A Quest for the Best (Picture, That Is)

Never in a single one of my 56 (almost 57) years have I seen all the films nominated for the Academy Awards Best Picture category.  Heck, most years I’m lucky to have seen one!

This year will be different.

What’s the use of having an empty nest if you don’t do things differently now that the kids are away, right?

When the Academy announced its nominees for 2011 earlier this week, a light went off in my head.  Heck, I’d already seen two of the films:  War Horse and The Descendants.  How difficult could it be to see the others before the Academy Awards show late in February? How many do they nominate anyway, five?

So I shot an email off to Candice and suggested we try to catch all the nominees before the show.  Candice – who would say my major failing as a human being is the fact that I seldom (read almost never) go to the movies – eagerly accepted. Okay, we’re on!  So let’s go to the Oscar website and make a plan to see the 3-4 movies still on my list.  No problem, right?

Wrong.

Nine?  Nine nominations?  Since when did they nominate NINE films for Best Picture.  Heck, what doesn’t get in?  I fully expect one of those slasher movies they are always advertising on ESPN to testosterone-fueled 18-to-25-year-old males to be on the list.

Oh well, a deal is a deal, and now that we’ve started I’m stoked!

We were going to see The Artist and Hugo this weekend, but I put a post on my Facebook page about our quest and noted that I was worried about finding a theatre that was still showing MoneyballA colleague (and baseball fan) quickly noted it was at the historic Avalon Theatre, and after finding out they had a “bargain” showing this afternoon at 1:45 we put it first on the list.

I loved Moneyball (I read Michael Lewis’ book when in first came out), and thought Brad Pitt and especially Jonah Hill were terrific.  I doubt the film – or War Horse or The Descendants – are of a quality to win Best Picture.  But what do I know…I still have six pictures to see!

So tomorrow, we’ll be at the historic AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring to watch The Artist.  And if you call us in the next few weeks and we don’t answer, chances are we’ll be “At the Movies!”

More to come…

DJB

Celebrating 40 Years of Preservation

(Editor’s Note:  The following are excerpts from my keynote address at the 40th anniversary of Historic Staunton Foundation, delivered on Sunday, January 22, 2012.  To read the full address, go here.)

Anniversaries are great times to reflect, celebrate, and resolve.  I’d like to do all three with you this afternoon.

Let’s begin with some reflection.  I’ve always enjoyed the movie It’s a Wonderful Lifefor the dramatic (some might say cheesy) way it showed the impact people have on others and on their community.  

And while I’m no Clarence Odbody, the guardian angel who showed Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey the transformation of Bedford Falls to Pottersville as if George had never lived, I would like for all of us to reflect on how Staunton might have developed if HSF were not formed 40 years ago.

Let’s begin down at the Wharf – where generations of visitors initially saw Staunton as they stepped off a train.

The first thing you would notice is that there isn’t any Wharf…for the buildings that make up that unique historic district were demolished in the 1970s for a four lane thoroughfare through Staunton.

Yes, the Virginia Department of Transportation thought it was important to allow drivers coming in from the west along Middlebrook Avenue to be able to drive uninterrupted so they could get to…Richmond Avenue and Commerce Road…without having to slow down for a pesky little thing like a town.

Of course, you wouldn’t see the farmers market either, because that highway runs through the landscaped Johnson Street parking area that was among the first streetscape improvements supported by HSF.

The reality is that one of the first things a band of volunteers called Historic Staunton Foundation did as an organization was fight the state’s wrong-headed transportation plan….and today the shops, restaurants, coffee and wine stores that make the Wharf such a nice place to linger are ours to enjoy because of the foresight of HSF.

But while we’re pretending to look around the Wharf without the benefit of the work of HSF, I guess I should mention that the train station is gone as well.

If it hadn’t been taken out by the thoroughfare, it faced other threats through the years.  You may not remember, but back in the 1980s there was a fire in the baggage room set by some homeless men looking to stay warm.  Without HSF, there was no push to keep the beautiful T.J. Collins-designed station and so the city quickly had it demolished so it wouldn’t be a hazard.  I can just picture a small double-wide that serves as the Amtrak station today.

