Speech | Chicago, Illinois | November 15, 2017

PastForward 2017 Preservation Conference

Stephanie K. Meeks Keynote Speech

Good evening and thanks for joining us for PastForward 2017. It is a pleasure to be here with you in Chicago, one of America’s most historic cities.

This was once the center of American industry. The nexus of the railroads and the meeting place of east and west. The home of Hull House and the birthplace of skyscrapers. The “City of the Big Shoulders,” as Carl Sandburg put it. “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing, so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” Sarah Bernhardt called it “the pulse of America.” And so it is.

There’s no better place for us to come together this year to build the future of preservation.

A Year of Action

At our conference last year, we celebrated a golden anniversary: 50 years of achievement since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act.

We spent much of 2016 thinking about the strengths and challenges of our profession and where we want to go as a movement. And ultimately, in all our conversations, we kept hearing the same thing. Let’s bring preservation back to the people. Instead of talking about our tools, let’s talk about the positive impact our work has for families and communities. Rather than just focus on the storied history of a place, let’s talk about what that history means for the present day and how historic places can continue to play an important role in the future.

I’m proud to say that, in 2017, we have hit the ground running. This has been a year of action. All over the country, your efforts have given preservation new energy and purpose. Just take a look at this great video put together by Bonnie McDonald and her team at Landmarks Illinois. It encapsulates so much of this spirit and what we are all trying to do.

People saving places for people.

That’s it in a nutshell. That’s why we put in the long hours, hold the meetings, go the extra mile. And it’s having an impact. Your hard work is demonstrating all the ways that preservation can solve problems for today’s communities and enrich lives. By providing affordable homes and economic opportunities. By spurring investment and job creation. By promoting diversity, inclusion, and a much-needed dialogue with our history. By filling our days with awe and beauty. And by bringing people together.

Hidden Figures

I was inspired by the movie Hidden Figures this past year, about the mathematicians who propelled the space program forward—but who never really got the credit they deserved. John Glenn and Neil Armstrong are in the history books, but they only got to space and back because of Katherine Johnson, who quietly worked wonders with her pencil and slide rule.

I thought about that movie a lot this year as I traveled around the country because it shows the important work we still have to do to tell the full and inclusive story of America—something that became only more clear after the hateful rallies in Charlottesville this summer, which I’ll come back to in a few minutes. But also, because I meet and hear about hidden figures in our field all the time.

The best part of my job is getting the chance to see firsthand all the ways our preservation colleagues make a difference in their communities. Just take a look at this beautiful theater we are in. You may have never heard the name Beatrice T. Spachner, but she’s a big reason the auditorium still thrives today.

When this theater opened its doors in 1889, it was one of the first-ever multi-use building projects, and the tallest and grandest building in Chicago at the time. Booker T. Washington rallied Chicago to embrace racial equality here. In 1912, on this stage, Theodore Roosevelt declared: “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” But after struggling through much of the Depression, the auditorium closed its doors in 1941.

And then along came Beatrice. She was a Chicago violinist, and for seven years—from 1960 to 1967—she spearheaded the multi-million-dollar fundraising campaign that restored the auditorium to its former glory. By all accounts, she almost single-handedly brought this vibrant center of Chicago arts back to life. As a result, everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin—and the Doors to the Dead—played the auditorium in the late 1960s. And today it remains a vibrant jewel of the Second City, home to the Joffrey Ballet, and a beating heart of 21st century Chicago.

This room today is filled with Beatrice Spachners. Today I want to talk about some of the hidden figures in our profession, and the profound difference they—all of you—are making. People saving places for people.

Affordable Housing

Let me start with some of the great work being done here in Chicago.

Like too many of our big cities, the cost of living is rising here, and it’s getting harder and harder for families to find affordable housing. But there are buildings all over this city that could help meet this need. And preservationists are helping to bring them back to life. A case in point is the historic Rosenwald Apartments in the Bronzeville section of Chicago.

This complex of more than 400 affordable apartment units was first built in 1929 by Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck—the same philanthropist who funded Rosenwald Schools across the South. He built them to serve the housing needs of the growing black middle class in Chicago during the years of the Great Migration. Among the famous Rosenwald residents at one time were Quincy Jones, Nat King Cole, Joe Lewis, and Lorraine Hansberry.

In 1973 the buildings were sold to the city and they continued to provide low-income and Section 8 housing for another quarter century. Then, in 1999, the apartments were vacated with no plans for rehabilitation. That might still be the case if not for Bobbie Johnson, a nurse and local committeewoman who knew the Rosenwald Apartments could be so much more. She created the Save the Rosenwald Coalition to encourage the revitalization and reuse of the complex, and would tell anyone who would listen about its proud history and continued potential. One friend said: Bobbie “was truly extraordinary. She was relentless, pushy, funny, determined, and knew how to celebrate life.” Sounds like a lot of people I know right here in this auditorium!

