While on a writing break, I’m taking the time to share some of my favorites from the More to Come archives. Where the journey begins — which is used in a portion of the following piece — was originally posted on June 29, 2020.
As I was preparing to give a talk to a preservation planning seminar at the University of Virginia late last month, I took the time to reread Why Old Places Matter: How historic places affect our identity and well-being by my long-time friend and former colleague Thompson M. (Tom) Mayes. I returned to Tom’s book because it is a great place to consider and understand the variety of factors that come into play as we save old places.
A key reason for me is that old places help us feel that we belong.
In writing the 14 essays in Why Old Places Matter, Tom spent time on some of the more practical motivations and outcomes, such as sustainability, economics, and community. But the ideas that most intrigued him, and that seemed to get to the heart of why these places seem to matter so much to people, were captured in a cluster of the essays that were about memory, continuity, and identity. These ideas are fundamental.
Memory. Old places help tell our stories.
Continuity. Old places give us a chance to feel a connection to the broad community of human experience, a community that exists across time.
Identity. Old places help us understand that our lives are not insignificant — that what we do will have an impact on the future.
Memory, continuity, and identity are deeply important to people, positioning the importance of old places in people’s lives in a much more fundamental fashion than the ways in which we often talk about the past and in the way we design our preservation laws. It was that point of view that I wanted to share with the students. As I did so, I placed it in the context of my personal journey and the stories that matter to me. Such as my origin story, which takes place at Union Station in Nashville.
Union Station is a Nashville landmark. As one approaches on Broadway, it looms alone on the landscape, like Mount Monadnock or a butte in Monument Valley. It is a beautiful old pile of a building in what is known as the Romanesque Revival style. The lobby is designed to showcase the power and opulence of the railroads at the turn-of-the-twentieth century.
The building’s history as a key Louisville & Nashville Railroad station is worth remembering. Its architectural and decorative features add to what makes it important. Yet all of that wasn’t enough. By the early 1980s, the building was threatened with demolition. Abandoned and deteriorating, Union Station was just another eyesore from a bygone era.
Places with imposing presence, with designs built for the ages, places that once served noble purposes, are — from my perspective — worth the effort to find a new use in today’s world. But for some, what is seen as the push for progress is worth the loss of the buildings and landscapes that provide continuity with the past. No, Union Station wasn’t going to be saved because of its railroad history and grand architecture alone. It became a landmark in so many minds — providing the motivation behind the effort to save it from the wrecking ball — because of the building’s innumerable, varied, and deeply personal connections to people in Middle Tennessee.
Former New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp states it succinctly when he wrote that “the essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory.”
Emotions, stories, and memories flow through Union Station like so many trains. Emotions, stories, and memories like mine.
Union Station was incredibly busy in the years before the advent of the automobile, taking men, women, and children to places near and far, creating memories on a daily basis. Many were traveling for pleasure. But others — like African Americans riding in segregated cars during the Great Migration of the 20th century — were looking for a better life or, at least, a different life from the stifling restrictions of the Jim Crow South.
My father had an early encounter with Union Station when he joined the Navy during World War II. The station was never as busy as it was in those years, shipping young men and women like Tom Brown to bases and ultimately battlefields all across the globe.
My parents were part of the post-World War II marriage boom that begat the well-documented baby boom. Both were from the small town of Franklin, a rural farming and commercial center south of Nashville that grew in the early 20th century thanks to the connections made possible by the Interurban Railway, where Granddaddy Brown served a stint as a conductor. My father had just graduated with his engineering degree from Vanderbilt and was enrolled in a training program that led to his life-long career with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Mom, then a couple of years beyond her high school graduation, married my father on June 30, 1950, in downtown Franklin’s First Baptist Church just blocks away from their family homes. Before moving first to Columbia and soon thereafter to Cookeville for my father’s first major position with TVA, Tom and Helen Brown had a honeymoon to take.
Luckily for them, my father’s sister lived in Chicago. That meant that my parents came to Union Station — like so many honeymooners, soldiers, professionals, laborers, and families before them — and boarded a train bound for the Windy City. There’s a signboard behind the hotel check-in desk today that is from this era. I look up and see the same schedule that my parents saw as excited newlyweds, ready to begin their life’s journey together. The same schedule with those evocative Southern train names: The Azalean, The Humming Bird, Pan-American, The Georgian, Dixie Flyer.
One day in 2015 while at lunch (at Murfreesboro’s City Cafe, naturally), my father started talking about that train ride again, and he told me that he and mom left at midnight on “The Georgian.” When my father was last in Union Station, he took a picture of the train schedule. Sure enough, plain as day, you can see that the Georgian leaves Nashville at 11:59 p.m. on its way to Chicago.
I’ve heard stories my entire life about the theatre shows they saw in the city, the food they ate at the ethnic restaurants that was so foreign to their Southern palates, and their visit to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox. The facts from the trip have been filled in through the years, but the memories always originate with that train ride from Union Station. It is what makes it such a vivid part of my origin story.
Old places matter because their materials and appearances connect with human souls through emotions and memories. For some, those places may be mountains or streams. For others, buildings, neighborhoods, and streetscapes are involved.
The story of the saving of Union Station, like similar accounts of preservation successes in communities big and small, has thousands upon thousands of personal stories intertwined with the brick, stone, marble, and mortar. Stories and memories hold these places up, literally and figuratively, embedding the connections from the past into our lives today and in the future.
Everyone has an origin story, and many revolve around places. Because of the power of stories, Union Station remains today as a touchstone for innumerable individuals and families.
Emotions and stories flow through places, like the train leaving Union Station with two newlyweds bound for Chicago and a life unimagined ahead.
More to come…
NOTE: Here are other posts on More to Come examining why old places matter.
- Places and perspectives (June 22, 2020)
- Why we memorialize and remember sacred places (May 25, 2014)
- Great communities don’t remain that way by chance (October 25, 2020)
Image: Ceiling in Nashville’s Union Station by DJB