Oh, and does anyone remember that T.J. Collins fellow anyway?  He once designed or remodeled over 200 buildings in Staunton, but more than half are now demolished and his archives were thrown in the dump when the office closed.

Of course, the reality is that Historic Staunton worked hard to save the train station after that fire.  A decade of work with the city staff paid off, when building inspector Bill Botkin and the city’s fire chief Andy Shaver gave preservationists enough time to find a solution without calling for a quick demolition.

And while Historic Staunton was fighting with the railroad’s real estate division to try and find a way to acquire the building, Lee Cochran – that force of nature – mentioned that she sat on a board with the chairman of CSX which owned the station.  Just like that, we had leap-frogged the bureaucrats in real estate and were working out a deal to keep that gem of the Wharf Historic District.

And T.J. Collins?  His legacy is alive and well, and HSF has the archives of his drawings that remain living and breathing documents in the work to shape Staunton’s future.

Yes, just like the transformation of Bedford Falls to Pottersville, the Wharf would be a very different place without Historic Staunton Foundation.

So, as Clarence Odbody, I want to take you to downtown Staunton to look at Beverley Street over the past 40 years without Historic Staunton.

The four blocks between Lewis and Market streets look pretty shabby – just like hundreds of downtowns in small communities throughout the country that decided to forget about people and turn their towns over to cars.

There are only about two-thirds of the buildings left – because shop owners could buy the building next door and tear them down to create parking for their business.  There was no organization – or historic district zoning ordinance – to stop them.

And we love our CVS drugstore that sits where the Marquis Building once sat, don’t we?  You remember the Marquis Building don’t you:   the Romanesque Revival beauty on the corner of Beverley and Augusta where T.J. Collins had his office?  In the early 21st century, giant drugstore chains began building suburban-style drugstores – with suburban style parking lots – on the “corner of Main and Main” in towns across America.  There was no more prominent corner in Staunton, so CVS purchased the historic building and a few surrounding ones as well, tore them down, and put their drugstore smack in the middle of town.

Without HSF, there is no coherent streetscape design and the building owners continue in their attempts to capture the newest fad in hopes of revitalizing their fading businesses.

I could reflect like this for hours.  Staunton’s historic districts wouldn’t be valuable places to live or own property without the work of HSF.  The city would have less tax revenue, as seen in a 1995 study that demonstrated that buildings in every one of Staunton’s historic districts appreciated at a faster rate of growth – sometimes very substantially – when compared with similar properties outside the historic districts.

And what was most interesting about that analysis was the breadth of housing stock that was affected, dispelling the myth that historic houses are only mansions for the rich.  Staunton’s historic districts – supported by 40 years of work by Historic Staunton Foundation – not only provide quality housing for people of more modest means, but reward them with faster rates of appreciation as well.

But I want to end my reflection by talking about Staunton’s spirit.  Without HSF, the community would feel very different.

I know – from personal experience – that HSF gave us a place where old and new came together…where natives welcomed and embraced newcomers and their ideas and where new citizens learned about the traditions of the town.  HSF provided the context where everyone now thinks about historic buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes as tools for the future of the city.

Staunton without HSF may not be as bad as Bedford Falls’ transformation to Pottersville without George Bailey…but I think Staunton would be much worse than the wonderful community we know and love today.

Now, let’s celebrate!

This is going to be personal…as each of our celebrations of the work of HSF should be.

I want to celebrate the four presidents I worked under in the 1980s when I was at Historic Staunton Foundation.

Tom Bell welcomed me to Staunton, taught me how to pronounce the city’s name like a native, and introduced me to countless numbers of the leading citizens in town.  He was an amazing leader who helped HSF move from transformational founding directors to the sustained excellence that’s been the hallmark of the organization.

Doug Roller was both my boss as president – and later my employee, as the FIP Coordinator – at HSF.  He had an abiding love for architecture and for this city which translated into doing whatever it took.

