#PastForward Recap: Leave Your Inner Snob at Home

Mary Rowe at the preservationURBAN Trust Live session, with a classic Jane Jacobs quote.

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Days of good sessions and good conversations at the National Preservation Conference left me with too many thoughts and take-aways for one post. And, I’d like to continue conversations that we started at the conference. Rather than overwhelm all of us, I’ll take it one post and one conversation at a time. Interested? Read on, and join in for the comments, whether you attended the conference or not.

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One of the most talked about quotes from the conference was said by Mary Rowe of MASNYC, at the Trust Live: preservationURBAN session. To a room packed with preservationists she said, “Leave your inner snob at home.” Most everyone in the audience, numbering in the hundreds, applauded.

I didn’t. I needed some time to think about that statement.

Preservationists have long-been accused of being elitist, blue-haired ladies in tennis shoes who preserve only the best architecture and nothing for the common folk. And it was true for some time. Historic Preservation has its roots with the Mount Vernon Ladies Association who formed to save George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. (Let’s hear it for the women!) Despite the initial shortcomings of the movement, we wouldn’t be anywhere in preservation without those women.

Over the past 250 years historic preservation has evolved, gaining the most traction with the passage of the National Historic Preservation of 1966, the creation of preservation as a profession through graduate and undergraduate programs and shifts in the philosophy and practice of preservation. The most basic example is the inclusion of vernacular architecture (rather than solely high style architecture) as historically significant and eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Historic preservation is a vast field, seeking to remember, document, preserve, re-use, and incorporate our past into the present and the future. From state capitals to roadside diners, Civil War battlefields to farmsteads, preservation relies on the built environment to tell our collective heritage.

Haven’t we made incredible progress in preservation?

Really, do we still have to tell people that we are not snobs? Do we still have to remind people that preservation is more than paint colors and high style architecture? And do we have to remind people that preservation works for quality of life in communities and places that matter to everyone?

Maybe we do. Collectively, we preservationists continue to great work by highlighting projects in social media to show that preservation is accessible to all, and is growing in all forms of diversity.

Snobs? Let’s think about this.

No matter what field you’re in (especially in a field that works to save resources), those who disagree will always think you’re a snob. But, among our people – we preservationists gathered together – are there really snobs among us? I can’t recall the last time I met a preservationist, young or old, emerging or experienced, and thought, “SNOB” (or whatever word you’d use akin to snob).

So, when someone comes in, who does not identify as a preservationist, and essentially tells us that preservationists can be snobs … why would we preservationists clap? Why would we agree, when we know that’s not the current state of preservation? Am I missing something? I need some contemporary examples, not the old stereotypes.

We acknowledge that not every place can be included in a preservationists’ efforts. Rather, not every place can be included in preservation efforts that are state and/or federally funded. Why? Because state and federal funding are tied to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, the National Register of Historic Places, and the National Park Service. Places awarded funding and protection by being listed in the National Register are part of the built environment or landscape (sites, objects, structures, districts, buildings) and they have integrity.

Need a refresher on the National Register? Read this Preservation Basics post. While you’re at it, read these myths about historic preservation.  

In other words, yes, the National Register has some restrictions. It has to, or else preservationists would be trying to control or save every piece of our existing built environment. That would not go over well with anyone, nor would it be feasible. The National Register aids us in the work we do every day. Maybe it does need a refresher, but it has done us so much good so far.

There is more to historic preservation efforts than the National Register. Look at Main Street programs and community efforts. Preservationists talk about sense of place and third place and the intangible elements that make a place tangible. Preservation wants all people to have pride in where they live and to have a good quality of life, enriched by the historic built environment.

My point? When someone says preservationists are snobs, why applaud? Was it politically correct to applaud? Maybe our response allows this “snob” rumor to continue. Why not show & tell all of the great work of recent and current preservation efforts that shows the advance of preservation theory and practice. Prove by example. Preservation has come a long way.

It must be noted that Mary Rowe was an engaging and energetic speaker and the work of MASNYC is well aligned with historic preservation efforts in a manner that can greatly benefit our communities. I’m glad to have heard her speak, and as a result, to think about this issue of preservationists as snobs, especially if a leader such as Mary Rowe feels this way. Please, join in the conversation. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

For discussion:

  • What do you think?
  • Were you in attendance? Did you applaud?
  • Are you a preservationist? Or not?
  • Do you think of preservationists as snobs? Why?

Other #PastForward Recaps: Emerging Professionals // Social Media

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6 thoughts on “#PastForward Recap: Leave Your Inner Snob at Home

  1. Susie says:

    Nice piece! I agree with Deb, it really must come from preservation’s lady-garden-club roots in the US. I wonder if Europe feels similarly? Reuse is much more second nature over there!

  2. Sarah says:

    I think the snob stereotype is a product of the movement’s early days. Yes, the ladies’ organizations, but also the types of places targeted early on for historic district and landmark status. Most often they were high-style and associated with the familiar Euro – American history. The focus on architecuture intimidates many, too. Rules in some places to control paint color, for instance, haven’t helped either. At least this is the sense I got from working in a rural – state SHPO for 10 years.

  3. jane says:

    Very few people have been encouraged to see buildings – how they are made and why.
    We tell them who lived there – usually a white male who did something ‘important’.
    We don’t talk about jig saws and brick making, heating and plumbing systems (what the weather was like), how people used the spaces they built and why they needed to remodel later on.
    We tell people the names of the styles but not why/how people built like that.
    We use convoluted language to explain concepts instead of finding simple words.
    We want the community to be as excited as we are – but often we don’t bother to give them the information they need in order to care.
    When we keep them out of the club, we are snobs. intentionally or not.

  4. Chad says:

    You are right. With that snarky statement she polluted the air right of the bat. Speaking of bats, that quote by Jane Jacobs reminds me of a Yogi Berra quote: “Nobody goes there anymore, its too crowded.”

  5. Chad says:

    Another thing that must be part of the conversation is environmental waste. Destroying historic buildings fills up landfills and replaces them with more raw material, primarily plastics, which in themselves are toxic, and often inferior construction, so that the wasteful destruction cycle begins even earlier the next time around.

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