Prayerful Preservation

This week’s reading on the details of preservation was informative and thought provoking. I find that I have not yet completely worked out my own preservation philosophy, however. I am still debating controversial questions such as which buildings are worthy of preservation and how the preservation of those buildings should be funded.

On that note, the book’s discussion of the debate behind preservation of churches and other religious buildings particularly intrigued me. I like to think of myself as a strong First Amendment supporter, so at first something about the thought of taxpayer money supporting the upkeep/conservation/restoration/reconstruction/preservation/whatever of a building used for a specifically religious purpose made me uncomfortable. However, I firmly believe in the historical integrity and significance of many of these types of buildings, so my inner preservationist wanted to cast those misgivings aside. (Not to mention that the architecture of churches like the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston is just awesome!) I still don’t know how I feel about the St. Bartholomew’s case (which “established that religious organizations are subject to historic preservation ordinances of local government, and that such regulations are not a violation of the First Amendment separation of church and state” [130]). By the end of the book, however, I became more convinced of the legal legitimacy of preserving religious buildings, as they seem to comply with several of the “eight points” of the “historic context framework” discussed in chapter 5 (namely the first three: “peopling places,” “creating social institutions and movements,” and “expressing cultural values”). American history is bursting with religious themes, and the preservation of sites with historic religious integrity must certainly be justified; it only must be done so cautiously.

Reports from the field…

So, I’ve spent the last 8 days revisiting a place I’ve lived in for 19 years, attempting to approach an all too familiar city within the context of this course. Public history and Boston coexist, and it is nearly impossible to go any amount of time before being reminded of the city’s significance in the country’s history.

The preservation work is absolutely astonishing. I’ll post pictures once I arrive back in Boise (I left my USB cable at home… go figure). The best representation of a building being preserved amongst modernity is a picture I took of Faneuil Hall being surrounded by sky scrapers that barely fit in the frame. Old cathedrals are nestled between more dominating commerce structures, and facades of old are masking buildings of new.

Public history is intertwined with every aspect of daily life. From the coaster under your beer telling the story of the pub you’re in, to the character of the sagging shelves holding up the glasses – all pay tribute to a city that is proud of their heritage and holds dear anything with proof of its longevity.

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that any older, worn out building has character. Sure, your new Corey Barton home has a fancy granite countertop with impeccable wall to wall hardwood floor, but give me a house with creaky floorboards and brick walls any day (a little lead paint creates some excitement, too!). Something about a structure built for a family or a specific purpose, rather than a cookie-cutter McMansion design makes for a better appreciation for what you have and how you got it.

Of course it’s easier to tear down and rebuilt something shiny and exciting. Like the city I grew up in, I prefer to acknowledge my past and celebrate its influence in my daily life. I am in no way stating that we should all settle for a subpar structure to work or live in, but I do need a better argument than it’s just ‘old’.

“We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” – Winston Churchill

Preserving Boise

The question of whether to preserve any specific structure is an interesting one. Preservation has to be balanced against many factors, such as site usage, cost of preservation/renovation, and its cultural and historical importance. As with some of the Basque sites in the downtown area these factors can vary with time. While many sites which are now on the Basque block might have been historically important, it was not until recently, about the 1980s, that they became culturally important. Their cultural importance–rather than there historical–is what sets these buildings apart. For whatever reason it was not until the 1980s that the Basque community in Boise began to coalesque around a physical area in the city. This began when the old boarding house next to the museum was purchased. It became a rallying point for other Basque cultural institutions-such as the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, Bar Gernica, the Basque community center, and a few other resturants and stores. The success of the Basque cultural preservation (or it might better be termed cultural renovation) has lead to the non-Basque owners of other Basque sites (such as former chapels and boarding houses) to associate their building with the Basque community. The Boise Basque’s are an example of successful grass roots preservation efforts–as opposed to relying on the more formal structures described in our text. They show the importance of not only preserving buildings, but of connecting them with a vibrant culture.

Historic Preservation Part II

I have to admit I have a difficult time getting back into school after spring break, so I apologize ahead of time if my post is not particularly moving or insightful. This week’s reading was really interesting, but I am going to try and focus on a few ideas that really stuck out to me. Chapter 9 and chapter 11 were enjoyable readings since they followed very closely to my interests in the histories of downtowns and sprawl. The readings have helped to reinforce the vital role that historic preservation plays in creating dynamic and interesting communities. I think that is why I have had an interest in the Main Street program before this, because it is a way that communities can revitalize their downtown areas while being pursuing preservation. Like the book points out, historic preservation needs to be a part of growth, a part of changing communities. It can’t be preservation for preservation sake, but also needs to consider preserving a way of life or shopping habits by working to keep established businesses in the core.

One of the downsides of this discussion that I need to address is to ask the question: Why do we need to preserve our downtowns? To some they are the remnants of a time when things needed to be centralized, and they served all people’s needs. But today, with sprawling shopping centers and big box stores, what else can a downtown be but office towers? Don’t get me wrong, I love downtowns and believe whole-heartedly that they should be preserved, and all I want to do is work and live in downtown. But downtowns are no longer the same places that they once were, and people struggle monumentally to keep them the same. The book proposes restrictive zoning that would force ‘traditional downtown’ business types to stay downtown, but is this really the answer? It didn’t work in Boise when they tried to force a mall into the downtown; they fought from the 1960s to the mid 1980s before they gave up and the mall located where it wanted to, which was the suburbs. I love downtowns and want them to stay viable and successful, but I think we need to re-envision something different (other than restrictive zoning) for them that will actually give them a fighting chance.

This leads directly into chapter eleven’s discussion of preserving farmland and open spaces on the periphery of cities. I find that I am also very passionate about preserving rural landscapes and working farms for both the environmental and historic Preservation arguments. I think that if we can combat sprawl this way, revitalizing our downtown cores will come naturally. I am also very interested in how to increase cultural tourism in Boise. I think it will give current residents a better sense of place, it will bring new people here and our local economy will improve, as well as our livability.