The late Bob Holsinger served – if my memory is correct – two terms as president while I was in Staunton.  Bob supported staff in ways that I still admire and try to  emulate.  Like clockwork, I could count on my phone ringing at 8:15 every morning, with Bob on the other end to check our temperature and to make sure he knew what he could do to support HSF.  I miss Bob and his old-fashioned sense of civic duty dearly.

And finally, one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do was give Mary Timberlake my resignation and tell her I was taking a job leading the Preservation Alliance of Virginia – a group that had no money and no office, but only the promise of making preservation more prominent throughout the Commonwealth.  Among the many things we did as a team, Mary and I painted one of the offices in the HSF building on South Augusta Street together to get it ready for a new tenant, because that’s what you did when you had more volunteer hours than money.

And there are so many others to celebrate:

The Cochran family been consistently generous with gifts, in the Board leadership provided by Emily and Stuart, and in the opening of the Stuart House for special tours and events.   I use to love to go on tours that Justice Cochran gave at the Stuart House because he had this funny story he told.  He pointed to a portrait of an ancestor on the wall and told a tour group that this particular ancestor held a judicial position in colonial Virginia that was very similar to his current position as a Justice on Virginia’s Supreme Court.  One of the members of the tour group – obviously unimpressed – said in a loud whisper, “Well the family hasn’t advanced very much in five generations, have they?”  That willingness to not take oneself too seriously has made the family both beloved and admired for generations.

Frank and GiGi Pancake:  I want to know how little Staunton, Virginia, attracted so many people you could describe as a “force of nature.”  Frank certainly fell in that category.  His leadership was amazing when he was active, and HSF’s Endangered Properties fund was renamed in the family’s honor as the Pancake Preservation Fund.  Frank and GiGi were key to so much of the success of the early years of HSF.

Doris and Jake Smith were instrumental in so many things in Staunton…and that was true in their support of HSF – especially when the organization needed funding to take a major step forward.  HSF has had a number of funders – or people willing to help raise funds – through the years.

One of the great things about HSF is that everyone can contribute in ways that best fits their personal situation.  Edwina Goodloe was such a force for ensuring that Historic Staunton became integrated with the leadership of the community in the early days.  Linda Hanna – another board member from my time – has always been a key link to the merchants along Beverley Street.  Henley and Mary Carter, Liz McCue – who served as my first assistant director, Karen Hudson, Eleanor Patrick, Ann McPherson, Roller and Jeri Shipplett, Arch Sproul…the list could go on and on and I’m only embarrassed because I know I’ve left out so many who have contributed so much.

I want to end my personal celebration with two couples:

Wick and Betty Vellines to my mind have always exemplified the fun in historic preservation.  Betty is, of course, the very serious current president of Historic Staunton Foundation and is doing a magnificent job.  But I like to remember Wick and Betty sitting around a table down at the Oaks – with Margaret and Fletcher Collins and other friends – telling tales and enjoying life to the fullest.  It is what living in community is all about and HSF is nothing if it isn’t a community.

Finally, we all wouldn’t be here tonight if it weren’t for Bill and Kathy Frazier.  I don’t know if you realize how lucky you are as a community to have landed someone like Bill early in his preservation career, who had a special blend of professional knowledge, tenacity, love for place, and vision to see what this little sleepy Shenandoah Valley town could be.  Then he had the amazing good sense to hire – and then marry – Kathy, who brings such a wonderful design sense to this community as she has done to Main Streets all across the country.

I have to admit that when I came to Staunton to follow Bill and Kathy, I was scared.  They were living legends then…and they hadn’t even established Frazier Associates, undertaken the signage and streetscape improvements that we now take for granted, and helped create the Smith Center.  There have been several of us who have been privileged to serve as Executive Directors of Historic Staunton Foundation, but there’s been only one first family of HSF:  Bill and Kathy, we celebrate all you have done for this wonderful community.

So we’ve reflected and celebrated.  I think anniversaries are also times to look ahead and resolve to make a brighter future.