And she started something. Landmarks Illinois included the Rosenwald Apartments on its 2002 Most Endangered Places list. The fight lasted for decades. Sadly, Bobbie passed away in 2012, and never got to see her hard work come to fruition. But it did. The preservation and community groups she inspired kept at it, and as a result, the Rosenwald Apartments have undergone a complete restoration, reopening last September.

The new complex includes 120 discounted units for Chicago-area seniors and 105 additional affordable housing units. It also features the Bobbie Johnson Community Room, a testament to her dedication. We all know about the challenges too many urban residents face today. With rising rents and local businesses giving way to upscale chain stores, it’s getting harder and harder to get by.

But, as our favorite preservation economist Don Rypkema pointed out, there are more than 3 million vacant older and historic housing units in America that could be reemployed to mitigate these trends. Our work can help to keep our neighborhoods affordable and inclusive. And in fact, it must.

ReUrbanism and NTCIC

This is one of the central focuses of our new ReUrbanism initiative at the Trust. We are working to put our money where our mouth is—to help raise financing for worthwhile community revitalization projects that can help make a difference.

Since 2000, led by John Leith-Tetrault and now Merrill Hoopengardner, our for-profit subsidiary, the National Trust Community Investment Corporation, or NTCIC, has helped to raise and invest more than $1 billion in tax credit financing for over a hundred worthy real estate projects.

Among them, to take just one example, is the Pythian Temple in downtown New Orleans. It began life in 1908 as home to the Knights of Pythias, an African American fraternal organization. For decades, it served as a center of black culture and commerce. Its theater and rooftop garden hosted dances and performances with the likes of Louis Armstrong. NTCIC provided financing when the Pythian recently underwent a $44 million mixed-use renovation into affordable apartments, office space, and a food market. And now it provides a home for people like Dodie Smith-Simmons. She was one of the original Freedom Riders in the '60s, and her husband played jazz with some of the original Pythian band. When Dodie lost her old affordable apartment, the Pythian was there to provide a new home and new hope.

And Dodie is not alone. To see that same hope playing out in communities across America, just take a walk down Main Street. For 40 years now, the local groups that comprise the Main Street network have been showing us how to really make America great again: through historic preservation and attracting new investment to our historic downtowns. Time and again, led by Patrice Frey and her team at the National Main Street Center, they have revitalized town centers by capitalizing on the distinctive features that make them unique and using historic assets to forge a strong foundation for growth.

The strategy has worked wonders at every scale: from small towns like Marion, Virginia, and Mount Vernon, Iowa, to commercial corridors of major cities, like the Shaw and H Street corridors of Washington, D.C. Along the way, they have brought new life to communities all over America. And each one has an amazing story. To take just one example, let’s spend a few minutes with Katie Meyer and Renaissance Covington, one of the 2017 winners of the Great American Main Street award.

In Covington and across the country, Main Streets are using old and historic buildings to power an economic revival. And—from the Acme Seed and Feed in Nashville; to Antigone Books in Tuscon; Wanda’s Hair Salon in Washington, D.C.; to Pufferbellies toy store in Staunton, Virginia—local businesses in historic buildings keep our neighborhoods lively and distinctive and provide important opportunities for local residents.

Creating Opportunities

Of course, it’s not just about small businesses and entrepreneurship. Preservation also creates opportunities in other ways.

Let me introduce you to Dorell Boyd, an alumnus of our HOPE Crew program who now works for the National Park Service. After graduating from high school in Manassas, Virginia, in 2014, Dorell joined the Citizens Conservation Corps and took part in two HOPE Crew projects at Prince William Forest Park in Triangle, Virginia. Because of his exemplary work, Dorell was hired by the National Park Service as a full-time employee at Prince William Forest Park—our first HOPE crew member to join the service.

Here he is in his own words.

We were proud to honor Dorell at an event celebrating our 100th HOPE Crew project at Fort Monroe this summer. (I should say that those 100 projects in three years all came about because of HOPE Crew’s secret weapon, the tireless Monica Rhodes.) And now Dorell will have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Bob Stanton, who is here tonight: the first African American director of the National Park Service and this year’s Louise du Pont Crowninshield award winner, whom we will honor this Friday.

Improving Lives: Play/Creativity

As you all know, it feels great to take part in saving a place that matters. And there’s so much power in saving the history that tells your story and the story of your community. Just ask Senya Lubisich and Eloy Zarate, a couple in San Gabriel, California, who led the fight to preserve the one-of-a-kind La Laguna Playground. Known as “Dragon Park” or “Dinosaur Park” by the locals, La Laguna was designed by Mexican-born artist Benjamin Dominguez in 1965. It is filled with sculptures of whimsical sea creatures that have delighted generations of children and adults.

