Why We Believe Historic Preservation Is Necessary in Communities
Updated: Apr 24
I would like to thank Mr. Binyamin Appelbaum, whose recent editorial (“When Historic Preservation Hurts Cities,” January 26, 2020) thrust historic preservation onto the national stage.
While I disagree with many of his assertions, I appreciate the scrutiny Mr. Appelbaum has directed toward historic preservation efforts in his community and others throughout the country.
My colleagues in the historic preservation community should take notice. Mr. Appelbaum merely channeled a commonly held misconception of what historic preservation is all about. It falls on us to reshape the narrative into an accurate one that reflects the inclusivity, cooperation and flexibility of the modern preservation movement. Clearly, we have work to do.
Here is what I understand about historic preservation: it provides tangible economic value, it is inherently green, it strengthens neighborhoods and it uncovers and memorializes the stories of communities through the voices that built them.
It’s no secret the voices most at risk for erasure by the passage of time are the voices of the marginalized and underrepresented. It’s the work of historic preservation to protect those voices – our collective story – from obscurity.
Preserving the visual landscape measurably contributes to our quality of life, historic neighborhoods have more stable property values in a downturn and foster more positive growth and private investment.
But while my nonprofit has a mission to “promote the preservation of the architectural, historical and archaeological heritage of Florida,” too often when I meet with lawmakers what I hear about is the “paint police.”
Preservationists need to all be spokespeople for smart and progressive preservation policy. We should emphasize the thousands of successful adaptive reuse projects around the country, from Starbucks housed in old banks to historic prisons converted into hotels, that find creative solutions to reuse old buildings.
Oversight regulations for historic homes should be flexible enough to accommodate modernization in ways that do not compromise the integrity of a historic property or overarching historic context of the historic district in which a building is situated.
This is possible. Historic preservation professionals seldom argue a purest, hands-off approach is necessary. As many as fifteen years ago I sat on a historic preservation board that reviewed and allowed solar panels on a historic church in a historic district in Nashville, Tenn. A solution was found: put panels on a section of the roof that doesn’t face the street and doesn’t hamper the overall experience of walking down a historic street in a historic city.
Every day local preservation boards and nonprofits find solutions that balance growth, innovation, technology and historic preservation.
It is important for historic preservation design guidelines to be regularly updated and reconsidered in light of changing times. However, the core reasoning should remain constant: to provide basic protections for historic properties as part of an integrated urban plan.
That’s why I found Mr. Appelbaum’s assertion that very few buildings deserve preservation most disappointing. His position is stated baldly as he describes where he lives, “it’s not historic in the sense that anything especially important happened here – certainly not in the modest rowhouses that make up the bulk of the neighborhood.”
For someone who condemns elitism, it’s curious the author posits nothing important can happen in a modest rowhouse. One of the most important lessons we can learn from the past is that very often the people who make profound marks on human history are not those who lived in big houses.
Our movement seeks not to preserve a building for its own sake, but to use historic preservation to build, engage and strengthen communities.
We do that here in Tallahassee where our nonprofit is headquartered in a 110-year-old Victorian house. We work in the building and are responsible for its maintenance, but every time we host a community event, I am reminded it belongs to many.
It is fascinating to hear about people’s experiences with the house: laughing over where on the back porch a dad liked to smoke his pipe, seeing where on the front porch a granddaughter sat in a rocking chair to cool off in pre-air-conditioned Florida, hearing ghost stories about the upstairs remembered from a childhood long past, looking out the window where a man sat for prom pictures 50 years ago (and then later married his prom date).
Or, in the case of a woman who stopped by on a recent workday, learning how a building can hold a place in our hearts. She told me her daughter said every time they passed that one day she would live here. Not long ago that daughter passed away – she never even saw the inside of the building – but I took her mother on a tour of the house that day. We talked about her daughter and her loss, and I realized once again this building is far more than just the place I work.
We do not truly ever own historic buildings, we are only stewards protecting their stories.
Melissa Wyllie is the CEO & President of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, Florida’s nonprofit dedicated to protecting the state’s irreplaceable historic resources.