Ashley Robbins Wilson, AIA
Photography: Vincent Ricardel

Ashley Robbins Wilson, AIA, the Graham Gund Architect at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has spent her entire life studying the architecture of the past for inspiration. Growing up in Florida in the 1970s meant being surrounded by suburban development, but she has distinct memories of searching for beautiful buildings and wondering how she could learn more about them. She’s now in charge of overseeing the 21 historic properties and landscapes owned by the Trust.

Preservation is the ultimate upcycling and you can see that idea finally mainstreaming. It is sensible and practical to reuse buildings because they have embodied craftsmanship and are expensive to demolish. The creative classes figured it out first: Old buildings have character and more reasonable rental or purchase rates than new buildings. Add in tax credits and the resurgence of downtowns, and now reuse is becoming far more commonplace.

There are also the emotional benefits of reuse. Old buildings are authentic and help to make place. They give us emotional connection to our communities; they grant us orientation and identity; they provide emotional security. Buildings have a way of triggering memories in the same way that music does. Our buildings are tangible reminders of those who went before us and for those who follow. Healthy preservation embraces both the past, as well as the future.

Pop culture helps to heighten awareness. Mad Men did more to emphasize the importance and hipness of midcentury Modernism than we preservationists could have done on our own. I also find the value that we put on our industrial heritage particularly fascinating; appreciation for this aspect of our past has partially grown from the school of photography that emphasizes the beauty of obsolete water towers, gas holders, factories, mills, and military bases. Think of Detroit and all of those evocative images of decay: As a result, there is a new emphasis in our field of not “over-restoring.” That partially missing plaster, that layer of paint, that exposed mechanical equipment: They all have their own identity.

We’re living in an era when people enjoy the local and authentic—craft beers, farm-to-table food, regional music. It’s the things that make a place unique that have achieved widespread appeal. It’s the same way with buildings—the craft of construction, the materials, the technology, the style, the vernacular touches. Architects respond to historic places, just like everyone else. Buildings are adaptable and fun to work on. When you do something new and fun to a historic building, it tends to sing.—As told to Steve Cimino