Preservation ABCs: P is for Place

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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P is for Place

Not a historic site, but this place means the world to me.

Not a historic site, but this place means the world to me.

Place is not a standard vocabulary term that you’ll find in an architectural dictionary or preservation textbook; however, “place” is an often used term in historic preservation.

A place can be a town, a building, a field, a park, a bridge, a crossroads, a mountain range or anything really. When asked what is your favorite place, what’s your answer? Whether ocean, town, building, nature, any place can be special to someone, and it’s likely that every place has a dear meaning to someone. As the National Trust campaign says, “This Place Matters.” Identifying a particular place and appreciating that place allows the intangible ideas of historic preservation to make sense by connecting them with the tangible elements of our past and present. These places are important because they are the basis for everyone to understand significance. Not every place is a historic resource, but every place can be significant in someone’s life. And great places, loved places make for strong communities and a better quality of life.

We also talk about planning concepts such as “third place” – the idea that a third place is somewhere that people feel comfortable and welcome, beyond the home and beyond the office. This can be anywhere, though usually it refers to a restaurant, café or other gathering place (something that can be incorporated into new urbanism ideas).

What does “place” mean to you? What is your favorite place?

Preservation ABCs: O is for Oral History

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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O is for Oral History

A digital recorder for an oral history project.

A Tascam digital recorder for an oral history project.

Historic preservation can be considered an umbrella field for many related disciplines, though each field is its own profession and area of study, such as oral history. The Oral History Association defines the field as,

Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.

Being an oral historian is a profession that is very much a labor of love. It’s challenging, but it’s incredibly rewarding. The opportunity to show ordinary people that their stories are valuable to history and how their stories connect to others – that opportunity cannot be surpassed.

Oral history involves phone calls, background research, searching for interviewees, developing project goals and questions, choosing appropriate equipment, setting up interview dates, establishing trusting relationships with interviewees, listening, synthesizing, transcribing, answering questions and formulating reports … it’s quite the process. But throughout oral history projects you come to know people well. These people let you into their lives, if only a portion of it. Some offer coffee while you talk. Others need some reassuring about the recorders or legal forms to sign. And you learn people are beautiful, unique and interesting and have so much in common with each other. It’s an honor to conduct an oral history project.

Historic preservation includes oral history because preservation values places, stories and people, all of which oral history can connect. Sometimes a place lacks a known story because there is no written record, but someone can fill in that gap with memories. Both disciplines complement each other. At the simplest level, you could consider historic preservation as the built environment and oral history as the stories to fill and connect the environment.

Preservation ABCs: N is for National Historic Preservation Act

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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N is for National Historic Preservation Act (of 1966)

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Historic preservation, as a movement, existed long before it was an academic field of study or an established profession. The movement in the United States can be traced to saving Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and Ann Pamela Cunningham. (Here’s a lesson on the history of historic preservation: Preservation Basics No. 6.) Prior to the National Historic Preservation Act, some laws and programs were passed and established such as the Historic Sites Act and the Historic American Building Survey.

However, the National Historic Preservation Act drives the federal policy of historic preservation in the United States. The NHPA (1966) established federal, state and local responsibilities. The short version of the story is that the NHPA is a response to governments demolishing historic structures, buildings and entire neighborhoods, particularly following World War II. This law would require the federal government to identify historic properties and to take into account its effects on those resources.

The National Historic Preservation Act established federal preservation policy and procedures through these components:

  • Outlined federal/state/tribal/local partnerships to implement these programs (including establishing State Historic Preservation Officers and offices)
  • Establishing the National Register of Historic Places
  • Establishing the Section 106 review process
  • Establishing the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation
  • Establishing Section 110 (which requires federal agencies to be stewards of their historic properties)
  • Authorized matching grants and the Historic Preservation Fund

Read more about these components from the National Trust or the National Park Service. You can read the full text of the NHPA via the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.

Where would we be without the NHPA? Not even close to where we are now in historic preservation, and we should thank our lucky stars for the NHPA and all of its components. What do you think?

Preservation ABCs: M is for Main Street

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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M is for Main Street

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Marion, VA

Main Street is a common idea, phrase, and referenced place in historic preservation because it incorporates so much of what historic preservation believes. Main Street (whether or not yours is named Main Street) historically included prominent building blocks, local businesses, a mix of retail and residential, a variety of services for the community, gathering places, human scale buildings, transportation nexuses, and a sense of place. Over the centuries and decades, main street as a hub for all of this faded; populations moved to the suburbs and strip malls and large indoor shopping malls and big box retailers took the place of main street.

And now, people are realizing once again the economic and community value of a main street. The National Trust Main Street Center focuses on revitalizing main streets to viable, sustainable communities. Main Streets can reinvent themselves. Some become more artsy or food oriented. Others retain basic services like pharmacies and stationery stores. Each community will have different needs and interests. The key is finding what works for each one, and having willing, passionate people involved.

