PastForward 2018 Preservation Conference
Stephanie K. Meeks Keynote Speech
Hello, everyone! Thank you all for joining us for PastForward 2018. It’s a pleasure to be with you this week and to be here in one of America’s most beautiful cities. As local writer Herb Caen once said, “One day if I go to heaven, I’ll look around and say, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.’” Here in this historic, thriving, diverse, and forward-looking city—so full of opportunity and creativity, so rich with possibilities and challenges—we come together again to craft the future of preservation.
In many ways, this is a bittersweet moment for me. I am stepping down as president of the Trust at the end of this year—so this is my ninth and final opportunity to open this conference, and to speak with you tonight.
We’ve all come a long way together since my first conference in Austin in 2010. And we’ve put in the miles! We’ve met in Buffalo and Spokane; Indianapolis and Savannah; Washington, D.C., and Houston; Chicago and, now, San Francisco. And thanks to the hard work, dedication, ingenuity, and passion of everyone here in this room, we have made some great strides together.
Nine Years of Accomplishment
Before I came tonight, I looked over my remarks at that first conference in Austin. They were based on weeks of conversations with preservationists on what we needed to do to move forward. And it boiled down to three things: becoming more visible, more accessible, and better funded. Nine years later, we’ve made substantial progress in each of these areas.
Our work to fully embrace our role as vocal public advocates for our history and our communities continues to grow. Through programs like National Treasures, ReUrbanism, our amazing colleagues at Main Streets and NTCIC (the National Trust Community Investment Corporation), and the great work done on the ground by all of you to save cherished, historic, and meaningful places, Americans can see, and are experiencing firsthand, the ways older places enrich our lives.
In hot markets and cold markets, downtowns and small towns, more and more communities are embracing preservation as the way forward—both in saving places that matter and addressing contemporary urban challenges like disinvestment and displacement, resilience, and sustainability.
Meanwhile, our HOPE Crew has completed more than 150 projects, trained over 1,000 students and veterans in preservation trades, performed more than $18 million of preservation work, and recruited thousands of volunteers to protect places significant to their communities.
And our African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, launched a year ago tonight, has brought new audiences to our work and generated more than $10 million in support for saving diverse places.
Today, historic preservation is a broader and bolder movement than ever before. As we work harder to tell our full story in a way that does justice to the experience of all Americans, our numbers and relevance are growing.
And, yes, we’ve even made progress in the funding department! It came down to the wire, but because everyone in this room rallied and pushed and cajoled Congress and wouldn’t take no for an answer, we were able to save the federal historic tax credit (HTC) last December.
As you all know, the impact of the HTC has been unbelievable in terms of job creation and private investment. And it has helped saved tens of thousands of historic buildings all over the country. Because of you, that success can continue.
Through the Action Fund and the remarkable, results-driven work of NTCIC and our National Main Street Center, we are bringing new donors and investors to our work every day. We have also succeeded in expanding other federal sources of revenue for saving places, from the Historic Preservation Fund to support for HBCUs and the Civil Rights Trail network.
And, with a rare spirit of bipartisanship this past year—and thanks again to all your advocacy—a parks bill has been moving through Congress that includes $6.5 billion for deferred maintenance. That’s something we’re going to keep fighting for in the Congress to come.
Looking back, I’m proud of the hard work we have put in over the past decade. More than 50 years after the National Historic Preservation Act, we have stayed true to the original vision of our movement and strengthened its foundations in community. We have helped save the best of our nation and brought Americans together. We have also continued to innovate and created the conditions for future growth and sustainability. We have come so far these past nine years. The road ahead is bright. But, of course, there is still work to do—challenges ahead of us and opportunities we cannot afford to miss.
We’re in California today—a state that has always looked to, and led us to, the future. So tonight, as I bid my farewell, I want to talk about five themes that I believe will help guide preservation over the next decade and beyond.
