Historic Preservation is Dead

“Some people say it’s bold. Some people say I’m saying what they wanna say.  Some people don’t agree.  Some people are outraged.  To me, hip-hop’s been dead for years.  We all should know that, come on.”-Nas, 2006.

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Pour out a little liquor, because historic preservation is dead.  Even our folkloric martyr Richard Nickel, gone 44 years now, would agree, but then Richard never really liked historic preservation in the first place.  In 2016, historic preservation as we know it, has reached a point of biological aging.  Like the buildings we fail to save, deterioration and neglect has allowed historic preservation an opportunity to return to the earth.  Announcing the figurative death of historic preservation is tendentious, for sure, but the main purpose of this declaration is to accept that times have changed and we desperately need to readjust ourselves.  Give it a good jazz funeral and cut the body loose.  Historic preservation is dead!

In Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America, William J. Murtaugh writes, “The first thing anyone interested in preservation must know is how to talk about the subject.  Certain terminology has been established by use and common consent, even though confusion and differences of opinion over exact meaning still tend to persist in the public mind.”  This statement, located in one of the first pages of Keeping Time, a seminal textbook in any historic preservation graduate curriculum, sums up one of the first teachable moments for students as the following: historic preservation is for Historic Preservationists, and we are not going to bother with how unclear what we do is to the public.  The term “historic preservation” carries a specific meaning, yet historic preservation, or simply preservation, has a general meaning, as in the Historic Preservation Movement (you will find that many use historic preservation and preservation intermittently, including here in this essay.) Historic preservation seeks to preserve buildings of historical significance, but it also serves as an umbrella term, covering the acts of restoring, preserving, conserving and reconstructing buildings.  There are also Historic Preservationists, as in the people that make historic preservation happen.  Are you confused yet?  You should be.

Historic preservation’s core values are far more impactful than its shitty nomenclature lets on, leaving us extremely stifled by “historic preservation” as an umbrella term. We desperately need to change the words we use when we interface with the public.  In the simplest sense-we save buildings that have value-yet the words we use to describe this make no reference to saving buildings, or architecture at all, just a vague yet formal sounding notion of preserving the past that sounds more like the Queen’s English than a planning endeavor.  In talking to the public about saving buildings that have human value, we should be using more descriptive adjectives, like cultural, and better nouns, like heritage.  Perhaps preservation is a better term to describe fruit canned for long-term storage, or arranging dead butterflies than it is for buildings.

We serve the public’s interest through how they relate to architecture, because buildings do not relate to themselves.  Architectural significance is worth nothing without understanding that buildings are built for people to work, shit, fuck and love in them; with love being the most important noun.  We cannot make a true case to save a building or buildings if the community cannot ultimately see the value in our fight.

What if, instead of using professionals to establish what is and isn’t “historic,” we allowed living resources (i.e., the public) to decide?  The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “This Place Matters” campaign has encouraged people to celebrate the places that are meaningful to them, but what if we took this concept further and removed the federal, state and local governments, non-profits and neighborhood preservation organizations from making this decision?  This is a terrifying thought, not because we are giving the public full reign, but that these results may be dramatically different from our current ones.

How do we process our failures?  Bold and innovative architecture along with an aggressive campaign by historic preservationists couldn’t save Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital from demolition.  A star-studded array of professionals and architects spoke about the buildings shape, the engineering techniques, and its unique provenance, yet there were almost no voices celebrating the building as a place where thousands of babies were born, or where families began, or where relationships flourished or friends were made.  These narratives were missing from the case made to save Prentice.  It is unknown as to whether the addition of this type of public support would have tilted the scales, but it is worth considering.  The answer to the question “why is this building important?” can’t be because preservationists or historians say so.  We can no longer live in a world where good architecture is the only thing.

Historic preservation chooses to dodge the subject that seeing a significant building at its ugliest has an effect beyond the decay of the physical fabric, and that this ignorance erodes how communities see what we do. “Preservation by neglect,” is a term used to describe the way an old building is preserved by disrepair, thus the building’s original or historic features aren’t marred by a building owner that looks to make changes to an old building that are perceived as insensitive.  We have created a culture where seeing a building we like with condition and safety issues is far better than seeing a building with changes that relate to livability or modernization.  Taking an “us” (the individuals that wish to see a historic building being properly stewarded) versus “them” (building owners that do not respect historic buildings) approach is too black and white, yet we continue to allow the use of the same old tired cliché both internally and externally that “they should do something about that.”  Who establishes what the “they” “something” and “that” are?  These pronouns are vague, and are part of a useless declarative statement.

Use of the term “blight”, whether it’s used to describe a singular building or a community, is complex and nuanced.  Blight is a visual manifestation of failure, and to be absolutely clear once and for all, ruin porn is hedonistic pleasure, not historic preservation.  There is no place for the exploitation of dilapidated buildings when it yields no results.  In most cases, the psychological and physical distance that an individual may have from these buildings makes these buildings artful and poetic, but how do people feel about vacant or blighted buildings when they are right next door?  Vacant buildings are more prevalent in communities with higher numbers of drug, property and violent crimes.  A physical environment that communicates a less watchful eye encourages delinquency.  Imagine being a child walking to school every day past the same vacant building, or maintaining your yard up to the lot line of a decrepit structure.

