Speech | Washington, DC | November 4, 2015

PastForward 2015 Preservation Conference

Stephanie K. Meeks Keynote Speech

Remarks by Stephanie Meeks

Thank you. And thank you all for being here. It’s great to be with you.

At the conference this week, and over the next twelve months, we will be focused on the future of preservation. So, in the spirit of PastForward, I wanted to spend a few minutes today reflecting on the past fifty years of our work, and the road ahead. A look to the past, if you will, before we go forward.

Over that time, we have seen and experienced profound transformations in the ways families live, work, and play – transformations that once would have seemed like science fiction. In my lifetime, we have gone from a time when color televisions were rare, to a time when everyone here is effectively carrying one in their pocket. And a lot of this change has been a good thing.

Stephanie Meeks Keynote Speech - PastForward 2015

photo by: David Keith Photography

In a time of enormous upheaval, we have worked to preserve the connections and the history that make us who we are. We have helped protect what is good in our communities, and even the idea of community itself.

And when you take a step back and look at what we’ve accomplished, it truly is remarkable.

We don’t often get the luxury of reflection. From day to day, we are either deep in the trenches or on to the next battle.

We all know how fighting to save places can be all-consuming, and sometimes we lose our sense of the big picture. Because we have all known the agony of defeat. We have all felt the sting of loss, those places we could not save.

But as I said earlier, when you stop and think about it, it is really amazing how far we have come. Together, we have made an incredible difference over the past five decades.

Consider the time before the National Preservation Act was passed.

We may enjoy reflecting back at the time of Mad Men now, but in the 1960’s, the past was not in vogue. America looked to the future.

Let’s go back to those years…Civil rights and Vietnam were in the news. The Astrodome had just opened. The Beach Boys had “Good Vibrations.” Bob Dylan was plugged in. Twiggy was the “face of 1966.”

Everywhere from southern towns to college campuses to JFK’s Camelot, there was a sense of accelerating change. A feeling that America was finally experiencing a welcome liberation from the strictures of the past.

The Space Race was in full swing – the launch of Sputnik had galvanized the United States to focus on the future.

And so Mercury and Gemini were in the news, with Apollo soon to come. Shows like The Jetsons and Star Trek – which premiered the same year as the Act – captured the national imagination.

And this cultural embrace of Tomorrowland extended well past Disney.

Interstate highway construction and suburbanization were in full flower. And historic buildings and neighborhoods were under constant threat of demolition to make way for capital-P Progress – usually in the form of more, wider, and faster expressways and burgeoning sprawl.

In cities, grassroots activists like Jane Jacobs fought comprehensive and often Utopian “urban renewal” that replaced vibrant city blocks with monolithic, single-use development.

The razing of New York City’s beloved Penn Station in 1964, to make way for Madison Square Garden, became a potent symbol of loss that galvanized preservationists all over America to fight for the historic places that matter in their communities.

That same year, a small group of preservationists met over the summer to plan a concerted push for a new federal preservation law.

They were building on high-level discussions that took place at a preservation conference at Colonial Williamsburg the previous fall. A conference much like this one, co-sponsored by the National Trust.

Eventually, this group formed the nucleus of a Special Committee on Historic Preservation.

They toured Europe to determine best practices.

They identified potential shepherds of a new preservation law in Congress.

And, ultimately, they contributed to the remarkable volume, With Heritage So Rich. As I’m sure many of you know, this evocative and eclectic 1966 book plays a critical role in our preservation story.

The essays, poetry, photography, and policy recommendations included within jumpstarted our movement in its present incarnation.

It laid the foundation for the signing of the National Historic Preservation Act on October 15th, 1966, which officially enshrined into federal law the values, tools, and benefits of saving places.

That very same day also saw the signing of the Department of Transportation Act, which included another of our fundamental tools – Section 4(f).

What ensued thereafter, as author Stewart Brand put it in his book How Buildings Learn, was, “a quiet, populist, conservative, victorious revolution.”

Preservation, one Yale scholar wrote, became, “the only mass popular movement to affect critically the course of architecture in our century.”