Does your town have a main street? Or did you grow up in suburban developments (like me)? Has your main street changed over the years? How?

Preservation ABCs: L is for Landscape

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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L is for Landscape

Windham County, Vermont, agricultural landscape, October 2009.

The word “landscape” likely triggers images of rolling hills, the coast, mountains or flat farmland. When discussing historic preservation and landscape, those images still hold true, except landscape is more aptly called “cultural landscape” by the National Park Service. Basically, cultural landscapes represent how humans have modified the environment and interacted with the land.

There are four types of cultural landscapes: (1) historic sites (2) historic designed landscapes (3) historic vernacular landscape and (4) ethnographic landscapes. Preservation Brief 36 explains cultural landscapes succinctly. Subtypes of these four types range from highways to parks to neighborhoods to farmsteads to battlefields to gardens to sacred sites, among many more.

Like other historic resources, landscapes have boundaries and historic context and significant features that contribute to their integrity (think of the threats to battlefields for a reference). The National Park Service maintains the Cultural Landscape Inventory (CLI) of all cultural and historic landscapes across the country. Cultural landscapes are an entire field of study, obviously much too lengthy for a single post, but visit the CLI to get started. (And if you’re a cultural landscape expert, feel free to add more as a primer.)

Aside from the NPS definition of cultural landscapes, “landscape” can refer to everything around us. When you read your landscape, you are reading every element (not necessarily historic) of your environment and understanding the place where you live: what existed before and what exists now. Reading landscape is important because it allows preservationists and others to understand “sense of place” and what makes a place unique.

So think about your landscape? Do you know of any designated cultural landscapes around you? If not, how would you describe where you are?

Preservation ABCs: K is for King Post

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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K is for King Post (Truss)

Pine Brook Bridge in Fayston, VT: A king post truss bridge. Source: Library of Congress. Click for source.

Pine Brook Bridge in Fayston, VT: A king post truss bridge. Source: Library of Congress. Click for source.

A king post is a type of truss, and can refer to building or bridge construction. Being able to identify a truss is an important part of preservation conversation, whether you are working on an architectural description or talking to a contractor or an engineer. As an introduction to trusses, start with an easy one: the king post truss. It is a simple truss and most often used for short spans. Think of it as a triangle. An easy definition of a king post is borrowed from Cyril Harris’ book, American Architecture: an Illustrated Glossary:

A structural support for a roof formed by two inclined rafters joined at the apex of their intersection. A horizontal tie beam connects the rafters their lower ends, and a vertical central member (called the king post) connects the apex with the midpoint of the tie beam. 

See the triangle? This triangle is a truss and can repeat in bridges (then called multiple king post truss) and structures. They are easiest to identify on covered bridges or metal truss bridges or in attics. Take a look next time your passing over a bridge or hanging around an attic.

Got it? You can always jump to the HAER truss poster and dive right into studying.

Preservation ABCs: J is for Joist

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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J is for Joist

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Historic preservation includes many fields and subjects, but at the core of the preservation field itself is buildings. Understanding the construction of a building and its elements will go a long way in conversation and in finding solutions. When looking at the “bones” of a building, joist is a good component to recognize. In the above picture the three members shown lengthwise are called joists.  A joist is a parallel horizontal beam that supports the floor and ceiling boards.

What you are looking at in this image are three joists with the floorboards of the second floor shown above the joists. In this particular instance, the ceiling plaster and lath has been removed, exposing the space between the ceiling and the second floor. The white marks on the joists are marks left behind from the plaster keys. You can also see knob and tube wiring (white ceramic cylinders and black wires) as well as new electrical wiring (yellow wire).  Joists can be made from wood (timber), steel, or reinforced concrete.

Joists are important, obviously, as they hold up ceilings and support floors. The best way to illustrate the function of joists? In college my professor told us that if we were unsure of the structural stability of a floor to be sure to walk on the joists. You’re more likely to go through a floor than a joist (not that you should put yourself in such a precarious position in the first place, of course).

The moral of this story? Learn your structural elements. And walk on the joists.

Preservation ABCs: H is for Highway

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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H is for Highway

Vermont Route 17: highways come in all landscapes and alignments.

Highways and historic preservation are inherently linked. All roads tell a significant part of history; highways are corridors that have defined, shaped and drastically influenced American life. From trails to dirt roads or corduroy roads, toll roads, turnpikes, parkways, interstates, all are tangible connections as to how people have traversed the landscape, in which directions, how society has adapted with changing technology and expanding settlement patterns.

Suffice to say, there is more to a highway than miles. Starting with the simplest of highway elements: its surface can give clues to the era of its construction. Width, geometry, speed limits, alignment, environs: these elements add greater depth to highway history. In other words, road construction relates to changing technologies and safety standards.

