Speech | Denver, Colorado | February 4, 2011

Why Preservation Matters

Stephanie K. Meeks Remarks at the Saving Places Conference

Thank you Ed for that introduction. And thanks to Jim and Colorado Preservation Inc. for inviting me to be here today, and for hosting this wonderful gathering. I’m honored to be here, and to share the stage with Wayne Donaldson, who’s been such a great partner and colleague over the past year, as we’ve both gotten settled in our new positions. And with Ann Pritzlaff, the Trust’s newest Colorado advisor, and one of preservation’s most creative leaders.

I’d also like to recognize Sally Hopper, our other National Trust advisor from Colorado, for her great work, and two of our emeritus trustees, Peter Grant and Dana Crawford. You are both wonderful examples of why Colorado is at the forefront of America’s preservation movement.

I grew up in Colorado, not too far from here in fact—in Loveland. As some of you may know, Loveland has a great old movie theater called the Rialto that’s listed on the National Register and dates back to the 1920s. I saw my first movie, Mary Poppins, there when I was a kid in the 60s. In the 90s, the community did a major restoration, and the theater’s still going strong.

I mention the Rialto because it’s a great example of what I want to talk about today, which is the sense of continuity and connection that preservation provides. Few pursuits have so much potential to bring us together as a people, and we need that now more than ever, with all the complicated challenges facing us.

As the current generation of preservation leaders, I believe it’s our responsibility to capitalize on this unifying power … to ask ourselves, what can we do to make preservation the sort of visible, dynamic, broadly inclusive movement we all want it to be—and need for it to be—in the next 20, 50 or 100 years?

I believe the answer to that question lies in addressing three themes, which I’m going to discuss in more detail this afternoon. I’ve heard these themes again and again in my conversations with you and your peers in historic preservation offices, Main Street organizations and other partner groups nationwide. Some of you may have heard me talk about them before, and you’ll be hearing from me about them a lot over the next year. I believe they’re crucial to moving us forward. They are:

  • The need to make preservation more accessible.
  • The need to make preservation more visible.
  • And the need to make preservation more fully funded.

I‘d like to talk a bit about each of these areas and ask for your help going forward.

But first, I want to take a step back and talk about the question that I think is implicit in all our conversations about what preservation does, what its benefits are. And that’s the question of WHY preservation matters.

Why, with so many pressing issues facing us, is it still important to preserve the past? Or, as a potential donor put it to me once, why should I give my money to you, and not a soup kitchen or homeless shelter?

I believe the answer to that question is that preservation matters for the same reason those other causes matter—because it addresses a very fundamental need.

Of course, food and shelter are the most basic needs. No one would argue with that. But just above them on Maslow’s hierarchy, and nearly as fundamental to our survival, is community. Preservation speaks directly to that need. It binds us to one another and to the past.

It reminds us that we are not the first generation of Americans to face economic hardship, environmental decline, an educational system that doesn’t always seem worthy of our children. We are not the first to wonder about the character of our political discourse, or to worry about America’s place in the world.

Our ancestors also struggled with these things. They faced great challenges and great opportunities. And they survived, and even thrived. We can too.

There’s so much wisdom and comfort in that knowledge. But to really access it, we need to remember that history is really all about imagination, not facts, to quote a great essay about preservation from an unlikely source—the British performer Stephen Fry, who is probably best known as Jeeves from the show Jeeves and Wooster.

He wrote the essay for a British preservation campaign, and in it he talks about remembering that the people who fought the Civil War and pioneered the West weren’t aliens or strangers. They were US, had we been born a little earlier.

I had my first experience of this as a child, visiting the earthen dugouts in Kansas where my family home-steaded and lived for 12 years. I’d read about what it was like to settle the prairie, but it wasn’t until I walked around in that cramped little space that I truly understood.

And I’ve told this story before, but as an aside, years later, when I was at Fairfax Hospital for the birth of my three children, I would think of my great, great, great, great grandmother, who bore four children underground, in the prairie, and think “if she could do it there, I can do it here.” It really was an inspiration and a comfort to me.

History is our collective memory, a source of wisdom and strength we can draw on when we need it. And we need it now more than ever, precisely because the challenges we face are so complicated and intractable. We can’t possibly navigate them wisely without some sense of perspective, and some help from the past. With so many forces dividing us, preservation is one of the few things that brings us together—as a nation, as communities and as people.

One of my favorite examples of this is the story of Ann Pamela Cunningham, who led the effort to save Mount Vernon in the mid-1800s. We were on the brink of Civil War, members of Congress were literally coming to blows … and right at that moment, Ann Cunningham spearheads the first national preservation campaign.

