Next year is the 40th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Like much progressive legislation, the Act not only codified historic preservation practice – it pushed it forward. Suddenly we cared about properties of local significance (despite the fact that it was a national act) and historic districts. Much of preservation history had focused on individual sites and architectural significance. In 1966 preservation moved to the community level and embraced social history.
Forty years is a long time for a movement, and it has changed. I was speaking yesterday with Judy Hayward about next Spring’s Traditional Building conference in Chicago, where we are having a panel on “When preservation involves demolition.” Judy opined that this shows how the movement is maturing, looking at issues with a balanced eye. The same is true in preservation education and scholarship. The last two years have witnessed a spate of publications revisiting and revising the traditional view of preservation.
Forty years gives a movement enough self-confidence to be able to look critically at itself. Until 1978 preservationists weren’t even sure that their activities were constitutional. Well into the 1980s both legislation and public support seemed very thin. By the 1990s most people felt preservation was legal and desirable, and a new criticality began to emerge.
Yet the monastic impulse remains. Secret lists are supposedly kept of those who testify against preservation. This sounds like a religious fraternity, a political cell or an advocacy organization like the NRA, that views even a hint of compromise, sanity or outreach with venomous disdain.
When you come from the desert into the city and become a mainstream movement there will be those who claim you sold out and should still be fasting in the sagebrush. I wrote here not long ago about criticism I got from preservation purists (fundamentalists?) for being in compromise positions. By the way, these sell-outs pay just as well as purism – which is to say nothing at all. The movement has not lost its volunteerism.
I remember a Peanuts cartoon from childhood were Linus decides what he wants to be when he grows up: a fanatic. Charlie Brown asks him what kind of fanatic and Linus responds “a wide-eyed fanatic” whilst widening his eyes.
I wanted to be one, too, but I could never quite manage it. I have testified against fellow professionals I know in various cases over the years. I don’t hold it against them. Holding grudges doesn’t seem pure at all.
There have always been differences of opinion, even when the movement was young. Tim Samuelson tells the story of how he stormed out of an early LPCI meeting because they decided to try to save the old library (see http://www.ci.chi.il.us/Tourism/CultureCenterTour/) and he found it incomprehensible that preservation cared about such historicist crud – it was really about Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright and their romantic tilt against the windmills of fashionable architecture. Chicago preservation was so architecturally-focused in the 1950s and 1960s that they landmarked buildings before the paint was dry – Inland Steel became a landmark three years after it was built under the toothless 1957 ordinance. You can see it – designated in 1998 under a real ordinance – at http://www.ci.chi.il.us/Landmarks/I/InlandSteel.html.
We live in a time of ideologues. Sometimes I think “All ideology is wrong” because ideology is static. It is not dynamic and changeable like history, which is a mess of contradictions. Ideology is in the form of answers, which are temporal. On the other hand, questions are eternal.
Why do we save buildings? Why should we save this one? Why didn’t we save that one? What should be done with them?
Questions don’t go away, even after the answers we give today turn to dust and shadows.
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