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.