Is "Preservation" Why Buildings Fall Down?

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Obviously the process of preservation by definition is intended to keep buildings from falling down, or more often from being torn down, but just how much damage have we really done by placing the ubiquitous umbrella of “preservation” over the very important part of our economy that involves building conservation? My gut feeling is that if you were to walk down the street in pretty much any city or town in the United States and ask people if they thought this or that historic building was worth saving, a much larger percentage would answer “yes” than if you asked them if the same building was worth preserving.

On the most basic level it’s a matter of linguistics. Pretty much everyone has a definition for the word “save” and, more likely than not, there’s a commonality in those definitions, but the word “preserve” has a less common place in language of our society. For many it brings to mind a canning jar full of pears, while others might be desiring a peach jam on a piece of toast. But for others it’s where old buildings go to die, which in my mind is a very unfortunate thing. Historic districts should be about the continuing usefulness of historic buildings, not about preserving them in a museum environment.

Donovan Rypkema of PlaceEconomics continues to do an amazing job of spelling out the positive economic impact that historic preservation can have, but his audience has to be largely made up of people like you and me who already realize that. There’s no doubt that his message is reaching people who are on the preservation fence and I’m sure a few who never really thought about the concept prior to hearing Donovan speak, but how many people at your son or daughter’s soccer game are hearing the message. More importantly, how many would care?

I know a lot of you reading this have heard me beat the conservation drum for years, and without doubt few of you thought it would be the last time, but let me state clearly that I now see little to no value in trying to fix the mistake we have made in our use of the word “preservation.” It’s too late. Rather I feel we need to step back and take a fresh look at how well we understand the process. If we want to win the war we have named preservation we need a bigger army.

Or maybe not. Are we indeed in some kind of battle to save our historic buildings? Well, yes. But isn’t that battle something we created? Doesn’t our economic value structure demand that we honor growth as an icon? It is how we interpret growth in our economy that allows us to justify destroying what has already been built so that we can replace it with something new that fits our economic model better. We seem to be very capable of constructing buildings that support the growth of our economy and thus meet the mandate of our economic model, but we aren’t so well versed in how to build a new economic model in which what we have already built supports the growth of our economy.

One very unfortunate side affect of this build/tear down/build matrix is the loss of trades, skills and knowledge of traditional and natural building materials. I’ve talked about this before, but recently I have begun to gain a greater awareness of the insidious nature of how this continues to degrade our culture. It started when President Obama was first elected. The economy was on the ropes and he asked people to use the government website his administration had created to suggest ideas on how to improve our economy and help people who had been hurt by the loss of jobs.

I wrote to President Obama’s administration repeatedly about how trades education through hands-on neighborhood restoration projects could both improve the living conditions and local economies in our cities and towns and provide out-of-work people with new skills which they could continue to use both to improve their own living conditions and to gain meaningful employment. I never received a single response of any kind.

Initially I thought there were probably so many suggestions that mine just got lost in the fracas, but as I continued to watch how our society responded to the ongoing economic distress, I began to realize that I was probably speaking in a language that President Obama’s administration could not understand. My ideas did not represent a way of producing growth in their economic model. Further, they didn’t mean anything to the soccer moms and dads who were trying to figure out where the next paycheck was coming from.

I have begun more and more to realize that it is really less about our loss of knowledge of how historic buildings work and why they have value, and more about our own divestiture of them in our culture. We have sold them to the developers in the name of growth, and in so doing we have divested the knowledge we had of traditional building and used the resources to buy college degrees in anything but.

As my wife Laura and I have redefined ourselves and our company, like so many others, I find myself back on the front lines. I’m in the shop restoring an old building instead of in the office juggling jobs and writing contracts. Not that I don’t do that anymore, it’s just not the full-time job it once was. For me, it’s a good thing.

I really enjoy using the tools and challenging myself to make strong invisible repairs in timbers that have been serving a useful purpose three or four times longer than I have been on this earth. But it also has reminded me of how few people I meet have the slightest idea what I do. By now I would have hoped they could see a trades person at work. They seem to prefer to see the magic and mystery the smoke and mirrors produce over my personal focus on keeping an ancient trade alive. They seem to feel the magic is easier to understand.

My personal feeling is that we shot ourselves in the foot when we decided to call conservation preservation. In its own way, I feel it divided our culture in a way that we pay for every day. Whether it’s seeing a building being lost because the owner understood its value in the money they received from the developer better than the value in its preservation, or in realizing the reason a building cannot be restored is because its steward had no awareness that there was anyone out their that could do the job right. Tradespeople are still struggling for visibility in our society and economy.

If preservation is what we intend, we need to turn it into a core value of our culture, not a flag we carry into a battle of our own making. We need to make preservation part of our national lexicon, rather than a misunderstood term which tends to cast long shadows in short conversations. Better yet, we need to learn how to speak preservation in soccer mom and dad language.