Writing in 1990, James Marston Fitch declared that “preservation is now seen as being in the forefront of urban regeneration, often accomplishing what the urban-renewal programs of twenty and thirty years ago so dismally failed to do.”

Today, that is more true than ever. Across the country, fifteen million Americans and counting are now taking action in their communities to save places they love.

Preservation now has a seat at the table in discussions of urban planning, zoning policy, and municipal growth.

We have shown – and can empirically verify – that instead of being an obstacle to a vibrant and sustainable future, putting our historic fabric to work for communities is the key to attaining it.

And we have managed to save a lot of special places.

Since our journey today began in the 1960’s, let me borrow a page from another early-sixties icon, Rod Serling. Let’s enter another dimension – a dimension of sound and sight and mind. The Twilight Zone.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we had not come together fifty years ago, and the National Historic Preservation Act and Section 4(f) had never passed into law. How would America be different today?

We can start with a neighborhood that was under threat at the time of the Act: The Vieux Carre, the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Today the Quarter is an iconic American landmark and the biggest tourist destination in the state, bringing in nearly ten million visitors a year.

But, at the time, there were plans to build an elevated riverfront expressway right along the waterfront.

This proposed highway would have separated the Quarter from the Mississippi River and utterly and irreversibly destroyed the “Nawlins” charm and historic character that brings so many to the city.

But preservationists spoke out. They organized as the Louisiana Council for the Vieux Carre. And they pushed back.

In one of the very first tests of the Act’s Section 106 review, the newly-created Advisory Council on Historic Preservation examined the project and recommended against it. As a result, the Secretary of Transportation ended the proposed highway plan in 1969.

But what if there had been no Preservation Act? Instead of laissez les bon temps rouler in the French Quarter, nothing would be rolling at all. It would be endless traffic jams and no tourists.

Or consider Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner during the War of 1812.

This National Monument and Historic Shrine was once threatened by an elevated highway project that would have hidden the fort from public view.

If there had been no 4(f) provision, instead of taking in the place that gave us our National Anthem, Americans looking out over the sweep of Baltimore Harbor would see…a bypass.

The answer to “O Say Can You See” would be “No! Not really!”

There are literally thousands of other examples. In communities all across America, local preservation groups and state historic preservation offices, the vanguard of our work, have employed these laws to make our lives and homes richer.

The iconic U.S. Customs House in Philadelphia. The TWA terminal at JFK International Airport. Chicano Park in San Diego. Cemeteries of enslaved people in Georgia. Wagon trails in Wyoming. Coast guard lighthouses across the Atlantic Coast.

These 1966 laws helped protect and preserve iconic bridges all across America, from Chattanooga to Chatham, Mass., to Great Falls, Montana.

All over the country – from Atlanta to Lincoln to right here in DC – they helped safeguard historic neighborhoods, and prevented them from being converted into giant highway cloverleaves.

These laws have protected traditional cultural sites along the Missouri and Colorado Rivers, on the slopes of Mount Shasta, and across the islands of Guam, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

They helped defend the sacred places where Americans perished in the line of duty, from the fields of Manassas to the waters of Pearl Harbor.

They have helped save everything from Nine Mile Canyon in Utah, home to prehistoric drawings that are thousands of years old, to the Space Shuttles.

They have even transformed the city we are in today.

And let’s not forget the National Register. Because of the Register, also part of the 1966 Act, more than 90,000 beloved historic places all over America have been recognized and embraced as essential elements of our national story, including places in every single county.

Places like the Old Slater Mill in Pawtucket, the first successful cotton-spinning factory in the United States.

Seneca Falls Historic District, where nineteenth-century suffragists came together and first called for the right to vote.

And the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, one of the crucibles of the civil rights movement, now a national symbol of our struggle to be a more just, tolerant, and compassionate nation.

All of this, and so much more, remains part of our Great American landscape today, because of our preservation journey these past fifty years.

Stephanie Meeks Keynote Speech - PastForward 2015

photo by: David Keith Photography

We don’t live in a Twilight Zone of mega-highways and strip malls. We live in communities that have retained much more of their historic character, human dimensions, and natural beauty because of our work.

