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Historic Preservation

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Historic Preservation

A friend in North Dakota writes to tell me about an historic preservation issue in the central part of his state.

The solons of McLean County have chosen, it seems, to demolish their 1908 court house at Washburn, a Missouri River town about forty miles north of Bismarck, the state capitol. Those interested in preserving the court house are assembling a collection of essays on the merits of historic preservation, so I’ll offer a one-page contribution. All things considered, the mechanisms for preservation may differ from place to place and time to time, but the intentions are more likely to be universal. Perhaps my words will matter.

Preserving the Past

Nothing gives more satisfaction or greater utility than a bulleted list: four principle reasons for the Civil War or three structural differences between the Romanesque and the Gothic. Sadly, PowerPoint has become our default. But while my rationale for preserving historical artifacts defies that sort of reductionist tidiness, it may be the consequence of a disordered and indecisive mind.

As a political phenomenon, historic preservation has been around since the 1960s when the federal government weighed in with Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Perhaps the upcoming bi-centennial was an incentive. Just as likely, though, it might have been a response to the bulldozer mentality of post-war planning, urban renewal, suburbanization and the ongoing implementation of the interstate highway system. The past is always in the way of progress and change is rarely comfortable. But before I make my own unintentional bulleted list, here are a few observations from someone who’s been at the front lines of preservation from time to time.

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the 1966 act that established, among other things, the National Register of Historic Places, a glance in the rear view mirror suggests that historic preservation was hardly new. There had been, for example, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association which coalesced in 1853 to save George Washington’s home from development as an amusement park: a private group resisting capitalist development when government–at any level–was decidedly laissez faire.

Other buildings and sites important to the nation have been spared the wrecker’s ball and asphalt. But until World War II, preservation was highly selective and comparably exclusive in the message it conveyed about who we were or where we were going. Washington and Jefferson–almost a dozen presidents in all–were owners of other human beings, yet their homes often concealed the reality of slave quarters behind privet hedges, as lunch rooms, gift shops and restrooms. Fortunately, we grew as a nation and matured to understand and accept the often inconvenient or uncomfortable truth of that story.

Not every building can or should be a museum; the past is not a theme park to be visited on family outings. The past is here, there and everywhere in between, underfoot and overhead. Our infrastructure of architecture and engineering, of open space and public land must also be understood as an investment. We reap the dividends, but the principal belongs to those unborn.

Our collective national memory is with us every day, like the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights or the Emancipation Proclamation. And it is likewise manifest in the diversity of neighborhoods and homes across the nation; in regional variants and ethnic and racial difference; why you order pancakes in one part of the country and flapjacks in another. Look at the back of a dollar bill: E pluribus unum. The conversation of what to save and how to do it is a necessary public act of self-examination; a dialogue that will inevitably remind us of an often overlooked fact: that becoming one cannot deny the many that we remain.

We are at pains today to define the United States anew, a complex, diverse, conflicted nation state in a post-national world. Reinvention, like any change, is difficult. But the preservation of signposts along the way may help to chart our course.


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