Historic Preservation: Driven by Nostalgia?

My daughter, Sophie Brookover, writes a weekly newsletter called Two Bossy Dames with her friend, Margaret Willison. They are investigating links between nostalgia and various cultural products, including historic preservation. She sent me an email posing some questions about it, citing both losses and successes, and asked for my thoughts. Here’s what I wrote her:

Preservation of the recent past has always been a tough sell. Historic preservation in the US didn’t really take off until the 1960s. It had been a rather genteel affair earlier in the 20th century, focused mostly on colonial through ante-bellum history. The rise of urban renewal and routing interstate highways through cities created a tipping point that led to today’s preservation landscape.

Keep in mind a few points:

1. Historic preservation is always fighting against greed and taste. Americans view their homes as their castles and don’t want anyone telling them what to do with their private property. Also, home ownership is one of the largest financial assets most folks have, so it is very touchy.

ProvidentTrust - perry borchers

Provident Life & Trust Company Building in an old photograph (c. 1879-80), by Perry E. Borchers, HABS photographer – Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey, HABS.PA.51-PHILA.256-11. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Orange County Government Center by Daniel Case at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Orange County Government Center by Daniel Case at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons








2. Each generation loves what their parents hated, and hate what their parents loved. So the preservationists of the 60s and 70s started loving the post Civil War exuberant Victorian excesses that their parents hated. Think of how many Frank Furness jewels were lost in the 50s by planners who saw them as gee-gaw encrusted nightmares. Mid-century modern in coming into vogue, but not so much the brutalist hulks built in the 60s and 70s, which is the problem Paul Rudolf is having with the Orange County Government Center. Likewise, Boston City Hall, a great unloved building. Check out this tumblr:  http://fuckyeahbrutalism.tumblr.com/

3.  Preservation law is strongest at the local level. This is where planning and zoning laws are applied. So local municipalities are the ones who have to pass preservation ordinances with real teeth. Few cities have done this. Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans were early leaders in this effort, and protected historic districts, not just individual buildings. New York has one of the strongest laws, back by a well funded Landmarks Preservation Commission. Philadelphia has a strong ordinance, but the Historical Commission is woefully underfunded. They have the authority to create and regulate historic districts, but not enough staff to take on new ones.

Conrad Show Store, courtesy Philadelphia Public Library

Conrad Show Store, courtesy Philadelphia Public Library

4. Another piece is how well historians and preservation agencies have done their homework by identifying things worth saving and building constituencies to care about them. This is hampered by inadequate funding and lack of political authority. In an ideal world, the Lou Kahn storefront on Chestnut Street would have been identified as important and protected. But I’ve never heard scholars of Kahn’s work talk about his early commercial work (with the recent exception of William Whitaker’s post for Hidden City) or the Clever House in Cherry Hill, again described most eloquently by Whitaker. The commercial work doesn’t fit the narrative of his heroic monumentalism, and the Clever House is more Anne Tyng, his collaborator and mother of his 1st child out of wedlock, than Kahn. The Historical Commission didn’t go to bat to save the storefront; Cherry Hill Township is interested in seeing the Clever House saved, but not to the point of designating it over the objections of the owner (see property rights, above).

I agree that nostalgia and preservation success go hand in hand (coupled with economic development, as in Palm Springs). The buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods that are deemed worth saving are the result of a social conversation about who we are and what we value. It takes scholars, taste makers and everyday citizens to create a social consensus about what to save. For this reason, most preservation ordinances require 30-50 years to pass before sites are considered eligible for protection. And not everything gets saved.


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