Posts Tagged ‘historic preservation’

Cultural Landscapes: The Confluence of Conservations

October 6, 2013

I have blogged previously about the differences between natural area conservation and heritage conservation, especially in terms of use-value, as I wrote about last year in this blog. The basic point was that natural area conservation is largely about preserving non-use value – a liability (or at least an externality), while heritage conservation is about preserving use-value – an asset.
Big Sur 97bS
we could all use some of this

That blog also delved into the 41-year history of World Heritage, which includes both cultural, natural and “mixed” sites. I detailed how we had shifted in heritage conservation from iconic and monumental singular sites to broader cultural landscapes. In recent discussions with conservation foundations, I am sensing a new confluence of heritage conservation and natural conservation as both approaches are moving into the arena of cultural landscapes.
heshuie fields4
Guizhou, China

More than one foundation that sees the conservation of natural areas as its mission has moved into funding efforts to protect indigenous peoples and landscapes: cultural landscapes that are NOT “wilderness” in any traditional sense, but whose balance of humans and nature seems to be in a sort of equilibrium we would not claim for our American cities and suburbs. At least two foundations I recently met with are looking at specific regions where indigeous people occupy – and farm or shepherd – a landscape in a way that may preserve the natural environment in an overall sense despite the “taint” of human occupation. Instead of merely keeping people out of these areas, the goal is to allow traditional indigenous economies to manage those landscapes in a sustainable way with traditional agriculturalist and pastoralist practices.
Trail 20 huts
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia

The evolution of natural area conservation from wilderness to occupied landscapes has occurred over a long period, and arguably efforts to preserve Andean watersheds or Central Asian steppes without regard to political boundaries has its roots in the earliest national parks. My own experience in heritage conservation began with an organization that is still not 50 years old that undertook a comprehensive look at the landscapes near Chicago and identified pristine nature amidst industrial and agricultural development and devised a scheme to preserve BOTH.
canal view to indS
Illinois & Michigan Canal near Channahon.

Arguably, it is the historic preservation people who got to the party late, focusing on iconic architectural landmarks to the exclusion of layered landscapes where history might best be captured in ordinary structures. In my dissertation research, I identified a gap between the traditional architectural preservationists who sought to save individual landmarks and those community activists who identified potential historic districts almost a century ago. Those groups slowly came together in the 1960s and 1970s, just as the environmental movement achieved an apex of influence on public policy.
gv face reflex
Greenwich Village, Manhattan
El Capitan strea Alex5
Yosemite

It has been argued that both environmentalism and historic preservation are reactions against industrialization and its effects on the landscape; that both are somewhat nostalgic oppositions to economic growth. This argument fails to account for the entirety of my 30 years in the heritage development field but it does reveal an interesting bias that accounts for the current trends in regard to occupied landscapes.
mt vernon
Here is Mount Vernon, famously saved in the mid-19th century from the depredations of development, especially “manufactories.” There is of course its iconic association with George Washington, but if you go there today you realize that it is a plantation, which is to say, a settled agricultural landscape. Ann Pamela Cunningham and her friends saw BOTH the house and the landscape as worthy of preservation. The first preservation group in the US was the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. The motives were nostalgic and anti-progress, but their goals were both historic and environmental.

princeton btlfd
Princeton Battlefield

So perhaps it is not unusual that these two movements are coalescing AGAIN. I remember being really struck by Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature a quarter-century ago when he argued that most of the truly wild places were gone. It is hard to find pieces of the planet untouched by civilization (or at least societies). I have visited the archaeological sites of many past civilizations who so despoiled their landscapes that they made deserts of rich fields and ruins of great cities.
burren pavements
The Burren, Ireland. Cromwell’s general said of the landscape, heavily populated millenia earlier, “a savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him.”

