This month I participated in the National Trust for Historic Preservation Leadership Training: Preserving History, Building Community. The training focused on place-based redevelopment and partnered with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the National Parks Service. I attended thanks to a scholarship provided by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Preservation professionals from around the country worked alongside stakeholders to strategize potential real estate and community development options for the A.G. Gaston Office Building, a vitally important piece of the Civil Rights District’s historic fabric.
The A.G. Gaston Office Building is directly across the street from the A.G. Gaston Motel and Kelly Ingram Park and one block down from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. It was built in 1959 and served as the headquarters for A. G. Gaston, the most prominent and financially successful mid-century African American entrepreneur and businessman in Alabama.
During the training real estate, preservation, museum interpretation and financing professionals involved looked at a common question from many different angles. That question was: why and how do we preserve historic places?
So why do we preserve historic places? The Florida Trust believes in not just saving buildings, but working so that historic preservation is an important part of deliberately planning and strengthening communities. For historically disinvested communities, which exist around Florida, America and the world, there is a need for reinvestment in the built environment, infrastructure, cultural and social programs.
The value of historic places is cultural, living histories that tell human stories; economic, with residual value in the building difficult to recoup; and environmental, the most environmentally friendly building is the one already built.
Jack Pyburn, FAIA, is a principal and preservation architect with Lord Aeck Sargent in Atlanta and one of the trainers for the Preservation Leadership Training event in Birmingham. He may have said it best in his presentation when he described who we do preservation for. In the present moment, we adapt historic places to our current needs and in current markets with information and technology relevant only into the near future. But the big picture is we are preserving historic places long term for future generations so they can interpret, experience and learn in their own ways.
Solution for preserving historic places are innumerable. We know each project brings its own unique challenges and opportunities. To be effective preservationists have to be willing to work with a variety of stakeholders, listening to the community and staying willing to compromise.
Historic preservation is complex and plays in shades of gray. It cannot be done in a silo. A building isn’t saved because it remains standing. It is saved when it has a vital use relevant for its community and culture. As the Florida Trust continues to advocate and educate, with programs such as our Florida’s 11 to Save program, we want to incorporate all of these details into creative solutions that preserve Florida’s extraordinary places for future generations.
Those creating the Civil Rights National Park District in Birmingham strive to preserve the places that tell the story of civil rights in Birmingham. They preserve those places not just to share the story of Alabama, but to tell a story about the quest for human rights everywhere.
It’s interesting to take a step back and contemplate why you work to save historic places. We would love to hear your story.
Melissa Wyllie is the Executive Director of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, the non-profit dedicated to protecting Florida’s extraordinary history and heritage. @MSWyllie