Historic Preservation Tools: The Cutting Edge

Brattleboro, Vermont
May 11, 2001

Keynote Address by
Richard Moe, President, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Over the course of this conference you’ll be discussing the need to develop and use effective tools for putting preservation to work in the cities, towns and rural areas of Vermont. It’s a very important topic, obviously, and I’m certain you’ll leave here with plenty of new insights and useful information.

That’s good - because preservationists are going to need all the insight and information we can get in order to meet the challenges that lie ahead of us in the coming years. With the nation in good fiscal health, signs that decades of decline in our cities may be coming to an end, and a new generation of enlightened public officials and and savvy developers at work in our communities, I believe we could be standing on the edge of a new golden age for preservation.

But it won’t just happen. We have to make it happen - and that will take the best efforts of all of us.

As a way to establish some context for figuring out where we ought to go from here, consider how far we’ve come in the past half-century:

Fifty years ago, preservationists spent most of their time and energy fighting to hold on to landmarks threatened with demolition. Today, old buildings are sometimes still razed, but they’re no longer torn down as a matter of course. Among preservationists, developers, architects and public officials alike, rehabilitation and adaptive use are widely regarded as viable - often preferable - alternatives to demolition. I’m confident that such lost landmarks as the Chicago Stock Exchange and New York’s Penn Station wouldn’t be torn down today.

Fifty years ago, preservationists were focused largely on saving individual buildings and clearly-identifiable, homogeneous historic districts. Now we’re much more broadly involved, confronting a wide range of challenges. We deal with issues like community livability, sprawl and sustainable development. We recognize the value of preserving historic places - heritage corridors, multiple-resource areas and the like - that are both more diverse and more diffuse.

Back in 1950, preservationists’ concerns tended to end at the boundaries of the “old part of town.” Nowadays we take a much more holistic approach. We recognize that what happens in the countryside and the suburbs has a direct bearing on the fate of older areas.

In the 1950s, preservationists didn’t have many statistics to back up their vague notions about preservation’s economic benefits. Today we can call upon a growing body of evidence to document the impact of heritage tourism, the positive effect of historic designation on property values, the relative rate of job creation in historic rehab projects vs. new construction, and so on.

A half-century ago, preservation wasn’t seen as a tool for community revitalization. Now, with decades of success through the Main Street program, the impact of the Historic Rehab Tax Credit and the widespread community benefits generated by ISTEA and other programs, we have firsthand knowledge of the effectiveness of preservation in bringing new economic vitality to residential and commercial neighborhoods.

Finally, fifty years ago, preservation was still working largely in the shadows, its effects confined to a relative handful of communities. Today, in what may be the most significant change of all, the effect of preservation is visible everywhere. From one end of America to another, there is hardly a community - large or small - where houses and storefronts haven’t been “fixed up” with pride, where underused or obsolete buildings haven’t been put to new and sometimes innovative uses, where historic resources haven’t been inventoried and protected in some way, where historic sites aren’t heavily marketed to attract tourists. The impact of preservation can be seen almost everywhere, and it has made a clear difference in both the appearance and the quality of life in countless communities.

Looking back over the past half-century, I believe it’s fair to say that Americans have undergone a fundamental change of heart.

It started in the 1960s and 70s, the heyday of Urban Renewal and Interstate Highway construction. We lost thousands of historic buildings and neighborhoods during those decades, but we gained something in the process: a new attitude toward the past. We began to see our heritage as more than something to be put on display behind velvet ropes. We began to realize that we could use it, that we could make our past a living part of our present. And something else, perhaps even more important: We began to realize, more strongly than ever before, how much we needed the physical evidence of our past - needed it close at hand where we could live with it, touch it, learn from it.

In the years since that change of heart began, our movement has made, and is continuing to make, a real difference. But while we honor the men and women whose vision and determination have brought us this far, while we recall the milestones that mark our progress over the past decades, we must keep one all-important fact in mind: Our job is by no means done.

Perhaps the most succinct statement on the past and future of preservation in America can be found in an essay by Arthur Ziegler of Pittsburgh, who received the National Trust’s Crown and shield Award in 1993. He wrote: “Yes, we preservationists have come a long way. No, we have not by any means arrived.”

So where do we go from here? What must we do in order to “arrive”?

The challenges ahead are many and varied, and they will doubtless include some that we can’t foresee today. We will have to be adaptable and flexible - as we always have been - in order to deal effectively with new issues as they arise. But whatever else happens, I believe we must work especially hard to do four things in the coming years:

First, we must broaden our programs and membership to reflect more accurately the diversity of America.