1. Preservation for People: Meeting Needs
The first is something we have talked about a lot recently—it was the subject of my speech in Chicago last year: putting people first. I believe the best way we continue attracting more converts to our work is by ensuring that preservation is speaking to the needs of families today.
The needs we can help fill are both prosaic and fundamental. Many neighborhoods in America are looking for more jobs and economic growth. Others, in the face of rising costs, are looking for more affordable housing opportunities.
Preservation can help with both. We can help bring more investment to cold markets and more inclusion to hot ones. Every time an abandoned warehouse becomes a grocery store, an old hotel becomes a community center, or a church is reborn as a dance studio, preservation is helping to meet the needs of today’s citizens.
But our work also speaks to deeper needs. In 1943 the psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with a theory of human motivation called the “hierarchy of needs.” After our most basic needs, like air, food, and water—and personal safety—the most powerful need felt by us, Maslow argued, is belonging. As you all know and see every day, old places speak to that need for belonging in a way that little else can.
They make the town we live in home, a place we love. They connect us not just to our neighbors, but to ourselves through our memories of these places. They also connect us to those who came before us and those who will come after. They help us understand that, while we ourselves may only be here for a few decades, our actions will echo on long after we’re gone, just as those of previous generations inform our world today. That sense of belonging, that potent sense of connection across time—these are powerful, even elemental human forces that lie at the heart of historic preservation.
And now for a shameless plug! Our colleague Tom Mayes has written eloquently about these connections in his new book, Why Old Places Matter. It’s on sale in the registration area this entire week.
As we continue to try to meet the basic needs of families through our preservation work, let’s also explore these deeper needs of connection, belonging, and meaning. Taking these seriously will help us broaden the frame of our work, from saving important buildings to preserving the intangible heritage—customs, culture, and practices—that undergird them.
On Friday morning, Milton Chen, the former executive director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, will talk to us about why preserving this intangible heritage is so critical to educating the next generation. We’ll also learn about some innovative new tools that our hosts in San Francisco have come up with to support the preservation of intangible heritage. Mike Buhler and the team at San Francisco Heritage were instrumental in creating the Legacy Business Preservation Fund. It acts as a registry and provides critical financial support for historic small businesses threatened by rising leases. And the city also has been leading the way in creating strong local cultural districts, such as the Calle 24 Latino District in Mission Hill and the Filipino and LGBT Districts in SOMA.
By working to manage change in an ever-changing city, these districts help ensure that the customs and traditions that have defined San Francisco’s past have a fair opportunity to continue to thrive.
2. Keep Innovating
These recent experiments bring me to my second theme, in the spirit of nearby Silicon Valley, and that’s innovation. As preservationists, we may focus on the past, but we are never afraid to embrace the new: new science, new technology, new research, new ideas.
There’s so much exciting work happening all over the country. From L.A. to Louisiana and Buffalo to Boise, more cities and states are realizing the potential of GIS maps to advocate for better preservation outcomes. In Annapolis, Alameda, and dozens of other places, cities are creating 3-D laser scans of historic assets—like the one you’re seeing here—both to preserve them and analyze how they may be impacted by weather or climate change.
With Google Arts and Culture, we recently created an immersive virtual reality tour of Villa Lewaro, allowing people all over the world the chance to experience Madam C. J. Walker’s remarkable estate for themselves. Take a look. As we harness new technologies like [virtual reality] and mobile apps, our horizons will continue to expand.
The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation has been conducting exciting research about the potential connection between old places and altruism. And as neuroscientists unlock the secrets of the mind, they are learning more about the biological origins of our place attachment—why we respond so strongly to certain places, especially older places.
To take just one example from the fascinating book Cognitive Architecture, our brains are particularly adept at reading the faces of other humans, which is why we tend to read faces and emotions into all kinds of other things, including the buildings around us—and why we instinctively get nervous in places that are so big that we cannot read the faces of other passers-by. In other words, we innately prefer architecture at a human scale—quite literally older, smaller, better!