Depending on where you live, the word highway likely conjures an image different to you than it does for someone else. What do you see? Suburban development and strip malls? The wide open fields and skies of the midwest? Winding New England highways through the mountains? The coastal highways along the ocean? Do you imagine two lanes? Four lanes? Something else? When considering historic highways, often what comes to mind are images of Route 66, the Dixie Highway, the Lincoln Highway or the many parkways throughout New York and New Jersey. From there we can imagine the mid-twentieth century roadside America genre, what we typically associate with the autocentric development: hotels, gas stations, suburban development, drive-ins, and a culture that modified itself to fit with the automobile age.

Beyond the era of highway itself, historic or not, it is important to consider the fact that the majority of our highways include historic elements such as bridges and tunnels. And highways pass through and are parts of our historic districts, villages, towns and cities. No matter the age of the road or the town, a roadway project will at some point be planned, one that has the potential to alter the landscape as it has in the past. Highway and eventual interstate construction was one of the catalysts for our federal and state historic preservation laws and the Section 106 and Section 4(f) review processes.

To that effect, this quote is a good one to keep in mind:

“Few creations of man have such widespread effects upon their surroundings as do highways… Taken as a whole, these side effects change the appearance and character of our state and could make it a less desirable place to live work and visit.”

– James Wick, A State Highway Project in Your Town – A Primer for Citizens and Public Officials (1998).

That is not to say that all highway projects are disastrous and a threat to historic resources. Rather it is important to recognize that our built environment is constantly changing and growing, and one small effect after another can greatly alter where we live. Highways are deeply rooted in our history, our present, and our future. Highways run through our historic districts as Main Streets. Combining transportation, preservation, and pedestrian livability is a concept explored by the Complete Streets movement. Incorporating and respecting all of our resources is an important task of planners and regulators and citizens.

Highways and historic preservation go hand in hand. And who doesn’t long for the lure of the open road? It’s a blank canvas for new adventures and a book filled with the travels of others.

Preservation ABCs: G is for Gateway

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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G is for Gateway

This pony truss bridges is a gateway to the Woodstock Village Historic District.

A gateway is an indication on the landscape or in the built environment that you are crossing to a new setting. This indication is a tangible change in the environment. Think of a gateway like an entrance to someplace new; however, gateways are more than gates and fences, of course. A gateway might be a bridge, stone walls, landscaping or a settlement pattern that gets denser as you approach the center of town. A bridge is a gateway to a historic district because it anchors one side of the district boundary. Upon crossing that bridge, you are entering the village or historic district.

Gateways are important because they allow us to read the landscape as we travel and to recognize communities. Because of this, our historic bridges are important to maintain and rehabilitate. Removing a truss bridge or an ornamental concrete railing to be replaced with a standard highway bridge will change how you read the landscape. Historic bridges signify crossings and entrances.

Towns and neighborhoods do not need a bridge in order to have a gateway. Sometimes when an “entrance” to a village is less obvious, due to development and sprawl, towns will employ welcome signs and banners or other landscaping elements. The street might be narrower or sidewalks begin at a certain point. These are examples of reading the more subtle hints of the built environment. New development and even shopping malls today attempt to create the feeling of gateways by lining the traffic lanes with ornamental street lights and banners, using pavers or dyed concrete.

When you cross that gateway maybe you get the feeling that you are in a settled area, a more human scale area as opposed to the wide open spaces or the sprawl development. Take a look next time you’re traveling.

Think about this: how do you recognize when you enter your town? What does the approach into your neighborhood look like? Would you say that it has a gateway?

Preservation ABCs: F is for Flamingo

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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F is for Flamingo

Historic preservation and the flamingo: an obvious connection to some, yet a puzzle to those new to the Preservation in Pink world. The beginning of the link between historic preservation and flamingos dates to Mary Washington College, ca. 2003-2006. You can read that story here. In brief, the flamingo has been the underlying bond between eight of us since graduation when we scattered across the country, and it became a way to tie each other together throughout studies, conversations and eventually across the world. Sending each other pink flamingos reminded us of our shared passion and the fact that there was a group of classmates and friends for support in any way. Admittedly, it has grown a bit out of control. (And it’s so easy now because flamingos are very much in vogue everywhere!)

The pink flamingo says to everyone that preservation is not all academics and only for professionals; it is a wide reaching field that applies to everyone. Preservation can be connected to folk art and material culture kitsch like the pink flamingo in addition to serious topics like national policies, building restoration, quality of life issues, transportation, local businesses and shaping the future of our communities. Preservation discussions can be held in the classroom, a board room, at a coffee shop, casually or seriously.

In the world of Preservation in Pink, the flamingo will always be a focus. Hopefully when you see a pink flamingo, you’ll think of the positive outlook and good effects that historic preservation has in your world, and you can teach others about it.

Keep sending flamingo links, thoughts, photos, etc.