Preservation Year in Review: 2020 Created Challenges, Inspired Innovation
Updated: Jan 28
As a writer and a preservationist, I believe words and how we chose to use them matter. According to Merriam-Webster, the word of the year for 2020 was pandemic. Thesaurus.com said the word unprecedented defined the year. I’ve heard other, more colorful, ways to sum it up, but however you choose to define it 2020 was a remarkable year for everyone – including those who work to protect Florida’s extraordinary history and heritage.
Although we are all eager to put 2020 in the rearview, let’s take a moment to acknowledge how the year impacted historic preservation in Florida – and celebrate the innovative ways we were able to continue to protect and support our communities in the face of turmoil and great change.
The year started with an editorial from The New York Times that got us thinking about why we do historic preservation, if it matters or even helps our communities. I, along with many other preservation leaders around the nation, responded with an editorial outlining just why preservation makes lives and neighborhoods better.
The first quarter of 2020 saw the Florida Trust focused on our advocacy work. In January, our Board of Trustees visited Florida legislators to discuss historic preservation issues and trends, build the case for a Florida Historic Tax Credit and talk about historic resources in their districts. We also proposed an amendment to the “Design Review” bill, HB459 and its companion SB954 in the Florida Legislature, which sought to limit architectural review authority by local jurisdictions for single and two-family residences. We emphasized the negative impacts the bill would have on communities that have designated design review authority for historic districts.
In March, I traveled to Washington, D.C., with preservationists from around the country for
Preservation Advocacy Day, which included Capitol Hill office visits. During these visits we saw COVID-19 had already begun to change the way our nation lives and works. There were no handshakes, there was plenty of hand sanitizer and the halls buzzed with talk about the virus. Ironically, the day of our legislative office visits was the last day visitors were allowed prior to lockdown.
During lockdown, we all had to learn a new way to live, work and experience life. The Summer issue of the Florida Preservationist highlighted some of the ways the preservation community adapted to that remarkable challenge and supported each other and our communities.
This year we redoubled our commitment to represent all of the history of Florida, especially those underrepresented communities and voices too often diminished. We were mindful of sharing an inclusive history as we planned our 2020 Insider's Tour: St. Augustine's History & Heritage. The event included “Interpreting America’s First Free Black Community: Fort Mose,” a special tour of Fort Mose, the first free black settlement in what is now the United States, and an open house at Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center where we learned more about St. Augustine's rich Civil Rights history.
Also this year, the 2020 Florida’s 11 to Save, the list of the most threatened historic places in the state, included more African American locations than ever before. This helped to guide a more inclusive approach to our education and advocacy work throughout the year.
We built upon the underrepresented histories component of our annual conference and shared during our first-ever virtual conference compelling sessions like “Saving Sacred Sites of African American Heritage,” “Underrepresented History: Florida’s Chitlin’ Circuit” and a virtual tour of the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery, a historic African American cemetery in Archer. Later, we hosted a cemetery cleanup there along with Florida Public Archaeology Network.
During the summer, our Board of Trustees made the important decision to update our Mission to reflect how this effort to increase representation is at the heart of what we are working to achieve. I am proud our leadership chose to add words that clarify we exist to:
Promote the preservation and the inclusive sharing of the diverse architectural, historical and archaeological heritage of Florida.
We also spent significant time in 2020 reviewing our strategic plan and thinking about the work we must do in order to achieve that Mission. Through this work, we evolved our strategic road map so we have a new element, Connect, that joins our other focuses and acts as four pillars to support our Mission. The pillars are: Advocate, Connect, Educate and Steward. This new Connect pillar emphasizes our role as thought leaders and develops our ability to serve as a statewide preservation connector through our new Regional Councils. We also unveiled a brand refresh that visually shared our optimism and excitement about a new chapter in our organization's history.
When I consider what’s ahead in 2021 the word I think of is hope. There are reasons to be grateful and optimistic. I am happy to report the proposed harmful rule changes to the National Register of Historic Places will not be implemented. I will serve again this year as Florida’s state coordinator for National Historic Preservation Advocacy Week. This year’s event will be the first virtual advocacy week and although I will miss in-person connections with lawmakers, legislative staff members and preservation colleagues I am excited about the opportunity to increase participation. I hope you will let me know if you would like to be a part of the Florida team!
In Florida advocacy we will continue to push amendments to the Florida Design Review bill so historic districts retain design review for their neighborhoods. We are building a grassroots coalition to support the Florida Historic Tax Credit, which we are guiding through the legislative process this year.
We look forward to another year of educational and inspirational content at Preservation on Main Street, the annual conference we host in collaboration with the Florida Main Street program. This year we plan to grow our focus on underrepresented communities even further, while also looking at the issues of heritage resilience and how we can engage students and young preservationists in our work.
I, like you, look forward to 2021 and hope it is the year we can connect in person again, safely travel (consider joining us on our amazing trip to Italy this fall!) and engage in hands-on preservation to protect and promote Florida’s diverse, architectural, historical and archaeological heritage.
Melissa Wyllie is the CEO & President of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.