It is important to remember that preservation isn’t something that’s “finished.”  Staunton is a living, breathing community that faces hundreds of decisions each year that will affect the future.

You can make those decisions in a vacuum – and end up like “Anyplace U.S.A.”  Or Staunton can build on the incredible 40-year work of Historic Staunton Foundation and determine to keep your heritage, your buildings, your community unique and at the forefront of plans for the years ahead.

When I spoke with Logan Ward, who wrote the wonderful story about Staunton in the most recent issue of Preservation magazine, I told him that I thought preservation in Staunton succeeded because of three key elements:

First, HSF has had an amazing blend of professional and volunteer leadership that works well together and looks for the good in the community first.

Second, the ethic of preservation has been integrated throughout the community as a whole – and especially in city government.  This is a place where a consultant can come to work – like Bill Hamilton did more than 20 years ago – fall in love with the place, and become an integral part of the preservation effort through his post in economic development.

Finally, Staunton recognizes the value that everyone brings to the conversation about preservation.  This isn’t some attempt to “keep things as they are” – which is how preservation is perceived in some communities – but rather new ideas and traditions are blended in a way that points to a rich future for all.

These elements have contributed to Staunton’s success, but they aren’t automatic and they can deteriorate unless we nurture them.  I want to end with some thoughts about each of these three elements.

Professionals are important to the growth of historic preservation, but all of us in the preservation movement can find even more success with greater engagement of a broader set of volunteers.

We just completed market research at the National Trust that I find both astounding and encouraging.  The Trust has just under 150,000 members, but our market research found there are 15 million Americans who share our values as preservationists.  That’s 7% of the population of America – an astounding number if preservation organizations today can begin to reach those individuals.

We call these individuals “Local Preservationists” because they are already taking actions that you and I would describe as preservation-based.  Our research shows they aren’t members of the National Trust…and chances are that most of them here in Staunton aren’t members of Historic Staunton Foundation either.  Who are these people?  Their…

  • Average age is 35
  • 61% are male
  • 33% are non-white
  • 60% have < 4-year degree
  • 19% make > $100,000/yr
  • They are likely to volunteer and fundraise, and
  • They are active in social media

Preservation may not be their number 1 cause…in fact, it is likely to be their #4 or #5 cause.  But we have the opportunity to reach them, give them meaningful work to do in saving historic places, and move preservation up to their top cause.  If we do, we can become a mighty force for the future of this country.

Next, how do we continue to engage the city, county, and state governments in protecting Staunton’s future?

Government officials, commentators, planners, architects, and others are focused more than ever on how we build and maintain cities and towns that provide jobs and opportunities for our citizens, safe schools for our children, places to meet together in community, while lessening our impact on the environment.  In other words – economically and environmentally sustainable communities.

Often, when politicians talk about economic sustainability, they focus on big ticket items or on new, out of state investments.  But we have found here in Staunton that it is the incremental work that brings more sustained growth – and that’s where preservation can play such an important role.

The Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University released the first independent study of the economic impacts of preservation, and they found that investment in historic rehabilitation produces significantly better economic impact in terms of jobs, income, and state-and-local taxes than a similar amount of investment in new construction, building highways, machinery manufacturing, or agriculture.

That’s an amazing fact.  Rehabbing old buildings has more impact on the economy than the same size investment in the construction of new buildings.  There’s more “bang for the buck” in rehabilitation than in laying miles of asphalt for new highways.

Rutgers found that historic rehabilitation creates tens of thousands of local, high-paying, high-skilled jobs every year all across the country.  As an added benefit, the vast majority of the investment stays in the local community.

And to wrap up the argument for preservation as sustainability, the National Trust is releasing a study on Tuesday that will show it can take up to 80 years for a new energy efficient building to overcome, through efficient operations, the climate change impacts created by its construction.  In other words, keeping and rehabbing what we have is more environmentally sustainable.

Historic Staunton’s job is to keep making the case – year in and year out – for preservation as the sustainable future for the people of this community.

Finally, Staunton has done a better job than most in bringing together different groups to consider the future of the community.  But we can always do better.

