Saturday, October 15, 2016

Happy Birthday, National Historic Preservation Act! What should we do for the next 50 years?

October 15 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), one of the most significant steps in the protection of our built environment and cultural landscapes.

What has preservation become?

Commemorations and celebrations abound. But this time, even more than on the fortieth anniversary, it is an occasion for reflection and speculation rather than just self-congratulation. When I teach my preservation course, I explain not only current preservation practice, but also the evolution of the field, beginning with the American idea of preservation in the nineteenth century. To say that the preservation movement has always reflected the concerns and biases of its era is a truism, but that does not make it any less important: we do not have to indulge in condescending dismissals of all our forebears in order to accept that simple historical fact. Today, the preservation movement faces new opportunities and challenges, as concepts and law struggle to keep pace with an ever more rapidly evolving society:
  • New questions about the definition of historicity: half a century later, is the notion that things become potentially "historical" after half a century outmoded? That fifty-year moving window failed to capture many modernist works, which are falling prey to the wrecking ball or other depredations. On the other hand, would narrowing that window lead to unintended consequences, e.g. encouraging indiscriminate restrictive policies on the part of amateur civic bodies, which block necessary change and development?
  • New values and ideas about what deserves to be preserved: not just the quotidian and the vernacular rather than the elite and unique, and not just the collectivity rather than the individual edifice, but also things other than buildings
  • New questions about the relation between preservation professionals and ordinary citizens, from would-be grass-roots activists to those who worry about negative effects of preservationist initiatives in their neighborhoods
  • New dilemmas in balancing competing agendas and priorities: many important works of the modernist or postmodernist era were not built for the ages and are not energy-efficient. At what price, preservation?
  • New opportunities for alliances between preservation and environmentalism in the age of smart growth and global warming, which, on the one hand, argue for keeping more old structures (e.g. through adaptive reuse) but in some cases, at the price of more aggressive interventions for the sake of energy efficiency or other extra-historical claims
  • New demands for including a "social justice" component in our thinking about both preservation and sustainability

What would you put on a historic preservation stamp today?

Two years ago, I wrote about a little exercise that I use at the start of my preservation class. In 1971, to mark the fifth anniversary of the NHPA, the US Postal Service issued a set of four postage stamps celebrating historic preservation. It depicts an eclectic mix of subjects: the Decatur House in Washington, DC; the whaling ship, "Charles W. Morgan," in Mystic, CT; a San Francisco cable car; and the San Xavier Del Bac Mission in Arizona.

I had had the first-day-of-issue cover and many mint copies of the stamp in my collection for years, but it wasn't until I became more formally involved in actual historic preservation work that I began to wonder: what possible logic lay behind such an odd combination? And then: what might one instead depict today, reflecting our contemporary values and concerns? I ask my students to work through those same two questions.

Here's the full article, from the vaults.

Now it's your turn

When I wrote that post two years ago, I asked friends and followers to tell me what they would put on a new set of stamps if we designed one today. In particular, what might reflect the way that the theory and practice of preservation have evolved in this half-century?

I got little formal response at the time (probably, I was jumping the gun), but maybe this time will be different. Please share your thoughts in a comment. It's our golden anniversary: if not now, when?

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