And that journey continues. We are on the ground, all over America, right now, working to save more special places.

Some of you may have arrived to the conference by way of Union Station. A magnificent Beaux Arts masterpiece, just two blocks from the U.S. Capitol, which first opened its doors in 1907.

Union Station sees nearly 100,000 people pass through it every single day, on the way to trains, buses, taxis, and bikes. It remains a key commuter hub, and an integral part of the DC landscape, today because preservationists fought to save it over the years.

And with help and input from groups like the National Trust, the DC Preservation League, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, the steward of this historic place, the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, has completed the first-ever preservation plan for the Station.

It is being renovated so that it can accommodate the transportation needs of today’s DC, while maintaining its historic character.

And there’s more good work being done. In California, local and state activists are working to save historic post offices in places like Berkeley and Napa. In San Juan, groups like Para del Naturaleza are restoring the historic aqueduct of the Piedras River.

Not far from here, a coalition that includes Preservation Virginia, Scenic Virginia, the Chesapeake Conservancy, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the James River Association, among others, are still hard at work to protect the historic viewshed of the James River from a proposed power line project.

This coalition has been making their case with a strong community engagement campaign called Down to the Wire. Let’s take a look.

[Excerpt of Down To The Wire Campaign Video]

All of this happened, and is happening today, because preservationists came together with a plan for action.

Now, as we begin the fiftieth anniversary year of the National Historic Preservation Act, it is our turn.

We have a responsibility – to all those who came before us and all those who will come after – to lay the groundwork for the next fifty years.

Historic preservation is now correctly seen as a powerful tool for managing change, spurring jobs, promoting health and well-being, and contributing to the betterment of our communities.

But at the same time, we have new opportunities, and challenges, that demand innovative responses.

Instead of being hollowed out by suburban flight and a lack of investment, America’s cities are now experiencing a renaissance, with the large and diverse Millennial generation taking the lead.

This provides us an excellent opportunity to put the power and potential of older buildings to work for communities all over America.

At our PreservationURBAN Trust Live, sponsored by the 1772 Foundation, Mary Rowe of the Municipal Arts Society – one of New York City’s most distinguished preservation organizations – will lead us in a discussion of how we can make this happen.

And as part of the PreservationVOICES TrustLive, sponsored by our colleagues at the National Park Service, we will hear from Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to fight poverty and challenge racial discrimination and disparities in our society.

As the historian David McCullough once put it, “History is no longer a spotlight. We are turning up the stagelights to show the entire cast.”

One of our sites doing amazing work in this regard is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. Let me show you a brief clip from a video they put together recently.

[Excerpt from Lower East Side Tenement Museum video to be available when full recording is released]

I wish Morris Vogel would run for president! And he’s so right. Our work is that much more powerful when we connect it to the issues of today.

With that in mind, I hope many of you got to hear the fascinating and illuminating conversations at our Diversity Summit just this morning.

To keep moving forward, we must also keep innovating. Last year we talked about some of the new technological and financial tools reshaping our field.

This week, we are proud to have Deputy Assistant Secretary Marion Mollegen McFadden, of Housing and Urban Development, keynote our PreservationINNOVATION TrustLive.

Our federal agencies play a fundamental role in the stewardship of our nation’s heritage, and are often on the frontlines of innovation in our work – from making historic buildings energy efficient, to preparing for the impacts of climate change -– an issue whose ramifications on all of our work will increase in the years to come.

We are in the year 2015 now. NASA has found water on Mars. Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat are how we communicate. Instead of Good Vibrations, Taylor Swift has Bad Blood. The face of fashion is Lupita Nyong’o. Our march for civil rights continues.

And we are coming into our own and flowering as a movement. We are adopting new tools and gaining new allies.

We are already seeing strong dividends from leveraging the power of social media networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to engage more people.

I hope everyone has had the chance to visit our brand new website at SavingPlaces.Org which launched last month.

It has been streamlined, revamped, and updated with hundreds of striking photographs from our collections, to facilitate more online engagement.

