emotions [like nostalgia and patriotism] must be served.”

2. aesthetics – as Robert Stipe put it, “we believe in the right of our cities and countryside to be beautiful.” An controversial and potentially incendiary remark to be sure, this could also be interpreted with what i want to call the “popularity of the old”—historic buildings and materials being in vogue. Sometimes this is in the form of distressed plaster on restaurant walls (often faked unfortunately) but also in more significant aspects that actually do further the less superficial causes of historic preservation. The superficiality is a problem i see with this “reason,” it seems any purely aesthetic motive for preservation runs the risk of being extracted from the preservation ethic itself, and as an aesthetic of historicism becomes more popular in mainstream it becomes more and more purely superficial and actual history maybe laid waste to in deference of a finish, old or not, that looks more antiquated.

3. the “original green” – reduce reuse recycle—duh!! reuse of a structure and/or it’s historic materials, built to last, made to last, worth reusing or worth preserving esp in a world obsessed with new! Stipe addresses this somewhat with his 7th reason, which zeroes in on the “broader, more instructive and inclusive social purpose” of historic preservation today. But i am going “green” for sustainability is definitely one of my most rational heartfelt argument for historic preservation. Historic Preservation is a planning tool that advocates building a future with the materials we already have, buildings, texture, communities, landscapes. In a great Ted talk by Rhonda Sincavage (post below), she enumerates the ways in which preservation is green. From the obvious reuse and recycle which saves significant amounts of materials from landfills to the learning from the buildings of the past, seeing them for their efficiency in a day when air conditioning, heat, and unnatural lighting were not available. From them perhaps we can learn to be more efficient as well.

4. education, remembering/revering the past – notables particularly. Mt. Vernon being of course THE monument to preservation as a tool for patriotic remembrance, education and reverence.

5. preserving our sense of place, of community – A personal sense of place is an incredibly important, grounding sense that is part of knowing who you are and which not all of us possess in the same degree. To be sure, the transience of the America today, combined it seems with a degradation of family ties over the last century or so has led to a serious reduction our general sense of place. I am in no position to bemoan the wandering, aimless, goalless youth of today’s world, but we’ve all heard it and most likely to some extent agree. This ties neatly in with the advocacy invoked by Stipe’s #7: as we think about “how we can conserve urban neighborhoods, rural landscapes and natural resources for human purposes” we preservationists are thinking of ways to protect and reinstate a sense of pride in and of our communities.

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