I don’t believe that was an accident. I think the Mount Vernon campaign succeeded because of the times, not in spite of them. With the nation falling apart, people in the North and the South wanted something they could rally behind, and Mount Vernon offered that. It provided a way for people to come together. Preservation can still be a unifying force. It can remind us that we all share a piece of the American story.

But we all know that’s not happening as much as it could today. People don’t understand preservation. They see it as something removed from their daily lives or not reflective of their cultural heritage. Or they get shut out by the sometimes complicated and expensive process of securing formal, legal designation for a place.

So that’s my first theme today: the need to make preservation more accessible. You and your colleagues nationwide have made remarkable progress over the past 40 years. The slide behind me shows a few of your accomplishments. Colorado has been a national leader in this work. And you are uniquely well-placed to lead the way again, in helping to build an even broader grassroots movement.

Having grown up here, I know that you can’t separate conservation and preservation in the West. Maybe you can’t anywhere, but you really can’t here. The whole Western experience--which is so much of the American experience--is defined by this incredible natural backdrop, and what it took to settle this place.

And you have so many people here—ranchers, farmers, Native Americans—who have a real, gut-level understanding of this connection between our natural and cultural resources, and a willingness to protect them both. And that’s always been true. The Colorado Historical Society was founded in 1879, just three years after Colorado officially became a state!

This is an incredible opportunity for us as preservationists, and all of you are taking advantage of it. Colorado Preservation has joined forces with local ranchers in the Southeast to document and protect archeological and cultural resources on private land.

In New Mexico, Theresa Pasqual, who is the historic preservation director for the Acoma Pueblo, spearheaded a coalition of five tribes who bravely came forward to talk about the cultural significance of Mount Taylor and the surrounding area to their people. The tribes won listing for the site on the state register of cultural properties, and now have a seat at the table for discussions about how to move forward with uranium mining on the mountain.

A place like Mount Taylor, which encompasses nearly 345,000 acres, challenges our traditional ideas about preservation. But it’s exactly the sort of project we need to consider if we’re going to build a broader movement. As Theresa Pasqual puts it, Indian people don’t have monuments or ornate mansions. They have mountains and rivers and lakes. These are their history books, the places that tell their story.

And their story is an important part of our collective American story. Just 3 percent of the 84,000 sites on the National Register represent Native Americans, African Americans, Latino and Hispanic Americans, and other diverse communities. We need to bring these communities more fully into the fold, so that the National Register better reflects America’s rich heritage.

And we need to bring more young people into our work, through programs like the Youth Summit started by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and continued so successfully by Colorado Preservation and Ann Pritzlaff.

As so often happens, your work has inspired us at the National Trust, and we are currently exploring the idea of a grassroots survey that would engage people in identifying the places that matter to them. Our objective is to celebrate 1 million places nationwide.

Our hope is that a national citizen’s survey would encourage people to notice their own history and the history of their community. And then get involved to protect it, the way the Youth Summit and Colorado Preservation’s surveys have so successfully involved the Colorado community.

Ultimately, my hope is that we can put preservation on a par with conservation when it comes to the number of people expressing concern—roughly 1 in 10 adult Americans.

To accomplish that, we will need to tackle the second theme I wanted to talk about today, which is how to make our work more visible and more widely understood. This of course is what you’ve been talking about all week—how to help people recognize and understand benefits of preservation. Both the tangible economic and environmental benefits, and the intangible benefits of a strong sense of place.

I know you’ve already heard from Don Rypkema, the expert on preservation’s economic benefits, and you’ve spent a lot of time enumerating these benefits, so I’m not going to do that here. But I do want to take a minute to acknowledge the really thoughtful, groundbreaking work of Colorado Preservation Inc. and all of you in this room.

Denver has always been on the leading edge when it comes to demonstrating the value of preservation, and the slide shows a few examples of that.

Dana Crawford and a group of investors pioneered the renovation of Larimer Square in 1965, a year before the Historic Preservation Act was passed.

LoDo was formed in 1988, and has of course become one of the nation’s foremost models of preservation’s economic benefits.

Historicorps, another effort spearheaded by Ann Pritzlaff, is demonstrating that preservation can create jobs while providing the federal agencies with some much needed preservation assistance. In its first year, the program was involved in saving 39 historic buildings in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and Alaska.

And as you heard yesterday, the National Trust is very proud and excited to be partnering with Historic Denver, Colorado Preservation Inc. and the State Historical Fund on the Emerson School project. We think the project has great potential as an historic preservation center for the city and the state—and as a national model of preservation’s benefits.

In their wide visibility and appeal, these projects can help to undercut one of the primary challenges facing preservation today: the perception that our work is elitist and exclusionary. That we are more interested in telling people what they can’t do, than in helping them find ways to save and restore the places that matter in our communities and our country.