It is unfair to ask, or in the worst cases, have a historic preservation organization “tell” a community that they must accept a decrepit building because it has architectural significance. They don’t see a building with great architecture, or “good old bones” or great potential.  They see a piece of shit.

Perhaps the most famous piece of shit historic building is the Michigan Central Station in Detroit. Built in 1913, the building’s life as a train station ended in 1988 with the termination of both passenger and freight service.  That’s a 75-year history of use, and a 28-year history of uncertainty; a lifetime.  The Michigan Central Station isn’t known as a mystic Midwest twin to New York’s Grand Central Terminal, or for its soaring vaults, resembling a Roman bathhouse, or as a testament to what we built in relation to how we traveled in the early 20th century.  Michigan Central Station is known as a salient example of how Detroit went awry.  Restoration projects have been proposed as far back as 1992, but none have materialized, leading to decades of disappointment that this building may have a second life.  Meanwhile, the building continues to be oversexed in its ruinous state by photographers, urban spelunkers, and as a place for apocalyptic showdowns between superheroes and anthropomorphic semi-trailer trucks.

Whether in or out of a historic district, preservationists are lightning quick to become incensed by what they consider to be insensitive changes to neighborhood buildings by homeowners. A recent hashtag campaign to “Stop the Pop” has been implemented by the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association and centers on discouraging the practice of removing the sloped roof of a bungalow and adding a squared off second floor.  Words like “hideous” and “ugly” are used to describe these rehabs, and while it’s difficult not to agree when you are familiar with a bungalow’s design elements, we are treating people with mortgage payments, families and barbeque grills with the same overzealous vehemence we use to treat multi-million dollar commercial developers.  We encourage being seen as elitists because we approach our challenges from the same aggressive vantage point every time.

Choosing where to buy a home is a nuanced process and unless you are a preservationist, you’re not going to have “contributing to a historic district” as a line item that factors in to where you decide to make that investment. What you may consider is the beauty of existing buildings, the degree to which your potential new neighbors are keeping up their properties, the potential resale value, and the safety and aesthetics of the streetscape.  All of these items are tangible, and have a symbiotic relationship to being inside a historic district.  We already know this, preservation.  We’ve known this since forever, really.  So please, please, stop paying the same professionals thousands of dollars to come to conferences and to write about historic district designations increasing property values, or that historic preservation is, in and of itself, sustainable development.  We are wasting our money to tell ourselves what we already fucking know.

In order to be considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, a building generally needs to reach 50 before we can property access it’s significance. Historic preservation as a culture follows these same unspoken age requirements within it.  The value of our thought leaders comes solely from their seniority.  We allow the bulk of our voices and ideas to come from professionals at the absolute brink of retirement.  Many historic preservationists would be hard pressed to identify a building built recently that they would fight for in thirty years, establishing that there is nothing left to save.  If we are not identifying who the thought leaders in historic preservation are right now, or identifying and encouraging new potential, we aren’t accepting the dictum that “Preservation is Dead” in order to work on our postscript with it, we are killing it off ourselves!

We base the worth and knowledge of others on their gray hairs, not the quality of their work or the inertia of their ideas. Young people don’t have careers or jobs in historic preservation, they grow their lives around it.  Youth brings in an understanding of the relationship between the built environment and culture, and an understanding of technology as both a supportive tool and as a meaningful way to communicate.  We have fallen into a rut where introducing anything new threatens the importance of the old, and we are missing out.

Historic preservation is no longer charged with just saving places where George Washington pissed or slept.  As our story has become more culturally complex, the landmarks we have designated as important have begun to reflect who we were and who we wish to be.  The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, The Stonewall Inn in New York City and the Moslem Temple, also known as the Mother Mosque of America, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa have all become officially designated historic landmarks, but this is only a small sliver of buildings, less than 10%, that chronical our nation’s diverse history.  There is a deficit of younger people as arbiters or tastemakers for sure, but the greater issue is the overwhelming number of white, and predominantly male authorities in the field that unfortunately reflect the large portion of recognized historic resources that reflect a white and predominately male built history.

Now that historic preservation is dead, we no longer feel beholden to how we interpreted or related to the past in the past. We are free to forge a more meaningful relationship with the built environment by collaborating with other disciplines, and most importantly genuinely listening to the people that we serve, and why buildings are important to them.  This is how we ensure our successes are bigger, increase our allies, and ensure our cultural relevance beyond our obituary.  RIP, historic preservation.  You won’t be missed.

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One thought on “Historic Preservation is Dead”

  1. I found your blog with a shot-in-the-dark google search for “is historic preservation dead?” Yours was the first I clicked, and I still haven’t made it back to any other on the list.

    Good stuff. I like it. Keep going.

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