And you may also have seen our This Place Matters van. It is part of our re-launch of this exciting and growing social media campaign.

Over the past summer, we convened a number of what you might call “non-traditional” preservationists together at Kykuit in Tarrytown and the University of Massachusetts.

We gathered developers, business owners, environmentalists, social justice activists, artists, academics – people whose work often involves historic places, but who do not always think of themselves as one of us.

We asked them where they thought preservation needs to go moving forward, and we found that much of the discussions revolved around the same concepts. You can see them behind me.

I have talked about all of these ideas today, and we will keep talking about them at our TrustLives and breakout sessions this week, and in the year ahead.

And there’s one more important idea that’s not up there. But it ran through everything else we talked about at these meetings. And it runs through all of our preservation work, each and every day.

As a thought exercise, we took the transcripts of the UMass and Kykuit meetings, as well the articles in our Forum Journal they produced, and ran them through Wordle, which makes those word clouds where the words used most frequently are shown by size. This is it here.

As you can see, we spent as much time talking about people as we did about preservation. And that, I believe, is the key to our future.

Of course the preservationists of fifty years ago thought about people. They framed their work – our work – by explaining the impact places have on our spiritual, social, and economic well-being.

But, as you all know, our work often focuses on the built environment and landscapes. As we move forward for the next fifty years, I believe we need to keep expanding our horizons. As we keep working to save historic buildings, let’s also think beyond them...to culture, and communities, and people.

We tend to think of our successes in terms of places saved. And that is so important. But just as important – perhaps even more important – are why these places matter – the many lives we touch because of our hard work.

Let me give you an example from one of our local sites, President Lincoln’s Cottage.

Earlier this year, a class from Cross Country Middle School in Baltimore had scheduled a field trip to visit the cottage, but it had to be canceled due to the civil unrest following the death of Freddie Gray.

The great staff at President Lincoln’s Cottage worked with Cross Country to reschedule the trip, and customize a program for the class. Here’s what the teacher wrote afterwards:

“The job you did…of getting the students to see beyond the myth of Lincoln and start understanding the man and the stress he bore during the war was outstanding…”

“Many of our students…said they were enlightened by the discussion in which you helped them connect the turbulence surrounding the Freddie Gray situation to similar disturbances and unrest during Lincoln’s administration.”

“They began to see History as a fluid continuum of which they are a part, and in which they play a real role – rather than a static thing already dead and gone and without relevance for them.”

Ultimately, stories like this, are why we do what we do.

Stephanie Meeks Keynote Speech - PastForward 2015

photo by: David Keith Photography

The children who are inspired to study history or enter public service.

The couple who can still visit that special place where they met, fifty years ago, and share it with their grandchildren.

The aspiring artist, musician, or chef who can pursue her passion in a thriving historic neighborhood, full of new bars, restaurants, and galleries.

All of you here today are a part of that story. And it is now time – over the next week and in the months to come – for us to write the next chapter.

Preservation has come such a long way over the past fifty years, and our neighborhoods and cities are so much more livable and lovable because of what we have achieved.

Let’s build on this tremendous foundation, and craft a vibrant, dynamic preservation movement for the 21st century.

Let’s improve and expand the Preservation Act and 4(f). Let’s digitize the National Register and state surveys and make them more accessible.

Let’s enhance the federal historic tax credit, and see a state credit passed in every state in the land. Let’s get the Historic Preservation Fund re-enacted and fully funded.

Let’s help make preservation the standard in all our communities, and demolition always the option of last resort. Let’s lower the barriers to entry to join in our work, and embrace positive change.

And let’s rekindle our grassroots energy, and get more Americans engaged in our work than ever before. Because we are enriched by every single person with us. We are stronger, fuller, more dynamic, and more representative of America.

That is the way forward. Bringing people together. Listening to and telling their stories. Daring to innovate and spreading our wings.

That is how we will keep saving the places that matter, and why I am so excited about the future we are making together.

Because the future of preservation…is now. Thank you.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places.
SavingPlaces.org | @savingplaces

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