Historic Preservation: Take One

Historic preservation has a diverse, convoluted, and rich history.  I appreciated the author’s introduction to this varied field.  Tyler explains the increasingly important role historic preservation has played in American society while maintaining that “it is our duty as a society and as members of our own local communities to protect and preserve our heritage.”  Without this firm founding, his arguments would seem rather subjective; however, it is clear that Tyler only wishes to raise awareness about the field of historic preservation in order to better society as a whole.  As with most movements in society, historic preservation began as a grassroots movement.  Ever since this founding, infighting, bureaucracy, and individual interests have plagued the field.

In “Preservationists Are Un-American,” Clem Labine attacks the American spirit of opportunism.  In boiling all of American history down to capitalism and consumerism, Labine fails to grasp the diverse, rich history of the United States.    Labine must have a rather narrow view of American history if he truly believes preservation is un-American.  Preservationists in America, the West included, must strive to preserve all aspects of our nation’s history and culture.  Manifest Destiny is as much a part of American history as Republicanism and Individualism.  Buildings, paintings, pamphlets, the list goes on and on, from all aspects of America’s history should be preserved.  America is so much more than a “use it up and move on” society, the mere existence of preservationists counters this argument.  Recognizing the need to preserve “our built heritage because it represents who we are as people” includes preserving frontier homes, homesteads, and other edifices that were built as direct results of American opportunism, consumerism, and Manifest Destiny.  To preserve a homestead log cabin and fail to explain the history behind the building, the prevailing social norms that allowed the building to come into existent, and the frontier spirit led the settler to build where they did would be an injustice to the people.  Preservationists must protect and preserve the building along with its history, or preservation fails to be a service to the public, an “applied history.”

Coming from an educational background, I was particularly interested in the benefits of preservation from an education standpoint.  Tyler beat around the bush for a while when trying to explain that the more an individual is engaged with subject matter, the more they will learn, and the more they will retain.  I wish he would have delved deeper into the idea of “edutainment.”  On the other hand, Tyler gave a great explanation of “living history,” including its many forms, functions, and benefits.  People of all ages can learn simply through cultural (historical) immersion and experience.

After reading the differing views on urban revitalization and facadism, I had many questions.  How are city leaders supposed to deal with historical preservation while also dealing with intense poverty, degrading buildings, poor health and a plethora of other issues plaguing inner cities.  Don’t cities have a duty to maintain public health? What about the decades of asbestos insulated buildings?  What duty, if any, does a city have to ensure that gentrification does not occur when urban revitalization is successful?  Why are businesses attacked for preserving facades while building thriving backdrops?  If a business is forced to stay within the confines of a century old building, who is to say that business that can afford to maintain the facades in the first place will want to inhabit those buildings?  Preservationists need to realize that businesses will do things to benefit the community, including preserving culture and history, if they are able to thrive and continue to operate efficiently.  In the end, isn’t preserving a historic building’s facade better than destroying the building entirely?

Tyler’s discussion about bureaucracy, government oversight, and legislation.  The federal government enacted specific acts in the 20th century in hopes of encouraging  historic preservation.  Some of theses acts were very successful, take the National Park Service for example.  The National Park Service was protected and preserved numerous sites that were seen as important to our nation’s history after its founding in 1916.  Most of these acts, however, had great ideas, but lacked teeth with which to follow through with the ideas comprised within them.  Take the National Register of Historic Places for example.  The National Register’s rights are restricted to identifying places for evaluation, encouraging friendly activities, and providing lists for review.  The National Register cannot restrict rights, guarantee funds, stop development, or provide tax benefits.  A final example lies in the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation which was given legislative teeth with which to act, but individuals must jump through numerous bureaucratic loopholes in order to pass Section 106 Review.  Thankfully, preservation is more clear-cut (not perfectly of course) at the state and local level.  As with most things, the state and local community better understand the community, culture, and history and are therefore better able to engage in historic preservation.  As Tyler states, “only at the local level can historic properties be regulated and protected through legal ordinances.”


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