3. Preservation to Scale
Speaking of which brings me to my third theme for the future: bringing preservation to scale. There’s so much good work being done to save important places, but there’re also many opportunities that are left unrealized due to lack of funding or vision. We have room to grow.
Our Research and Policy Lab has found that, while many of America’s most prominent cities are primarily composed of old and historic buildings, only a handful of these, statistically speaking, are protected by any kind of designation. In Los Angeles, nearly 40 percent of the city’s buildings date to before World War II—but, as of 2014, fewer than 3 percent were locally designated. In Chicago, 5 to 6 percent. In Philadelphia, only around 2 percent. And here in San Francisco, roughly two-thirds of the city’s buildings are prewar—which is remarkable, given the city was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. But, again, only around 2 percent of those buildings are designated as historic. Similar percentages can be found in many other American cities, So there are plenty of opportunities out there to scale our work up—beyond individual buildings to blocks and entire neighborhoods.
Cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia have taken major steps in recent years to allow for more preservation projects, and their downtowns have flourished as a result. In L.A. a partnership in 2000 between neighborhood groups, city leaders, developers, and preservationists, led by the L.A. Conservancy, resulted in a new Adaptive Reuse Ordinance that made it easier to reuse the older buildings downtown. It removed regulatory barriers like burdensome parking requirements and made it possible to repurpose historic buildings as apartments, lofts, and hotels—many of which had been vacant for decades. As a result, the population of downtown L.A. tripled, and it is now a thriving residential and commercial hub with an astonishing 14,000 new housing units in older buildings.
Philly is working on its own adaptive reuse ordinance now and has taken other important steps to encourage street life and vitality in its historic districts. For example, around the same time Los Angeles was making it easier to reuse older buildings, Philadelphia passed an ordinance that made it easier for restaurants and cafes to offer outdoor sidewalk seating. As a result, between 2001 and last year, their outdoor seating grew by a whopping 439 percent!
So there are opportunities to see more buildings reused and to bring more life to our historic downtowns. Of course, to accomplish that, we will need to embrace new partners and dive into more projects. The key to that is to work with more city officials, local advocates, developers, and property owners to modernize regulations, lift barriers, and make it easier to breathe new life into older buildings.
I’d also like to propose we work to get a historic tax credit in every state in America and seek out creative new sources of capital and investment to support preservation projects. For example, Opportunity Zones, created in last year’s tax overhaul to boost community reinvestment, could be a game-changer for our work, so long as we make the compelling case for saving and reusing historic resources in them. The important thing, to quote a famous San Franciscan, is to “think different!”
This past August, I was proud to be part of the grand reopening of a project not far from here, the historic Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey, California. Cooper-Molera has been one of our National Trust sites since 1972, and even a decade before that it was identified as a critical anchor to a more cohesive downtown Monterey.
Our friends at California State Parks and the Monterey State Park Association did an exemplary job of keeping the history and diverse culture of 19th-century California alive at the site. But it also cried out for adaptive reuse. Over the years, the 2.5-acre property has been a dance school, a beauty salon, a tavern, and a meeting place for the Boys Club of Monterey—although, I hasten to add, not at the same time! That is why, after much discussion with the local community, we pushed out of our comfort zone and developed a model for the site that we call “shared use.”
The revived Cooper-Molera now includes commercial and community-oriented uses such as an event space, restaurant, and retail outlet, along with bilingual exhibits about life in 19th-century California. We could never have ensured Cooper-Molera’s viability, let alone continued prosperity, without bringing multiple partners to the table, and saying “yes” to a dynamic new multi-use role for the building.
I especially want to recognize Doug Wiele and everyone at Foothill Partners for working with us, over seven years, to reimagine and re-envision the Cooper-Molera experience.
Now, Cooper-Molera’s story will be more broadly told. Its history can play a key role once again in downtown Monterey’s future. And we believe it can serve as an important model for some of the 15,000 house museums [that] may need a new vision of use for the next century.
