It is surprising that a field that has focused so much on the preservation of history has an unfortunate blind spot to its own history. Historic preservation is one of the longest-lasting examples of community development, land use reform, and public history in the United States. The stories of the past efforts of our fellow citizens to ensure that parts of our history are with us today and tomorrow are varied and fascinating. Yet many, both inside and outside preservation, tell themselves a simplistic and usually inaccurate story of how we came to value parts of our past in a country that too often only values the new and what’s over the horizon.
The recently released second edition of Giving Preservation a History, edited by Randall Mason and Max Page, is a strong attempt to reverse our trend at historical amnesia in the preservation field. Through seven essays retained from the first edition, six new essays prepared for the 2020 book, and two concluding chapters to wrap both works together, the editors have endeavored to put forward arguments that may rebut old myths around the elite nature of the movement’s founding while also challenging the field to consider how it has fallen short in the embrace of multi-culturalism and issues of social justice. Like much else in life, historic preservation has a mixed, layered history. But it is a history worth considering, for those who care about the future of the movement.
One of the best essays of those retained from the first edition is Mason’s own contribution, “Historic Preservation, Public Memory, and the Making of Modern New York City.” Mason begins by busting myths, such as the one which suggests that preservation in the city began with the 1963 destruction of Pennsylvania Station. Another myth holds that “preservation emerged in the nineteenth century as the marginal gesture of a dying elite, and has stayed that way.” In a contrary point of view, Mason shows that by the 1900s, “preservation was thoroughly embedded in broader economic, cultural, environmental, and other social processes driving urbanization.” He takes the reader through the efforts of those working to save the historic houses we traditionally associate with early preservation efforts, such as the Morris-Jumel Mansion that overlooks the Harlem River in Upper Manhattan. But he also examines the broad scope of the mission of early preservation groups dealing with “past, present, and future”— organizations such as the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society—which projected a “holistic vision of a landscape in which towns and cities were enriched by the presence and preservation of historic landmarks and natural places.” In his study of New York City, Mason outlines these contrasting curatorial and urbanistic approaches to preservation, the latter including individuals who “saw preservation as one aspect of their larger project of transforming the city and its citizens,” work that put the field squarely in the midst of other early 20th century reform efforts.
From the essays new to the second edition, I found Stephanie Ryberg-Webster’s contrast of the varying degrees of success in integrating preservation into community development in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to be enlightening and helpful to practitioners active today. Amber Wiley’s study of Washington’s Dunbar High School controversy digs deeply into issues of power and African American cultural heritage. Gail Dubrow’s overview of LGBTQ preservation initiatives is also a helpful scan of the growth of this important segment of preservation work in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Having been a part of some of the discussions and decisions she describes, I would quibble at the margins with her descriptions of the motives of the National Trust in a few instances. More importantly, I would also call out the Trust’s significant and ongoing role in the saving of the Pauli Murray Family Home in Durham, North Carolina, a fact which goes unmentioned in the essay.
This is an important work in the growing understanding of the history of historic preservation. The book is not without its issues, however. On the minor side, several copy-editing errors popped up in ways that were annoying in a book of this caliber. The editors and authors deserved better from the publisher. Somewhat more significantly, of the city-specific case studies, the vast majority focus on communities and issues from the original thirteen colonies. (The best of those that break from the bonds of the east coast is Chris Wilson’s excellent look at Santa Fe from the original edition in “Place Over Time.”) The editors’ stated intent on promoting preservation as a force for broad social change led to certain decisions on the topics to be included. There is much to be learned, however, from study of the issues facing preservationists and communities beyond the east coast which would enrich any history of the movement.
Giving Preservation a History reminds us that understanding our own past is worth knowing as we envision the future. With the preservation movement adapting amid significant societal change, those who understand this past are best equipped to use preservation as an effective tool today and tomorrow.
More to come…
Image: New York City’s Morris-Jumel Mansion (photo credit: Library of Congress)