If you look on the National Trust website today, you see the fruits of decades of efforts to move from icons to “places that matter” and you see that the targets of the movement in the U.S. are, in addition to architectural landmarks, places as vast and diverse as the Mississippi Delta, Chimney Rock and even Princeton Battlefield. Internationally, the trend is quite similar, and it is instructive to look at the goal of BOTH heritage and natural area conservation, which is NOT stopping change, but MANAGING change.
rui9ncrop and river
Wachau, Austria

Managing change is what heritage conservation is all about. For the Global Heritage Fund project in Guizhou, our goal is to come up with ways of preserving both the structures and folkways of these World Heritage minority villages as they become linked by fast roadways to the big cities. It is a classic GHF problem requiring careful community planning and conservation while working with communities and partners to insure positive economic and social benefit.
heshui waterwheelS
Waterwheel for pounding wood pulp to make paper, HeShui Village, Guizhou

Many of our projects combine heritage conservation with natural area conservation. We have had many support our Classical Mayan archaeological site of El Mirador in Guatemala because it preserves massive Mesoamerican pyramids as well as disappearing rainforest. Similarly, when you trek to our site of Ciudad Perdida in Colombia, you are in both the Tayrona indigenous area and a national park.
CP 39 terraces houses

Over thirty years ago I began working on an effort to save a landscape that had pristine natural areas, historic towns, steel plants and vast agricultural plots. It was a whole story of human existence layered into a landscape and it was a pioneering approach to the concept of conservation as managed change that does not remove nature or history from the economy, but manages its future as a vital – and conserved – element of the economy. I have been privileged to witness the confluence of heritage and natural conservation over those decades, and to be able to participate in it every day.
vw to lock 8s

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National Preservation Conference Austin

November 9, 2010


6th Street, Austin

Two weeks ago the National Preservation Conference began in Austin, Texas and I participated in many ways: as a presenter in an Education Session, as a participant on tours, in sessions, as a member of the National Council for Preservation Education (and outgoing Chair Emeritus) and of course as a Trustee. It is a very exciting time to be involved in the National Trust, because we have a new leader, Stephanie Meeks, whom we chose as our President this summer. You don’t have to go any farther than her speech at the Opening Plenary session to realize that there are exciting times ahead in the world of cultural heritage preservation.

Red River district, Austin, Texas

Notice her word choice: “cultural heritage conservation.” This reflects her discussion of the harmony between her role at the Trust and her years of leadership at the Nature Conservancy, but it also reflects a movement to rebrand historic preservation, which seems narrow, as heritage conservation, which is what it is called in the rest of the English-speaking world. Don Rypkema made this call last year in Nashville and he and I had articles about the topic in Forum Journal this summer (you can see my original blog on the topic here.)

State Capitol, Austin, Texas

Meeks’ speech focused on three needs: The Need to make preservation More Accessible, the Need to make preservation More Visible, and the Need for preservation to be fully funded. She described how historic buildings, sites and structures create a sense of connection that speaks to a primal human need for COMMUNITY that can be as strong as the need for shelter and sustenance. But beyond the high thoughts she had concrete proposals: expand the databases the Trust is developing on historic sites for African-American and other minority groups, since the vast majority of listed historic sites do not reflect the experiences of America’s diverse populations.

Texas two-door cottage, Clarksville, Austin

She proposed a national survey of historic sites which would build on the virally successful “This Place Matters” contest the Trust sponsored last year. That program was a model of accessibility and popular input – the winning sites were all about community and heritage, not architectural or patrician pedigree. Meeks referenced the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count as a parallel. Everyone is involved in conserving their community – that is what our movement REALLY is, not aesthetic police, not antiquarianism, not fine arts connoisseurship.

this one is from Oak Park, not Texas

Meeks’ also stressed visibility by stating that we need to “make the case” for historic preservation/heritage conservation. This has actually been the theme of my graduate Preservation Planning class since it started sixteen years ago. And in this context she made a point I have tried to make for the entirety of my professional career: we need to let people know that preservationists aren’t those saying “No!” but those providing creative solutions.

I react with great chagrin at the snickering I sometimes hear from otherwise balanced persons at a proposal to save certain buildings or groups of buildings. My chagrin stems from the fact that they see the buildings as an obstacle to redevelopment and of course I see them as an asset to redevelopment. Which is the more creative position? Who is the more creative artist – the one who faces a blank canvas, or the one who must make the art fit into the vaults and curves of a predesigned ceiling, as Michaelangelo did for Pope Julius II? In real estate development, there are a hundredfold more examples of dreck than genius built on clear sites. Working within an existing context requires an uncommon mental and artistic agility.

former Pearl Brewery, San Antonio

National Trust President Stephanie Meeks final call was for full funding of the National Historic Preservation Act, which has NEVER happened since it was passed in 1966. Even the programs started by the two previous First Ladies, Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America, are threatened.