4. Conservation and Climate Change
Talking about new partners brings me to my fourth theme, and one that has always been dear to my heart: finding common cause with our friends in conservation.
As many of you know, before joining the Trust, I spent nearly two decades with the Nature Conservancy. And as I said in Austin nine years ago, I believe conservation and preservation are essentially synonymous. In fact, America is unique in how our two movements have grown independently of one another—everywhere else in the world, they are considered arms of the same cause.
While we often have distinct focuses, use different tools, and have our own unique cultures, I have always been more struck by the commonalities between our two movements. Both are built on a keen appreciation of the fragility of our heritage, be it natural or manmade, and a strong desire to preserve the unique and irreplaceable. Both movements are committed to sustainable solutions and focused on helping communities take action to preserve what matters to them. And both are full of people who recognize the power of a mutually beneficial partnership. Because when we work together, amazing things can happen.
Tomorrow, award-winning author, activist, and “citizen writer” Terry Tempest-Williams will talk about the intricate connections between nature and culture and how they undergird our work. And I hope many of you got to hear Victoria Herrmann, the president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, discuss resilience in the face of accelerating climate change at our TrustLive this morning.
Sadly, this is an issue that is not going away, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, the severe effects are likely to arrive in the middle of this century. Every year now, the global thermostat gets hotter and droughts, wildfires, and storms grow more intense. The impending threat of drastic sea level rise flooding coastal communities becomes ever more dire and imminent.
It’s going to take leadership at all levels of government to address these growing impacts, and as preservationists, we have a critical role to play. According to the Department of Energy, operating buildings accounts for 41 percent of America’s energy consumption and 38 percent of its carbon emissions. So—barring a technological breakthrough that’s currently hard to imagine—recycling buildings is essential if we are going to be able to meet our carbon reduction goals and save this planet.
Studies have shown that commercial buildings built before 1920 still tend to be among the most energy efficient. And our research has found it take decades—as much as 70 years—for even the best new, LEED-certified buildings to make up the energy and environmental costs of demolition and new construction. Every time a 50,000-square-foot commercial building is demolished, the energy equivalent of 640,000 gallons of gasoline is wasted.
We have another important role to play as well. As preservationists, we are accustomed to thinking about our built environment over time. Just as we’ve looked back over centuries to place historic places in context, we now need to help communities look forward centuries and begin preparing places now for what we know is coming.
5. Keep Spreading Joy
I know climate change is troubling to think about. So let me get to my final theme, and this is an important one: connecting to the joyful aspects of our work. When I talk to preservationists across the country, I am always struck by the enormous passion that you bring to this work. That passion, and sense of fun, is contagious.
We saw it firsthand this summer with perhaps our most ambitious National Treasure marketing campaign yet—our Great American road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles along Route 66. With State Farm—our presenting sponsor—National Geographic, Airstream, and several other new partners, we sent a team of preservationists, writers, and photographers on a one-month, eight-state, 2,400-mile trip along the “Main Street of America.” Along the way, they took in sights such as the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Illinois; the famed Blue Whale of Catoosa, Oklahoma; and Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch in Oro Grande, California. They explored the history of Route 66 from the Dust Bowl to the Green Book, which informed Black travelers of safe havens on the route. They talked with thousands of residents along the road, and worked to capture stories, photos, and memories of America’s first highway. Everywhere they went, they met people who’ve fallen in love with Route 66 and the 300 communities that line it. And when they heard why we were undertaking this trip, they wanted to get involved.
Our work can be difficult and complicated, but the reason preservation continues to attract new advocates all over America is because it is also infused with joy, and love for our country and our communities.
We’ve reached California and the Pacific this evening, and my time on this road with you is coming to an end. But I will always remember—and cherish—the joy, passion, and friends I’ve made on this preservation journey with you.
Thank you for the friendship you’ve show me—and for all you’ve done, and continue to do, to save the places that matter. Thank you.