In a very real way, the preservation movement is keeping the American story alive, in all its richness and diversity.  We all share a piece of that story.  Yet too many people don’t know or understand what it means to protect it. They see preservation as something removed from their daily lives or not reflective of their cultural heritage.  Or they get shut out by the sometimes complicated and expensive process of securing protection for a historic building or landscape.

Preservation is often seen as “the movement of no” — what you can’t do.  We need to make preservation more accessible — or a “movement of yes” — if we want to continue to grow and succeed.

Historic Staunton Foundation has so much of which to be proud over the past 40 years.  That’s a testament to the work that all of you, and people like you, have done to get us to the point where we are today.

Our challenge is to continue to grow the preservation ethic here in Staunton.  Let’s ensure that all elements of the community are engaged in our work.

One of my great joys in life was the 15 years that Candice and I lived in this wonderful community.  Our children were born while we lived in Staunton, and we have many lifelong friends that we cherish deeply.

At a key point in It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence says to George Bailey,

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Staunton would have an awful hole without the 40-year life of Historic Staunton Foundation.  Thanks for what you have done – and what you will do in the future – to make Staunton a better place in which to live.  Good night.

More to come…

DJB

Claire Lynch: A Wonderful Songbird Keeps Singing

At one point in Monday night’s thoroughly satisfying concert by The Claire Lynch Band at the Institute of Musical Traditions, the band leader mentioned that she started in the music business 33 years ago.  It doesn’t seem that long ago when I heard her play at the Shenandoah Valley’s Oak Grove Music Festival, but in fact it may have been two decades since I saw her with the Front Porch String Band.

Thirty-three years is a long time to be on the road, but Lynch and her band of hot young phenoms supported by veteran bass man Mark Schatz, had the energy and sound to more than satisfy the sell-out IMT crowd.

Lynch has been an impressive band leader, prolific songwriter (truth-in-advertising: some co-penned in the past with my musical cousin, Hershey Reeves), and all-around pioneer in the acoustic music world…but she’s still most impressive as a singer. She showed us all time and again on Monday evening why she won the 2010 IBMA Female Singer of the Year award.

Standouts from a wealth of good tunes in the two-hour set included Hummingbird, which Lynch sang with banjoist Alison Brown on the Fair Weather CD; a haunting Dear Sister, about a Civil War soldier writing his sister on the eve of the battle of Stones River; and the old-time inspired Widow’s Weeds, with Schatz on clawhammer banjo.  Schatz, as usual, also livened up the evening with his hambone dancing and solid play on the bass.  Guitarist Matt Wingate showcased impressive chops throughout, as he’s taken big strides in his music since I last saw him with the Lovell Sisters (and he was pretty doggone good at that point). And the newest member – fiddler Bryan McDowell – didn’t miss a beat on his second night out with the band.

After closing with a spirited Wabash Cannonball, where everyone stretches out musically, Lynch and the band came back on stage for an encore – and played my cousin’s Hershey’s composition Your Presence is My Favorite Gift.  This simple and beautiful gospel number was a perfect ending to an evening with a wonderful songbird.  Enjoy the video below of Claire singing Your Presence at a 2008 concert (with the song beginning about 55 seconds in).  Thanks to the good folks at IMT for making it all possible.

More to come…

DJB

Fiddle Heroes

I’ve always enjoyed Mark O’Connor’s 1992 album Heroes a series of fiddle duets that O’Connor plays with his musical idols and mentors.  There’s great music on the album – from jazz to bluegrass, western swing to world music – and listeners can easily see the range of O’Connor’s interest and his amazing ability to play comfortably in any idiom.

The players are – to put it simply – amazing.  Ponty, Grappelli, Clements, Zukerman, Gimble and more.

So I was thrilled to stumble across this clip on YouTube of behind the scenes footage of the recording of this album.

Take ten minutes, sit back, and soak up the amazing musicianship of a dozen top fiddlers of their day.  Then if you don’t know the album, find it on iTunes and download it.  You won’t be disappointed.

More to come…

DJB