Meeks called for the National Trust to build a movement that engaged one out of 10 Americans with cultural heritage conservation, and to move toward that goal as we come up to the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act in 2016.

She openly dreamed about a day when it would take a (historic) football stadium to hold the plenary sessions of the National Preservation Conference. Don’t know if I will see that, but I welcome that energy and enthusiasm, a sense of which was palpable in Austin.

For more information about the National Trust, to join or sign up for next year’s conference in Buffalo, go to www.preservationnation.org.

New Leadership

June 15, 2010

Yesterday we announced the hiring of Stephanie Meeks as the eighth President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Meeks spent many years at the Nature Conservancy, eventually becoming CEO of that not-for-profit, developing formidable chops in advocacy, management, public relations and fundraising. We are genuinely excited to have a leader of this caliber and pedigree.

I think Meeks’ experience in land conservation will serve her extremely well in the arena of heritage conservation. Over the last 18 years Dick Moe has brought the National Trust into the 21st century, leading the group into the fight against sprawl, pushing beyond the four walls of stuffy house museums and antiquarian peccadillos into the streets where people lived and played. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is about saving the places that matter to people; about saving community; about planning for the future, not the past.

And then three years ago Dick Moe took the next step: he said historic preservation was about sustainability. He backed it up with a slew of facts and I was thrilled when he did it, because in an era when we care about waste of resources and the carbon footprint of our lives and homes, sustainability IS preservation. Now, Stephanie Meeks, whose career has been about saving places that matter to people and the natural environment that sustains human life, can build on this sustainable foundation. Or perhaps the better analogy is not to build but to continue to adapt and improve the National Trust “house” for the concerns and communities of the 21st century.

In Tulsa in October, Don Rypkema gave a great speech about the next 50 years of historic preservation. In it, he said straight out that the next President of the National Trust should be a woman. And here she is and I believe that the movement to conserve our built heritage will be enriched by her presence.

I wrote a blog in response to Don’s speech, and both texts will be in the next issue of Preservation Forum (Join Forum now!) and we will be doing a live chat on the topic with Forum members in late July/early August. Stay tuned!

Kelo Redux

November 15, 2009

Check this out: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/13/nyregion/13pfizer.html?_r=1&sudsredirect=true
The big 2005 Supreme Court case – Kelo v. City of New London – that underscored a city’s right to use eminent domain to take private property and give it to another private owner has reached a perhaps inevitable denouement: the City of New London, CT, took Susette Kelo’s house, and a bunch of others, for a private “urban village” to be built next to a new Pfizer development. Now Pfizer is leaving, and taking 1400 jobs with it. Yowch.

The real lesson here has less to do with eminent domain and more to do with economic development. Conservative justices voted against the city, but in a sense the use of eminent domain for private redevelopment has been with us since Berman v. Parker in 1954, which paved the way for urban renewal and preservation. Memory refresher: urban renewal was a public program, but it basically worked like this: the government declared an area “slum and blighted,” bought up all the land and gave it to another private developer to achieve the renewal. Yes, there were housing projects that were completely public, but the biggest part of urban renewal involved the same sort of eminent domain and transfer of property to another private owner we saw in New London.

After Kelo in 2005, 43 states passed laws limiting how eminent domain could be used, which makes sense from a strict constructionist viewpoint – the Constitution provided for eminent domain and just compensation for “public use.” As a preservationist who sees the preservation impulse as an attempt by communities to assert control over their destiny, I see the utility of Berman v. Parker. I think safeguards after Kelo are fine, but the REAL lesson this week is Don’t Give Away The Store to Anybody for economic development. New London not only condemned land, they gave Pfizer a ginormous property tax break. And now all of the jobs are gone. In less than eight years.

You can cut deals to get jobs and investment, but you have to make those GOOD deals and you have to remember that businesses are loyal to only one location, and that location is Wall Street and the street is thin-skinned, short-tempered, monstrously myopic and given to more emotional breakdowns than a 13-year old girl. You tear everything down and build it new for Mr. Sugar Daddy and then he ditches you. But of course he ditches you: you had no self respect, no desire to stand up for yourself and your character.

