My first job out of graduate school was an internship at Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. It was the early 2000s and the magazine overflowed with ads and famous bylines, thanks to the pre-internet economy and an editor-in-chief named Robert Wilson.
Wilson and the other editors saw themselves as cultural omnivores in a field that had become ossified and narrow. So they ran articles about a road trip through the Navajo Nation, the reglazing of Lever House, the glories of Las Vegas’ fake monuments. To highlight the break with old-school preservation, Wilson pointed to the cover of an issue published before he had helped relaunch the magazine in 1996. It showed a white woman in colonial garb, holding a teacup in a stuffy period room. You could almost hear the grandfather clock ticking forlornly.
Wilson and his staff were onto something. Historic preservation was starting to change. Once dominated by a rigid concern for accuracy—painting shutters the right color, repointing the bricks just so—it was becoming more flexible and self-aware. Today, preservation no longer pits itself against the forces of philistinism, hoping to rescue architectural gems one by one and mothball them against the ravages of time. The new preservation movement cares about neighborhoods as much as individual buildings, and not just gussied-up districts like the French Quarter or Old Town Alexandria. It recognizes the importance of non-buildings, too, like cemeteries, plazas, and parks. It looks beyond architecture for reasons why a place resonates, often finding them in social history.
Rethinking the Movement’s Priorities
In other words, this is big-tent preservation. You don’t even have to think of yourself as a preservationist to be one, claims Stephanie Meeks. “When churchgoers pass the plate or a school holds a bake sale to raise money for needed renovations, they are doing historic preservation,” she writes. “When local activists work together to keep their neighborhoods affordable and sustainable in the face of rising rents and climate change, respectively, they, too, are saving places that matter.”
Meeks is the president of the National Trust and the author, with Kevin C. Murphy, a Trust speechwriter, of The Past and Future City: How Historic Preservation Is Reviving America’s Communities (Island Press, 2016). (Note: I left the Trust before Meeks arrived and have never met her.) In the book, she argues that preservation does much more than keep old buildings standing up. It can boost local economies, fend off climate change, make us happier, and help us understand our own—and our country’s—past.
Meeks’ book came out the same month as a manifesto by Max Page, an architectural historian at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Why Preservation Matters (Yale University Press, 2016) is less a defense of preservation than a call to rethink its priorities. Taken together, the books show that a movement that began in earnest when Penn Station fell in 1964 has not run its course. Preservation can continue to be a force for good—but not the way it was a half century ago, and not without a lot of work by its leaders.
Meeks spends much of The Past and Future City aligning preservation with the (increasingly influential) principles of New Urbanism. She praises dense, mixed-use, pedestrian neighborhoods, and in particular, those with buildings dating to before World War II, which tend to be smaller than new structures. Meeks also champions the adaptive reuse of historic buildings, which traditionally was seen as a less desirable outcome than strict restoration. On the contrary, adaptive reuse is “the very warp and woof of preservation,” she writes. She urges governments to ease their permitting processes to make adaptive reuse easier.
The defense of adaptive reuse makes sense when you get to the next, most surprising section of the book, “Beyond House Museums.” For early preservationists, the default was to turn saved buildings into house museums. Now the United States has a glut of them: 15,000, more than the number of McDonald’s nationwide. Few of them get many visitors, and Meeks is in favor of selling them to private owners, so long as they are protected by easements.
The house-museum problem illustrates why leading preservationists are in a reflective mood, questioning their methods and priorities. The movement has achieved much of what early activists set out to do. There are now more than 80,000 properties listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places—1 million if you count contributing resources in historic districts. Tearing down Penn Station would be unthinkable today, and trendy companies like Twitter and hip restaurateurs often prefer old buildings for their outposts.
But the movement has had a few major blind spots, chief among them the lack of preserved sites that speak to the history of nonwhite Americans. Page devotes a chapter of "Why Preservation Matters" to “difficult places,” including Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, Va., once home to the nation’s second-largest slave market which, until recently, was buried under a hospital parking lot.
A Broadside Against an Elitist Movement
The Trust is preserving Shockoe Bottom as “a site of conscience,” and the group has bestowed its “National Treasure” designation on Shockoe as well as on Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, N.J., one of the three remaining stadiums of the Negro League, and Seattle’s Panama Hotel, a hub of Japanese American life before World War II. Nevertheless, Page—while covering much of the same ground as Meeks—throws down the gauntlet in Why Preservation Matters, calling out members of a movement he finds elitist, in thrall to neoliberalism, and disconnected from its rightful aim of social justice. Page complains that preservation has focused “obsessively” on high architecture, to the detriment of places that are architecturally undistinguished but historically significant. Fetishizing architecture has also led, he argues, to the neglect of interpretation, so sites that should be eloquent are rendered mute.
Most of all—and in stark contrast to Meeks, who rattles off statistic after statistic to prove the return on investment—Page hates how preservation has become inseparable from real-estate development. The tail wags the dog, he notes; developers decide what gets saved. “It is preservation in reverse—if a developer is interested, preservationists will help prove that the property qualifies for a tax credit.” In booming cities, he points out, old buildings have become tools of gentrification, whereas in struggling ones, no amount of spiffing up Main Street will fix deeper problems. Writing about struggling Camden, N.J., Page imagines that repairing building façades here would be “like offering a band-aid for an amputated limb.”
Both authors reject recent criticisms, by economist Edward Glaeser and others, that historic districts inhibit the supply of housing in cities and push prices up. Meeks notes that historic districts take up a small percentage of urban land, and they’re not frozen in amber, since alterations and some new construction are allowed. Page calls “preposterous” Glaeser’s claim that New York’s historic districts have hurt housing affordability in that city, pointing the finger at developers who chase after the luxury market.
Page’s recommendations are provocative. He would like to see a process for re-evaluating listed buildings every generation or so, to prevent “endless accretions of memory” that lose meaning as the years pass. The various layers of a site’s or building’s history should be respected as they are in cities like Rome, he contends, not wiped away in search of “authenticity,” a concept Page calls “a mirage and a chimera,” since there is no such thing as a building that is “perfectly preserved.” In the age of climate change, he would insist that all buildings are renovated rather than demolished, unless a strong case can be made otherwise. Finally, preservationists must “[stand] against the market as the measure of all things,” protesting disinvestment in poor neighborhoods and advocating for public housing.
“The question deserves to be asked,” he writes. “For what are preservationists prepared to be arrested?”
National Economic and Tax Impacts of Federal Historic Tax Credit-Related Activity
Source: Annual Report on the Economic Impact of the Federal Historic Tax Credit for Fiscal Year 2014, published by the National Park Service and the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University
Both Page and Meeks dodge the question of who decides what to save, and how. “This place matters” is a Trust motto—but according to whom, and compared to what? Understandably, neither wants elite conceptions of architectural quality to be the determining factor. Meeks more or less defers to the market and motivated citizens. Page rejects market solutions, but it’s unclear how he would support a model where the will to preserve comes first, the funds second. Such an approach might work in a place like Havana, but it’s hard to see it succeeding on a large scale in the U.S.
Practical hurdles aside, both books raise timely questions for a movement that is looking for its second act, even as it continues to defend its first: As of December, Republican Congressmen had proposed eliminating the federal historic tax credit in a draft tax-code reform. Only 8 percent of listings on the National Register represent women and racial minorities, and a recent survey by the Trust found that 93 percent of preservation-group leaders are white. If anything will hobble them, it will be acting like cultural gatekeepers. As the National Historic Preservation Act celebrates its 50th birthday, preservation has to stop being the movement of no, and start saying yes.