Here again, the National Trust is hoping to build on your work through a major visibility campaign. We are compiling research and exploring a variety of ideas, and while we don’t yet know what form this campaign will take, we do know that it will address this challenge.

The video you saw a few minutes ago is a good example of the direction we expect to take. It focuses on the emotional case for our work and the ways in which preservation matters to everyone.

Our hope is that such an effort will raise the visibility of our work, and make it more widely understood. This is important in its own right, but it will also help with the third theme I wanted to discuss today: the need to make preservation more fully funded.

It’s no secret that we need to attract and maintain higher levels of funding for local, state and national preservation priorities. Popular federal programs like Preserve America and Save America’s Treasures were eliminated from the president’s 2011 budget proposal and heritage areas were cut by half. New congressional bills are targeting these programs, and other important preservation tools, such as New Markets Tax Credits and National Park Service cost share grants, for elimination.

These disturbing national trends are playing out at the state level as well. Here in Colorado, the state historical fund was so depleted by other appropriations, including the Capital Dome, there wasn’t enough money for the fall 2010 grant cycle.

Now we know government can’t do it all. And Jim and our friends at Colorado Preservation have stepped into the breach and launched the Share in the Care Colorado campaign to raise the money to fix the dome, with the hope of freeing up enough money to restore the 2011 and 2012 grant cycles. We’re all grateful to them for that.

And for using this crisis as an opportunity to try out a new philanthropy tool developed by a local company, which allows people to text donations to the dome campaign. This sort of creative fund-raising is a fantastic way to bridge the funding gap and engage the younger generation.

We can also reach out to the corporate and foundation community, which has already shown their willingness to partner. American Express recently made a $10 million commitment to engage local communities and restore historic sites through the Partners in Preservation program. Lowe’s has made major investments to restore important African American sites. Valspar Paint’s historic colors line, which is inspired by historic sites like Redstone Inn here in Colorado, raises money and visibility for preservation. And a challenge grant from the Gates Family Foundation supports the Emerson School project.

But at the same time, we need to keep pushing to maintain funding for the Historic Preservation Fund and critical programs like SAT and Preserve America. Secretary Salazar himself has acknowledged that preservation plays second fiddle to conservation in attention and funding and that even full funding for the Historic Preservation Fund wouldn’t be enough.

The Secretary grew up in the San Luis Valley, and he knows how stark the challenge is, especially on our public lands here in the West. Just 8 percent of the BLM’s 258 million acres have been surveyed, but that slim sample yielded 263,000 archeological and historic sites. Imagine how many more await discovery—or may be lost before we have a chance to discover them.

The National Trust’s public lands program, led by Barb Pahl, was created to push the BLM, Forest Service and National Park Service to live up to their duty as stewards of the cultural resources on their more than 500 million acres. We’ve had success at places like Canyon of the Ancients in Southwest Colorado and 9 Mile Canyon in Utah.

We came close to designating the Chimney Rock Archeological Area in the San Juan Forest a National Monument in 2010, although the bill ultimately didn’t make it out of the Senate. But thanks to dedicated advocacy work by the National Trust and a broad coalition of partners, including Colorado Preservation Inc., Colorado Historical Society, Crow Canyon Archeological Center, San Juan Basin Archeological Society and the University of Colorado, we have broad bi-partisan support in the community, and the clear support of Senator Bennet and Senator Udall. We’re planning to renew our outreach efforts this year and we’re optimistic about the bill’s chances.

We were also gratified by the tremendous response to the America’s Great Outdoors Listening Sessions this summer. I know that many of you took part, and more than 5,000 people took action online, through Preservationnation.org, to promote preservation as part of the program.

But we need to do more to remind Secretary Salazar of his commitment to safeguarding our cultural resources, and of the fundamental connection between conservation and preservation. So I’d like to leave all of you today with a challenge.

You are the Secretary’s constituents and fellow Coloradans, which means you are uniquely positioned to reach out to him, on behalf of all of us in the preservation movement. I hope you will keep talking to him, reminding him that the preservation community stands behind him … and assuring him that his call for greater recognition and funding will have widespread support from his constituents in the Heartland, and all of us nationwide.

We have so much to gain by bridging the divide between the conservation and preservation movements. We are all motivated by the same sense of prudent stewardship, and by the belief that some things are worth holding on to, and taking forward.

All of us know the same basic truth: that it’s up to us to keep fighting, because the next generation can only inherit the places we choose to save.

So in closing, I want to thank all of you for Colorado’s ongoing leadership in the effort to make preservation the sort of visible, dynamic, broadly inclusive movement we all know it can be.

I’m firmly convinced our best days are still ahead. And I’m proud to join you in this important work.


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

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 33 places preserving Black history.

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