Now, REAL economic development is all about a community defining itself and attracting the right kind of business to fit into its character, including its built character. You develop a town by using its existing building stock and you have a long-term development plan that KEEPS ON WORKING. Mr. Sugar Daddy leaves but you still have your town and its character. You have to find another user for your buildings, but if you look for one that fits – rather than one who asks YOU to change everything about you for him – well, then you get a marriage that lasts, and keeps on giving.

New London has lost over a thousand jobs, and they have a big useless new building and a lot of vacant land. This is not a failure of property rights, it is a failure of short-sighted, dim-witted development. Develop with what you got and it lasts. Pave paradise for Mr. Sugar Daddy and you deserve what you get when he leaves.

Heritage Conservation, not Historic Preservation

October 17, 2009

The final event at the National Preservation Conference in Nashville was a lunch featuring speaker Donovan Rypkema, a longtime preservation contributor whose specialty is the economics of historic preservation. Don always has numerous inspiring insights, and this presentation was no exception. His focus was preservation in 50 years, and it was a call to action that called for significant change. I agree with 99 percent of it, and here is why.

First, Don talked about the recent and virally successful “This Place Matters” photo contest which the National Trust held on its website (link on the right). The event was standard 21st century user interface: people print out “This Place Matters” signs from the Trust, and photograph them in front of places that mattered to them. Then people voted on their favorites. It was an exercise in the democracy of the built environment, and it was a revelation.

It was a revelation because, as Don pointed out, almost all of the finalists were NOT monumental buildings in the traditional sense of historic preservation. They weren’t outstanding architectural landmarks or the homes of famous people. The winner was a Humble Oil station in San Antonio, second place was a boathouse in Door County, Wisconsin and third place was a graveyard with a sailor holding the sign near a gravestone. But the effort was a huge success, because PEOPLE were deciding what PLACES mattered to them.

Don took this as a call for preservationists to reestablish the relationship between why something is important and how we preserve it. This is so true and so important. For too long, we have used curatorial procedures designed for fine art museums to determine how we treat elements of the built environment. Treating the Humble Oil station or the Door County boathouse like a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt is not necessary or even useful. There are physical elements of those properties that need to be maintained, but so does their relationship to their environment. In fact, their connection to PLACE is what is MOST IMPORTANT. It is similar to the philosophy of the historic district, where individual significance or individual artistry, elegance or craftsmanship are subservient to the whole thing. The whole thing is a PLACE, and it is what is most important.

I think we can do this, even without revising the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, although that needs to be done too. We must remember that preservation is a PROCESS, not a set of rules but a set of procedures. When we IDENTIFY something as significant, that identification should indicate WHAT about it needs to be saved. In our Chicago Landmarks Ordinance, for example, each designation report indicates WHAT the significant architectural and historic features are that need to be preserved in order to preserve the significance of the property. That list is different for every building, site or structure. As I have often said, preservation treats everything as an individual, not a category.

This is something that English Heritage in the UK already does, and indeed the English have always listed their buildings in categories based on significance. I did this 20 years ago when we surveyed historic churches in Chicago, so I understand the possibility, and I also understand the reticence preservationists had 40 years ago in doing such a ranking: because it would consign some buildings to demolition based on their low ranking.

But the point of going beyond the Rembrandt rule (treating every bit of historic fabric as if it were a Rembrandt) is to get beyond RULES and focus on PROCESS. Preserving a great design done in a short-lived material might mean re-creation, because the design is what is important, whereas for the Star-Spangled banner, the material artifact is primary. House museums need to go beyond the Rembrandt rule for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that some artifacts may be Rembrandts but others are not.

Rypkema talked about the need for more land-use tools beyond the historic district, which is true, and conservation districts and buffer districts and heritage areas (which involve no necessary regulation) are examples we can build on. We need these because preservation IS NOT ABOUT FIXING SOMETHING IN A CERTAIN PERIOD OF TIME. It is, instead, ABOUT MANAGING CHANGE OVER TIME.

The rest of the English-speaking world does not have historic preservation. They have building conservation, or more broadly and appropriately, HERITAGE CONSERVATION. Most of the National Preservation Honor Awards we gave out Thursday night were about heritage conservation, not historic preservation of buildings as museums. This is not a new direction, it is what we are already doing. But we may need to rename it.

