“Connection to place is very important to me, and I learned that by walking the streets of Franklin and Murfreesboro, where I grew up. History was all around me . . . and I’ve always wanted to do something about connecting the past to today.”
When PreserveCast host Nick Redding began our recent conversation on the award-winning Preservation Maryland podcast with a question about my path to preservation, my thoughts went to my childhood home, grandmother, and a favorite downtown theatre.
That podcast, looking at my work at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and more, can now be found on the PreserveCast website.
In a thirty minute interview, Nick and I explore not only how I became a preservationist, but also the various jobs that led to my serving as the Chief Preservation Officer at the National Trust from 2010 until I stepped down from the position at the end of March 2019.
“Somebody said that ‘Chief Preservation Officer’ is one of the great titles in the preservation field. Its not as good as ‘Keeper of the National Register,’ but I’ve always thought it is quite an honor at an institution like the Trust, which has such a legacy and also such promise, to be the Chief Preservation Officer. . . .to have responsibility for all our major program areas, is quite an honor and something I think about every day as I do my job.”
Some of the most interesting conversation took place around preservation losses and preservation success stories. When Nick asked what I saw as the biggest preservation loss in recent years, my mind went back to a 2014 battle over a National Historic Landmark.
“I always think the loss of a National Historic Landmark (NHL) is a very sad occasion. There are not that many of them. These are places of national significance and we should do everything we can to try and keep these places — saved, thriving, alive. We were involved in trying to save the Chautauqua Amphitheatre, which is near Buffalo, which was part of a NHL district. This was a place where FDR, William Jennings Bryan, Susan B. Anthony, Thurgood Marshall, Ella Fitzgerald, Van Clyburn . . . the list could go on . . . These people were on the stage there at the Amphitheatre. And yet the institution, in 2014, said we’re going to demolish the Amphitheatre, ‘We’re just going to build a new one. It will have better amenities but it will look just like the old one.’ Well, that’s just not the same. . . . When we lose something at that level of significance to the country, it cannot be replaced.”
Even with a replica, we’ve lost the physical connection which I spoke of at the top of the podcast. It was a totally unnecessary loss of a building that could have been easily saved, easily reused, easily renovated for the next century of use.
Nick followed that question with one about my biggest preservation victory, perhaps something I’d had a hand in during my tenure with the National Trust.
That’s like being asked to choose your favorite child.
So, I took the approach of highlighting three victories. First, while I had only a marginal role in the saving of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, I see it as a special preservation victory on multiple fronts, not the least of which is that we kept it connected to its site, its place. Next, I turn to the Pauli Murray House, in Durham, North Carolina. I’m ashamed to admit that I did not know who Pauli Murray was when one of our staff members brought this project to me, but I now know that she was one of the most exceptional and influential women of the 20th century. I note that I like this place because it tells me, “extraordinary people can come from very ordinary places, and that’s part of us telling the story as well.” Finally, I end with the 2017 fight to save the Federal Historic Tax Credits. Organizations like the National Trust do some of their best work when they advocate for tools which local organizations, local citizens, local governments can use to save places in their communities.
At the end of the podcast, Nick has another of those “name your favorite child” questions, when he asked me to choose my favorite historic site or place.
You’ll have to listen to the PreserveCast podcast for the answer.
Many thanks to Nick Redding, Preservation Maryland, and the PreserveCast crew for the opportunity to reflect on what’s past…and what’s ahead.
More to come…