Perspectives on Preservation

Perspectives on Preservation

­The 50th anniversary of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act presented an opportunity to look at preservation through the eyes of several Loeb Fellows who have been active in the field. LOEBlogger Carlo Urmy spoke with Sarah Peskin (LF ‘94), Matthew Kiefer (LF ’96), Donna Graves (LF ’10), Brent Leggs (LF ’11), and Liliana Cazacu (LF ’16) about the changes they have seen in the field during their careers and what changes are needed moving forward.

Rebranding Preservation

A theme that emerged repeatedly is that the field is still often perceived as stuffy, antiquarian, or obstructionist. Some of the Loebs are even hesitant to call themselves preservationists. According to Donna Graves, a historian and heritage planner working in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has only recently come to use the descriptor for herself, while Sarah Peskin, former chief of planning for the National Park Service North Atlantic Region, said she still doesn’t use the term: “I don’t like to put myself in a box.”

Brent Leggs, a senior field officer at the National Trust for Historic Places, argued that there is a need to “rebrand” historic preservation as a field relevant to wider and more diverse publics. Matt Kiefer, a land use lawyer who has sat on the Boston Landmarks Commission and the board of Historic Boston Inc., expressed a similar sentiment. According to Kiefer, historic preservation has been underappreciated as a driver in changing our understanding of cities. Rather than looking solely toward the past, preservationists have been at the forefront of new movements for smart growth, sustainable cities, and neighborhood planning.

From Architectural Significance to Community Value

When asked about the changes they had seen in the field over their careers, the Loebs mentioned an increasing emphasis on preserving places based on their value to existing communities. Brent Leggs described a “major shift from architectural significance” to evaluating the importance of places based on their “connection to people.” According to Leggs, this is especially important when dealing with African American historic sites, many of which are not high style buildings that meet traditional ideas of “significance” or “integrity.”

Donna Graves encountered similar issues in her project to preserve California’s remaining Japantowns. In San Francisco, Graves found that a history of being denied property rights made Japanese American residents resistant to landmark status or other forms of government restriction. Instead, the community wanted government support for longstanding businesses and community organizations. When Graves began the project eight years ago, the San Francisco Planning Department was resistant to this kind of approach. “They basically said, ‘we don’t do that,’” Graves explained. Now this has begun to change, as rapid development and changing demographics has put pressure on the city government to include cultural heritage in the planning process, beyond the preservation of historic buildings.

Growing Diversity

Increasing diversity was another important refrain, both in terms of the places being preserved and those doing the preservation. According to Leggs, “diversity within preservation has become an ethic” over the last few decades, but there is still a lot of work to be done. He stressed the importance of getting more African Americans involved in professional preservation programs, as well as disseminating knowledge and building technical capacity in diverse communities.

Graves noted that she has been impressed by the growing diversity she has observed at professional meetings like the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference. She also praised the role played by the National Park Service’s “Theme Studies.” In the past, these studies provided guidance for the treatment of specific types of properties like Colonial Architecture of the Southern Colonies or New England Architecture 1784-1880. In more recent years, however, these studies have increasingly looked toward different ethnic or racial groups, with subjects like Japanese Americans in World War II or American Latino Heritage, in order to support the protection of previously neglected parts of the nation’s built heritage. However, the Park Service is ultimately led by political appointees, and Graves expressed concern about the impacts the recent presidential election could have on these initiatives.

UNESCO preservation site in RomaniaNew Models for Sustainable Preservation

Recent years have seen the emergence of different financial models to preserve buildings in a way that is more sustainable and not completely dependent on philanthropic support. Both Leggs and Kiefer stressed how the adaptive reuse of historic buildings and the development of culture based businesses can sustain preservation projects while also building community. Following Kiefer’s Loeb year he became interested in preservation’s ability to have a “catalytic effect” in neighborhoods, which became an explicit priority for Historic Boston Inc.

Liliana Cazacu, a Romanian architect who has worked extensively with historic sites and monuments, notes that adaptive reuse is more common in the United States and Western Europe. In Romania and other Eastern European countries there is still resistance to placing new programs in old buildings, particularly in the religious buildings that make up much of these countries’ historic heritage. Cazacu’s work aims to change that. With her help, communities in Romania are achieving growth and stability by preserving their legacy of medieval stone church fortresses and paving the way for robust cultural tourism.

Despite working largely in the public arena, Sarah Peskin stressed the importance of having partners in the private and nonprofit sectors, a lesson she learned as planning director of the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, the public-private partnership that developed the Lowell National Historical Park. In 1978 this was a novel kind of project for the National Park Service, combining historic preservation, affordable housing, community planning, and open space. Peskin would later apply many aspects of this approach to the redevelopment of a naval base in Acadia National Park following the base’s closure in 2002. Rather than restoring “pure” parkland, Peskin developed what she called a “live transfer,” converting the former base into a national science and learning center for the Park Service, while maintaining and preserving historic elements, like the Rockefeller Building, built in the 1930s by the Park Service with the support of John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Perspectives on a Fellowship Year

The Fellows offered varied perspectives on the impact their Fellowship year had on their work and careers. For some, their time at the GSD advanced ongoing projects. Brent Leggs wrote his book Preserving African American Historic Places, building on earlier work at the National Trust for Historic Places. Donna Graves used part of her time to research National Heritage Areas, a Park Service initiative begun in the 1970s to preserve built heritage along with cultural resources and a way of life. This research would lead Graves to propose the Japantown National Heritage Area.

Others described their Fellowship year as an opportunity to expand their horizons and to expose themselves to ideas and work outside their normal field of practice. Peskin spoke about studying ecology in the mid-1990s with Richard Forman (research professor of Advanced Environmental Studies in Landscape Ecology), and partnering with landscape architect Ian McHarg, then teaching at the GSD, on a studio based in Acadia National Park. She also witnessed the impact of GIS on design practice as that technology became available to students for the first time. Over 20 years later, Cazacu also experienced the potential of new technology for the preservation field, citing 3D printing, biotechnology, and augmented reality–tools that may greatly affect how we preserve, represent, and document our built heritage.

Photos of UNESCO preservation site in Romania, courtesy of Liliana Cazacu.
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