Years ago, while browsing in a used bookstore in Pinehurst, North Carolina, I came across a thin publication titled Historic Preservation, dated April-June 1977. Sure enough, I had stumbled upon an early edition of Preservation Magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The magazine had cardstock covers and inside pages that were filled with three column text and color photographs mixed in with black and white images.
Shortly after finding this 1977 edition, I found a 1974 edition in another bookstore, whose name and location have since escaped me. I haven’t found one since then, but after all these years it seemed like a good time to finally read through them. And in doing so, I was reminded of a valuable lesson.
Since scanning entire issues seems silly, I’ll share a few of the article highlights with you.
In the 1974 issue, the magazine opens with a piece titled “The More Things Change.” It begins like this:
Preservationists spend a good share of time trying to explain their point of view, not to mention defending it. Saving old things can appear to be a lackluster occupation in and of itself. What makes it seem even more dull is the inadequacy of the explanation most of us are able to produce. The building is architecturally significant. It is 100 years old. George Washington slept here. We are often better able to articulate why something should not be lost than why it should be saved. Perhaps this because what makes a historic building or object important is an abstract quality. It derives from the point expressed by a French adage, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” — “the more things change, they more they stay the same.” When we preserve, restore or illuminate historic buildings, objects or events we have the opportunity to better understand their significance in the context of their own time and to better understand our own time with the perspective afforded by knowledge of the past.
Interesting, yes? As I read that paragraph I was thinking that we since have moved on from the idea of a lackluster occupation, as we all know preservation is more than saving old buildings. To my surprise, this particular issue hinted at the other definitions and applications of preservation: how to adapt buildings to modern uses such as school buildings, for example, and how to solve the problems of abandoned buildings in our cities facing decreasing populations.
The article I liked the most was, “The Short Lived Phenomenon of Railroad Station-hotels,” by Diane Newell. It provided a good overview of railroad hotels; Newell explains their brief existence on the development of rail sophistication, in terms of rail networks and passenger comfort. These hotels were constructed primarily 1850-1880, when railcars were coach and without sleeping quarters or dining options. While these buildings are rare and exceptional to us now, when built they were simply products of the rail company engineers and draftsmen, not leading architects. Few survive today.
The 1977 issue had interesting articles as well. In “The Nonfiction World of Writers,” Stephanie Kraft writes, “Writers are a nostalgic lot. They are apt to have intense feelings about place in general and early homes in particular.” The article references the homes of Willa Cather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and others while discussing the factors of preservation success of particular literary authors’ homes.
“How to Publish the News” by Geoffrey C. Upward, begins with, “Historic preservationists need good communication skills for success. Finding supporters, keeping them informed and interested, providing education and strong defense of an area’s built heritage all call for effective communication.” The article goes on to discuss the importance of newsletters, as the most effective form of communication and evaluates tone, layout, size and the quality of the printer. While dated in its exact form, it is easy to recognize how this article could be updated to today’s social media world.
“Churches in the Woods” by Mary I. Cuffe analyzes the current movement of rural church preservation, these small, sparse buildings in rural America and their fate in parallel with the collapse of many communities across the country. “Whether interest in reviving rural churches throughout the country is lasting or merely passing romanticism is yet to be seen. Whatever their place in the future, the churches that still stand should be maintained as important components of American heritage. The construction was simple, but the foundation profound – when folks built their church they meant to stay.” This reminds me of the current discussion of redundant churches.
While the Trust has changed over the years, these articles strike me as surprisingly contemporary. You might expect a Historic Preservation magazine from the 1970s to be out of date, discussing topics that are no longer priorities or no longer current practices in the preservation field, but the articles mentioned above were comforting to me. Why? While reading through the magazine issues, I felt that preservationists have been doing a good job all along, with honorable intentions, pondering how society feels about categories of buildings, how to reach the non-preservationists, and communicating the importance of our history through sites and structures. The proper methods of interpretation and the best use for our built environment has long been on our minds. And subconsciously, I knew all that already. Of course the field of historic preservation has always been optimistic and well-intended, as I believe it to be today. But, it’s nice to be reminded.
Those of you who have been in preservation for decades probably know all that already, too. You may smile at my naiveté, and that’s okay. You have my admiration. To those of us who do not have those decades in our heads, it is important to remember that the field has evolved, but it also came from someplace good. How else would we have come this far? And because of that, it is important to learn from our colleagues, professors, mentors, old magazines, etc. We may have the digital world to our advantage and we may be helping to bring preservation to new levels, but that is exactly what our preservation elders have done, too. Preservation is continuously advancing, improving, evolving and believing. So I say thank you to those who have done so before the newest generation of professionals and college students; you are an inspiration.