“Landmarks serve a community by providing a point of reference, an element of identity, and a source of pride. The community serves landmarks by providing for their protection, interpretation, and enhancement. We preserve landmarks because our history is part of us. Our historical built environment tells us where we came from and why we do what we do. When we lose landmarks, we lose a part of ourselves.”
I wrote these words twenty years ago when I worked at the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and in the early 1990s they adorned our Annual Report. In 2003 LPCI Chairman John Stassen quoted them during the Annual Meeting, held at the Humboldt Park boathouse and I walked up to him afterwards and told him that I had written those words in that same park. I was driving and thinking about why we preserve landmarks, and that trinity of environment, identity and emotion came to me so I pulled over in Humboldt Park and wrote it down. John asked me to email him the precise quotation last week as I was leaving for Denver and I did.
It seems to me that they still make sense, and they resonated yesterday when I was interviewed by a film crew documenting the restoration of the Tiffany dome at the Chicago Cultural Center and I talked about that place as a place of shared identity and civic pride, just like Millennium Park and the Reliance Building and Carson Pirie Scott, soon to be a Loop grocer. And they make sense because they are phrased in terms of a social contract, a formulation often forgotten in our recent national brush with radical individualism.
There are social contracts – commons, I believe the legal eagles call them – everywhere in our lives and especially in our environment, for while we may be moving to a world of virtual networks and virtual identities, we still move about and in doing so we must share space with others and the space we share is also an element of identity that we share and unless it is our mission to obliterate our neighbor’s identity we have a responsibility to preserve because it is our identity too.
The Michigan Avenue Streetwall made the National Trust’s list of the Eleven Most Endangered Places in the U.S. The plan to facadomize the Chicago Athletic Association was the trigger, but the fate of the rest of the wall – where Millennium Park has driven values and building profiles skyward – is why it made the list. There is apparently a new plan that saves 2/3 of the building rather than 1/3, which means someone is listening, even if they aren’t “getting it.” They are responding to objections, but I doubt they have accepted the social contract implied.
We had great visits to the newest National Trust site, the Hotel De Paris in Georgetown, which is a fabulous historic town well worth a visit, and the Four Mile House, and the Navarre, an 1874 girls school that became an infamous bordello in the 1880s. This led University of Colorado preservation educator Tom Noel – in an extremely funny speech – to bring up the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which encourage that buildings we re-used for their original purpose when possible. Noel described the challenge presented by the one-time bordello and the rather elegant re-use solution: law offices. He then, in the tradition of Western tall-tale-telling, reported that the prostitutes objected to this re-use as a smirch upon their good name, since there were some things they would never do for money.
This humorous experience collides with my everyday in my new old house and makes me wonder about how spaces are always repurposed, and indeed as I approached the house – must be repurposed. Preservation is not about museums, and our Historic Sites meeting emphasized that. The trend, the goal and the overarching purpose of historic sites today is not about the past. Nor is it even about that limited (albeit large) sector of tourism. Historic sites today need to be place-based, not past-based. That is what that social contract I enunciated many years ago said: this is about place, and the place place occupies in you and me and us together.
Only of course I said it much better twenty years ago because youth does have its advantages….