If we’re to gain and maintain credibility as a relevant force in contemporary life, we must expand our preservation vision to include the full range of cultures and historic resources that define the American experience.

Recent census figures confirm the fact that today’s Americans come from all corners of the globe, bringing traditions and means of artistic expression that enliven and enrich our communities in countless ways. A major factor in this country’s greatness is its success in the experiment of making a nation of immigrants, building a society that attempts to make unity out of variety. Preservation offers us a means of celebrating that variety and of ensuring that we don't erase the marks left on our national landscape by the many peoples who have helped shape it.

But multiculturalism has another, more disturbing side. As America becomes more culturally diverse, we face new challenges in simply knowing who we are as Americans--or even defining exactly what an “American” is. In a situation such as this, an understanding of our common history is an important part of the glue that binds us together as a nation, that keeps our society from cracking apart into dozens of separate pieces.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger has said that America suffers today from “too much pluribus and not enough unum.” This statement summarizes the challenge we face: to identify, safeguard and interpret those elements of our heritage that help to give us a sense of community. It is imperative that we meet this challenge effectively. If we fail to do so, the further fragmentation of our society will put the very idea of America at risk.

We must develop and strengthen preservation programs that increase our understanding of our shared history. But merely broadening our programmatic vision won’t have much meaning if we don’t broaden our membership as well. A simple look around at almost any preservation gathering offers convincing proof that our membership doesn’t sufficiently reflect America’s diversity. We must change that. We must find ways to involve all sectors of American society in our work - because it isn’t “our” work at all. What we do - saving historic places and using preservation to revitalize communities - we do for everyone.

America’s history belongs to all Americans, not just to the wealthy or the white or the native-born, not just to those who call themselves preservationists, but to all of us. We share a heritage that is all-embracing, and we must work to build a movement that is all-embracing as well.

Second, we must continue to build a stronger, more cohesive preservation movement.

We all know that the real work of preservation is done at the grassroots level - and we also know that the ultimate success of our movement depends on the strength and effectiveness of the preservation groups at work in the cities, towns, neighborhoods and rural areas where we live. This fact led the National Trust in 1993 to launch an initiative designed to equip statewide preservation organizations with the skills and tools they need to do their jobs better. I believe it’s one of the most important commitments the Trust has ever made - and it’s working. When the program began, there were 17 statewides with fulltime professional staff; today there are 38.

Vermont is enormously fortunate to have a statewide organization of the caliber of the Preservation Trust. Your growth and effectiveness are models for other statewides. Programs such as your Country Store Initiative are emblematic of your ability to develop targeted efforts to deal with issues unique to Vermont, and the “circuit rider” partnership you’ve developed with the National Trust’s Northeast Office is an excellent model for maximizing staff presence in the state. In short, what’s happening here in Vermont represents the future of preservation, and our goal must be to replicate your success in every state in the nation.

Strengthening statewide organizations is just the beginning. National and statewide organizations must work together to provide meaningful, timely, hands-on assistance to projects and organizations at the local level, including those organizations that are entrusted with the preservation and management of historic sites.

In short, our goal should be the creation of a comprehensive network of organizations at the local, state and national levels, each one strong enough to work independently, mature enough to recognize the value of partnerships with other organizations and public agencies, effective and visionary enough to make preservation a vital force for improving the quality of life for everyone. It’s an ambitious goal - but it’s an achievable one. Only when we reach it can we expect to realize preservation’s full potential as a force for positive change at every level of American society.

Third, we must intensify our efforts to manage sprawl and promote policies and practices that foster smart growth and sustainable development.

Preservation is in the business of saving irreplaceable places and the quality of life they support, and sprawl destroys both. As poorly-planned, auto-oriented development spreads further and further out from urban centers, it drains the economic and social life out of older communities where historic buildings and neighborhoods are concentrated, leaving them blighted by deterioration, poverty and disinvestment. Livable neighborhoods are destroyed by the demand for ever-wider roads and ever-bigger parking lots. Historic landmarks get demolished and carted off to the landfill. Our sense of community, stability and continuity is gradually eroded. Everyplace winds up looking like Noplace.

That’s what sprawl does, and that’s why preservationists must continue to lead the fight against it. Vermont has been in the forefront of that fight for many years. In fact, the appearance of the entire state of Vermont on the National Trust’s “11 Most Endangered” list in 1993 was a major factor in shaping the national debate on the issue. Almost a decade later, the debate continues - a debate over land-use, development and public-investment policies that are shortsighted, fiscally irresponsible and ultimately destructive.