Senya says: “Dinosaur Park is a creative experience without rival for our children. You really do feel like you’ve crossed into another world.”

Eloy says: “I do not have a memory of my childhood without La Laguna. I’ve been going there since I was one year old.”

When San Gabriel considered demolishing La Laguna in 2006 to build a more traditional playground in its place, Senya and Eloy helped form the Friends of La Laguna to save Dominguez’ creation. They rounded up over 3,000 signatures from local residents, applied for grants to protect the playground, and enlisted the aid of the L.A. Conservancy. Now, thanks to their efforts, this last work of an underappreciated Chicano artist is on the local register of historic places. And kids will be able to slide along the La Laguna sea serpent, and play among the dinosaurs, for years to come.

Confederate Memorials

And that is so important. Because historic places, and especially places that tell our story, inspire us. They spur creativity, empathy, and joy. Studies even suggest they can help us live longer and help make us kinder to one another. Our friends at the Richard Driehaus Foundation have been supporting some exciting research in these areas.

At a time when our nation is divided against itself in so many ways, old places create a sense of community that is more vital than ever. The vision of one nation—united by a common history and joined in common destiny—seems as contested as it’s ever been in over a century. We have all seen how places can promote understanding and bring people, even those who disagree on everything else, together as Americans. This year, sadly, we have also seen how they can divide us. And after what we saw in Charlottesville this year, we have a responsibility to help our country confront the complex and difficult chapters of our history and to help communities move forward in an informed and inclusive way.

When it comes to Confederate memorials, there are no easy answers. These monuments reflect a difficult past that still shapes our present. That these memorials have become rallying points for bigots and white supremacists also shows how much work we still have to do to tell the story of America in a truly representative and inclusive way. Nonetheless, the fate of these memorials must be the beginning of a necessary conversation, and not its end.

Leading the way on this front is Sheffield Hale and the team at the Atlanta History Center. All across the South, Sheffield has been working to bring communities together, encourage honest and respectful debate, and help us confront the history and meaning of these memorials with clear eyes. As he put it so well, “The past has much to teach us about who we are, and where we are—if we let it.”

That’s our job as preservationists: to help our country reflect on how our past continues to shape our present and our future. We help manage change over time—so we can all move forward together and so we can all feel like we’re part of one American community.

I don’t need to tell you this work is hard. But it is critical to our common future. At historic sites all over the country—places like Belle Grove, Montpelier, Oatlands, Cliveden, and Drayton Hall—preservationists are working to tell the full stories of those who were enslaved there. At Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, we are working with the local community to create a memorial park that does justice to the families broken and lives bartered in the antebellum slave trade. And from Pauli Murray’s house in Durham, to Madam C. J. Walker’s home of Villa Lewaro and Sweet Auburn in Atlanta, to Motown in Detroit, we are celebrating and highlighting stories of American achievement that have too often gone overlooked.

Over the past few months, we at the Trust have been working on a bold plan to step forward, to help carry the national narrative beyond Confederate heritage and accelerate our own commitment to celebrating the contributions of all our people. So tonight, I am pleased to announce the launch of the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

With this effort, we build upon four decades of work to preserve the African American story, and we seek to at least double our own efforts celebrating the many overlooked contributions of African Americans over the next five years. And we also will develop a matching grant fund to help local organizations advance their own efforts to protect places significant to their communities. Already, several major foundations have committed more than $3.5 million to launch this effort, and we are working to have more join us in the weeks and months to come.

To aid us in the implementation of the fund, we have created an advisory council that includes some of our most penetrating thinkers on these issues. The council will be chaired by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, who has been an instrumental champion of this idea. And it will include people like Bob Stanton, Skip Gates, and Lonnie Bunch. The council includes not just preservationists but historians and social justice advocates, artists, journalists and filmmakers, lawyers and scholars. Let’s hear now from an early champion of the action fund, the accomplished actress, singer, stage director, and preservationist, Phylicia Rashad.

I am also happy to announce that the action fund will be led by our colleague Brent Leggs, who has guided our work to preserve outstanding examples of African American history at places such as Villa Lewaro; Hinchliffe Stadium; Joe Frazier’s Gym; and the A. G. Gaston Motel, now part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

Through the action fund, we hope to highlight more stories of achievement like some of the ones I have mentioned tonight. Hidden figures like Katherine Johnson—who shouldn’t be hidden any longer. That goes for all the hidden figures in our national story, regardless of race, color, gender, or sexual orientation. As we embark on this action fund, the National Trust will continue its efforts to tell the stories of all of these people.

We aim to inspire a new generation of preservationists. To help make an important and lasting contribution to the cultural landscape of our country. To build a stronger and more united America. People, saving places, for people. For all of our people. Thank you.


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

Join the movement to save and sustain historic African American places. The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund will help every American see themselves, their history, and their potential in our collective story and national cultural landscape.

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