Lessons from Buffalo


Prudential/Guaranty Building, Buffalo
Last week the National Preservation Conference in Buffalo surpassed attendance records with over 2,600 attendees, and the host city really won the hearts and minds of the preservation population. The Mayor showed up at several events and the local paper had an article EVERY DAY about the preservation conference. People were so amazingly nice and welcoming (you can see Canada from there, so maybe the nice rubs off). Not too mention the fact that Buffalo is an architectural treat, from really great works by H.H. Richardson to Louis Sullivan’s most exuberant skyscraper and the fantastic Darwin Martin House by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Darwin Martin House, Buffalo
Plus great Art Deco, Beaux Arts, and even Modernism featured in Yamasaki’s mid-1960s M & T Bank Building, which the bank owners were touting to the Trustees on Saturday night.

There was a lot to see and do in Buffalo, and there was a lot of discussion about the Trust’s new Preservation 10X plan, the details of which are still in formation. I attended a very interesting panel “Repositioning the Preservation Message…And the Messenger” that included Mary Means, who invented Main Street back in the 1970s, Randy Mason, one of the leading scholarly thinkers in the field, and Elaine Carmichael.

This panel was indicative of the new directions that heritage conservation has taken in the 30-plus years since MainStreet was invented. Mostly those directions involved a Main Street-like focus on community revitalization, but increasingly the movement in the field has been to reevaluate some of our oldest preconceptions, inherited and often unquestioned assumptions. Randy Mason has been one of several scholars (also including Michael Holleran, Max Page, Dan Bluestone) who started to write a critical history of preservation a little more than a decade ago.

Mason had three points in Buffalo: 1. The word; 2. Visibility and 3. Quantification. These points very nearly parallel Stephanie Meeks’s excellent speech last year in Austin at the National Preservation Conference, when she called for the movement to move away from being the ones who say no, increase visibility, and increase funding. Let’s look at the three:

The Word – At the 2009 National Preservation Conference Don Rypkema said we need to start calling it heritage conservation. I echoed that point in a blog and an article in 2010. Words can be important. Moving to heritage conservation creates a deft communications coup by abandoning the word – historic preservation – that so many see as regulatory. Mason noted that because the word ends in “ist” it conveys a sense of righteousness and a defensiveness that is a legacy of the 1960s and 70s when preservation was not a community value.


But it is now. As Elaine Carmichael said: Y’all won. Most people accept the conservation of important buildings and districts as a community and civic value. Why do we continue to act like victims? Why are we still defensive? From tourism to retail and residential revitalization, heritage conservation has proved to be a viable economic development and urban planning method.

Perhaps it is the late 20th century phenomenon that David Lowenthal wrote about so eloquently, where everyone aspires to a legacy of oppression and a heritage of victimhood. But in a real sense, we can hold our head high because saving buildings has proved to be a vital planning and development tool again and again, across North America and the world.

But we do not – as Stephanie Meeks noted – have the visibility. This was also Mason’s second point. We need the building conservation version of that 1970s ad that made everyone care about natural area conservation, you know, the one where an Italian-American actor dressed like a Native American looks at a polluted river and sheds a tear? Meeks’ talk this year focused on marketing to a wider audience – 15 million potential local preservationists. If we reach even a fraction of that audience, we will be doing very well indeed.

Mason’s third point also tracks closely with the Trust’s thinking in that he focused on making economic arguments, appropriate since he worked with the Brookings Institution to compile the most comprehensive bibliography of economic studies in preservation/conservation. For over twenty years the numbers have been consistently positive in charting the economic impacts of saving buildings, downtowns and districts, when measured in property value, jobs, taxes, tourism, dollars staying in the community or any of a number of other measures.

So why haven’t we reached a wider audience? Elaine Carmichael had a challenging answer which took the “stop acting like a victim” admonition a step further. Not only do we need to stop being righteous and absolutist, but we need to give up our binary thinking. It is not a matter of win versus lose, black and white, right and wrong. There are shades of grey everywhere. Is it wrong to preserve a façade if that is the only portion of the building that is significant? Is it wrong to say one building is more important than another, or that some of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards – which haven’t been examined in a generation – need to be rewritten?

Carmichael’s greatest challenge was simple: Are we open to public conversation? Are we willing to hold our ideals a bit more loosely in our hand, trust that the next generation gets it (as I said here back in May) and promote a building conservation that is open to negotiation with the public as a whole and not just attorneys and planners and building managers and media types?

Can we open the discussion of identifying and evaluating significance for the purpose of managing change to the full public? In an internet age, the answer should be “of course we can” and the Partners in Preservation and This Place Matters programs of the National Trust have been demonstrating for five years how this conservation conversation can happen and have an effect.

Change is difficult. But it is always necessary.

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One Response to “Lessons from Buffalo”

  1. A Field of Saying No? « Preservation in Pink Says:

    [...] quote out of context here, I think the idea is still important to discuss. If you are interested, read the post for the entire context. “Y’all won. Most people accept the conservation of important buildings and districts as a [...]

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