Recently a reader asked me about the path that led me to historic preservation academically and professionally; how did I know that preservation was my calling? It’s an excellent question, I think. Typically, historic preservationist is not something you write for “When I grow up, I want to be _________.” Normally, it’s something more tangible to kids like a doctor, a teacher, a fireman, a baseball player, a singer, etc. While I do know a handful of people who declared “historic preservationist” early in their childhood or young adult life, I was not one of them by definition. So I thought for today I would share part of my path to preservation. Readers, please share your experiences in the comments or send a post to me.
Throughout elementary school, middle school, and much of high school, I wanted to be a writer; writing was what I truly loved and I planned to study creative writing or journalism in college. United States History claimed a close second in terms of favorites to my poetry and journalism classes. Until junior year of high school, my vocabulary did not include “historic preservation,” and yet (as cliché as sounds), when my mom came across the term “historic preservation” and showed it to me, something clicked in my head. Although I really didn’t know what it meant, historic preservation just sounded perfect. As I learned more about the Mary Washington program, I knew preservation and I fit together. Suddenly my constant questions about the history of buildings and towns and roads that we passed on our travels made sense; I would be able to study, investigate, and write about history and communities.
So that’s the very short version as to how I found myself stepping into the field of historic preservation (I could delve into childhood memories, but I’ll save it for another time). I never looked back. Why did I stay? How did I know it was meant for me, or rather, I was meant for it? Most importantly, I always believe in the ethics and the potential of historic preservation. For me, preservation is a way of life, a way of thinking, a code of social ethics and responsibility; it is not just my profession or my academic background.
More specifically, I think I have stuck with preservation due to the variety and range of applicability to so many fields. I have found myself working in the restoration department at Kenmore Plantation, conducting a three-year oral history project of Overhills, and currently working in the regulatory world. All facets of preservation stem from the same core values and lessons of historic preservation, with an underlying goal of improving quality of life by incorporating the past into the present and the future. Just look at recent changes in the approach to studying and applying historic preservation: the environment and local economies are very important allies. And by protecting and caring for community, regional, and cultural resources, the emphasis can be traced to the desire to not create Anywhere, USA.
Historic preservation is never boring; it is a field of hard work, discipline, thoroughness, communication, compromise, and optimism with a dash of reality. It is a field that allows us to research, write, and communicate about the important places and events, and how to incorporate those tangible and intangible elements into our lives.
Not everyone thinks about preservation or understands its meaning or benefits, but (based on my own observations) people seem inherently happier when they experience a subconscious feeling of history. Maybe it’s the architecture scale and massing or maybe it’s a sense of belonging and comfort, knowing that their surroundings have been shared with so many generations and people. Whatever the reason, a subliminal connection to the past goes a long way. Yet, historic preservation is not here to stop progress or to recreate the past, but instead it means to shape a better, brighter future and to save us from our quick-paced, of-the-moment society (which is nothing new).
This is why I am a preservationist: because I care to think like this. There will always be people who dismiss historic preservation and cannot recognize the field’s good work, but that is alright. Not all of us crunch complicated mathematical equations or cook a gourmet meal or cure illnesses, but we are all connected and can benefit from one another in some way. Being a historic preservationist is my contribution to this world, no matter which avenue of preservation work I travel.
Now, readers, why are you preservationists? How did you decide on the field? Did you find preservation or did it find you? Please share for those readers who may not be so sure. Perhaps your answers are more specific than mine.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of My Road to Preservation — next time talking about going the route of graduate school.