To preserve means to fix at a point in time – in effect, to remove something from history. I began my preservation career nearly 27 years ago by helping create the first heritage area, and our goal then, and now, was managing change, not stopping change. Heritage conservation is about managing change – planning – based on the inherited culture and cultural artifacts of a place. It is about the individuality and uniqueness of place. What we do is follow a process that insures that change happens in concert with a place’s values and valuables. I am extremely privileged to be able to be a part of this.

images from nashville:

downtown pres fac
downtown pres int det2
EOA church office9
union stn int1
union stn extb
Frist detail4
plaque parking
Ryman
christ episcopal0
hermitage hot men's

Facades

September 19, 2005

On The Face of It: The Facadism Problem

The struggle for historic preservation is complicated when it comes to facades; what everyone sees; the public face of buildings, where the public interest lies. In historic districts, the goal is to preserve the context of a place, defined by facades. Preservation commissions rarely regulate interior spaces in districts. This leads many to assume that preservation is only about the visual exterior façade of a building, which is wrong.

I first attacked “facadism” almost 20 years ago when developers proposed relocating the façade of the 1872 McCarthy Building on Chicago’s Block 37, since only the façade had been designated a landmark. At the time, several Chicago Landmarks were “façade designations” and this encouraged developers to propose picking them up and moving them about like furniture. It is eaiser to save a thing than a place. But it reached a point of absurdity when the city proposed designating the façade of the Ludington Building, an 1891 work of William LeBaron Jenney. Jenney is famous for pioneering the steel frame skyscraper – shouldn’t the designation include the structure? The façade trend hit its peak with the Chicago Tribune Tower façade designation in 1989, and then came back with a vengeance with the 1996 deal to skin and rebuild the Art Deco McGraw Hill Building on Michigan Avenue, the most outrageous (and scarily successful) example of a period that also saw the demolition of all but 5 feet of the Perkins, Fellows and Hamilton Studio of 1917 for the new Park Hyatt tower.

The problem with facades is that they aren’t always a problem. The Old Heidelberg restaurant (now Noble Fool theater), was very much a façade confection in its original iteration, so saving it to a depth of 15 feet preserved its significance. The current debate in Oak Park centers on a district of Tudor facades on Westgate, many of which were added to earlier buildings in the 1920s and 30s to create a sense of place. The demolition-mongers are crowing about the fact that they are just facades. Yes, they are – and they successfully created a sense of place, something developers in Oak Park have been unable to do since.

But if you say facades are okay it pushes the real estate developers, planners and institutional managers – who operate from an MBA/Art of War perspective – to suggest that it can be replicated. This came up with the Westgate facades in Oak Park. Someone suggested you just replicate the style. The knowledgeable eye looks at a 2-story casement window in one of those facades and knows that no steel mill on earth in 2005 can make or fake that window that was rolled 8 times to achieve a narrow profile you cannot have today for love or money. It is only a façade but we are too poor to make that façade today.

The annoying and beautiful thing about preservation is that every case must be decided on its own merits. This makes developers and attorneys insane because they operate from replicable models of consistency and precedent, neither of which is really valid when you are talking about properties with different significance contained in different design elements. The recent restoration of three unlandmarked facades on Wabash and Randolph in front of the Heritage highrise presents a fairly felicitous context for the narrow, elevated-impeded street. The problem arises when the developers take this and run with it into a landmark district, as they have with Jeweler’s Row, where they are building a similar treatment for two landmark buildings with an even taller highrise rising to an astonishing 800 feet. This means that every planner and developer in town will claim precedent for all manner of awful additions.

Preservation is a process. Like history, preservation is about the singularity of each case, its temporal and physical context. It is like New Orleans, this irreplaceable unparalleled indescribable thing. One case is never a perfect parallel for another.

The next façade issue coming up will be the Jenney buildings at LaSalle and Monroe – including a fantastic Victorian lobby at 39 S. LaSalle that gives the lie to any idea that preservation is about facades. In fact, even where we try to preserve facades – in the North Loop Theater district, on Westgate in Oak Park, throughout many historic districts – we are in fact preserving giant outdoor rooms, haptic environments that envelop the visitor just like an interior.