May 21, 2013

Looking for Answers: Tom Mayes and the 2013 Rome Prize

Access the entire Why Do Old Places Matter series.

It’s always exciting to interview a preservation leader about to embark on an incredible journey. Last month, the American Academy in Rome announced Tom Mayes (the deputy general counsel for the National Trust) as one of the 31 recipients of the 2013 annual Rome Prize. The American Academy in Rome awards the Rome Prize to a select group of artists and scholars in a variety of disciplines. The winners, announced in the spring, are invited to Rome to pursue their work in an atmosphere conducive to intellectual and artistic freedom, interdisciplinary exchange, and innovation. Mayes says that he was flabbergasted, thrilled, deeply honored and humbled when he heard of his award.

Starting in the fall of 2013 Mayes will live and work in Rome for six months where he will use the resources of the American Academy in Rome, Italy, and Europe to research a particular preservation project. Specifically Mayes plans to look at the primary reasons for historic preservation and develop freshly stated reasons for historic preservation—in one place—that can be freely and widely used.

Thompson Mayes, Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel

Forum: What made you want to apply for the Rome Prize?

Mayes: I’ve wanted to explore the purposes of historic preservation ever since I wrote a chapter in A Richer Heritage a decade ago. The American Academy in Rome, with its community of fellows in the arts and humanities, seemed the perfect place to explore this topic. Rome seemed the perfect place to test the ideas—people have consciously preserved places there for 2000 years. And the Rome Prize would give me the time to dedicate to the project.

Forum: What are you researching while you are in Rome?

Mayes: Currently, there is no single source that explains the primary reasons for historic preservation, either online or in print. While statements exist in textbooks, statutes, and articles, the most compelling explanation of preservation continues to be With Heritage So Rich, which was published in 1966. In the 40 years since, the reasons for historic preservation have greatly expanded beyond the earlier rationales of commemoration and architecture to include community revitalization, economic development, sustainability, and others. Yet all of the reasons have never been gathered, tested, and stated together in evocative and concise language. My proposal is to gather the primary reasons for historic preservation, to test them against the preservation laboratory of Rome and the broader perspectives of the Fellows at the American Academy, and to re-state them together in evocative language.

The reexamination and restatement of the reasons for historic preservation is absolutely necessary for the growth of the movement. As I stated in A Richer Heritage, the basic ethic of historic preservation—that preservation is good because those values of time and place are essential, necessary, and life-giving—must grow. Until the general public believes in preservation as a basic value, preservation policy and preservation laws will continue to be outweighed by other priorities. Rationales that resonated with the public 50 years ago do not resonate in the same way with people today.

Basically, I want to show that living with, in, and around old places is demonstrably good for people.

Forum: What does this award mean to you, the National Trust, and preservation?

Mayes: I hope that by re-exploring the underlying purposes of historic preservation, and widely distributing the ideas, I will spur everyone who cares about historic places to be able to say why saving old places is important. Fundamentally, the project is about building public support for historic preservation. The Trust, as the leading nonprofit national preservation organization, is the ideal organization to facilitate a discussion of why preserve.

Forum: What are some of the perks of this fellowship in Rome?

Mayes: First, living in Rome. I’ve never been, and am looking forward to visiting iconic sites I’ve hoped to visit most of my life—such as the Pantheon. Second, living in a community of artists, writers, conservationists, classicists, composers, and historians. The Fellows take their meals together, discussion is encouraged, and guests are invited to talk. I’m looking forward to talking about these ideas. And I hear the food is delicious.

Adriana Gallegos, public affairs/blogger outreach manager at the National Trust for Historic Preservation also contributed to this post.

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

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