To replace policies and practices that wreck communities, we must advocate policies and practices that recycle existing buildings and land whenever possible; that maintain local community character and identity; that preserve farms, forests, scenic vistas and environmentally sensitive areas; that provide incentives for reinvestment that will revitalize historic downtowns and residential neighborhoods; that encourage wise use of vacant or underused land in existing cities with new development that blends in with its surroundings; that create well-designed new communities in places that can be served efficiently; that promote a sense of community and protect the environment for future generations.

Some may think it odd that this list includes several references to the design and development of new communities. But in addition to protecting the landmarks that are our legacy from the past, we must also give our best efforts to ensure that the new buildings and communities we produce will be thought worthy of preservation by generations to come. We have a responsibility to ensure that our own legacy to the future includes communities that combine the best of contemporary architecture and technology with a healthy respect for the architectural achievements of those who came before us. Encouraging and supporting good contemporary design is an essential element in the fight for livable communities, and organizations like the Preservation Trust can and should play a significant role in it.

The fight against urban renewal in the 1960s was a catalytic event in the growth of the preservation movement. For a whole generation of preservationists, it was the crucible in which their theories and convictions were tested and refined. In reflecting on the legacy of that time, it’s worth recalling an extraordinary statement by John Kenneth Galbraith in 1980:

The preservation movement has one great curiosity. There is never retrospective controversy or regret. Preservationists are the only people in the world who are invariably confirmed in their wisdom after the fact.

Preservationists of several decades ago were right about urban renewal. And by speaking out against it, they ultimately helped make important changes in government policy as it affected the preservation of our heritage. I believe that sprawl is to us what urban renewal was to an earlier generation. I believe, too, that we can accomplish what our predecessors did: We can change things. We can make a difference.

Finally, we must work harder to inculcate preservation as an ethic - a value - that is understood and embraced by all Americans.

Today’s environmental movement began with a small band of men and women who launched a crusade to change the way Americans view and treat the natural environment. It worked. Today almost all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, see ourselves as environmentalists. We’ve accepted responsibility for wise stewardship of the natural environment because we know it’s in our own best interest to do so.

By contrast, despite our success in bringing new vitality to cities and towns all over the country, too many people still regard preservation as largely irrelevant to their own daily lives. Our job is to change that attitude.

At the first National Preservation Conference I attended after becoming president of the Trust, one of the keynote speakers was Bertha Gilkey, a St. Louis activist who has won a reputation for organizing low-income residents to demand - and get - improvements in their community. Having listened to several other speakers, she began her remarks with these words: “I just learned something surprising. I’m a preservationist, but I never knew it before.”

That sentiment holds true for millions of people who think the label “preservationist” doesn’t apply to them - people who are concerned about the rootlessness and the erosion of community that threaten our society, who yearn for a connection with something real and meaningful, who merely want communities that work, that are safe, attractive and truly livable. These people are preservationists. They just don’t realize it.

Our challenge is to help them understand that in saving and enhancing historic buildings and neighborhoods, in advocating land-use and development policies that knit communities together instead of tearing them apart, preservation benefits everyone - not just members of historical societies and preservation organizations. Our goal should be nothing less than to make historic preservation a part of the mainstream American consciousness, to incorporate preservation values into the national ethic.

To reach this goal, we must work harder than ever to develop a clear and concise message to help people understand how the loss of their heritage affects them and why preservation is important. We must develop new means of spreading our message through school curricula at all levels and in every public forum available to us. We must identify and enlist new partners in the corporate and philanthropic worlds. We must not shy away from taking strong positions on issues that matter to us, not only to save threatened landmarks but also to gain the attention we need to rally people to our cause. In short, we must commit ourselves to a national crusade to ensure that future generations will treasure our historic built environment just as they value clean air and water.

It is an enormous task, but I believe it can be done - if not fully by us, then by our successors, who will be wiser, more experienced and better equipped to see it through. One of the great things about the preservation movement is its willingness to broaden its vision, to tackle new issues and find ways to deal with them. We’ve done it before. We have to do it now. Failing to do so would mean we’d have to accept the unacceptable: the disappearance of the irreplaceable.

I look forward to something very different.

I look forward to the day when all Americans will want to save the best of the past because they realize it enriches the texture, character and livability of our communities.

I look forward to the day when all Americans will work to preserve the marvelous diversity of our heritage because it represents the full depth and diversity of the American experience.

I look forward to the day when all Americans will treasure the tangible evidence of our shared history because they know it helps us figure out where we’re going by telling us how we arrived at where we are now.

I’m confident that with our resolve, that day will come. I’m confident, too, that in working toward that day, our efforts at the National Trust, at the Preservation Trust of Vermont, and in other organizations all over the country will be worthy of those who went before us and who brought us this far.