May 5, 2015

How to Save a Place: Why Do Old Places Matter?

[Preservation Tips & Tools] How to Save a Place: Why Do Old Places Matter? from PreservationNation

Happy Preservation Month, everyone! To mark this annual celebration of all things place-based, we at the National Trust are presenting a special toolkit series called How to Save a Place. Consider it your preservation primer -- a one-stop shop for people who love places but aren’t sure how to save them.

The great news is, you don’t have to go it alone. Many valuable resources, materials, and people are available to help. Over the next four weeks, we’ll walk you through the key elements of saving a place, from where to start to who to contact, and every step in between. So whether you’re a historic homeowner, local nonprofit, or simply an active citizen, you’ll find something here to help you out.

Ready to take on this rewarding and exciting challenge? Terrific! Let’s start with a philosophical discussion -- namely, why do old places matter? And why should we do our best to save them?

In a constantly changing world, old places give us the sense that we’re part of a continuum -- a critical piece of our psychological and emotional health.

Old places help us remember. They trigger existing memories, add details or specificity, and arouse curiosity about embedded memories -- those that the place itself holds and that people might not be aware of.

Individual Identity
Old places serve as reference points for measuring, refreshing, and recalibrating our sense of self over time. They are literally the landmarks of our identity.

Civic, State, National, and Universal Identity
Old places embody our civic, state, national, and universal identity. They serve as critical venues where we deepen and challenge our understanding of history and personal meaning.

Kykuit, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Tarrytown, New York.

Old places make our communities beautiful and distinctive, and the places themselves are often beautiful too, sometimes because of their very age. Moreover, the history of preservation demonstrates a remarkable march of the ugly transforming into the beautiful.

We feel the excitement of experiencing the place where something actually happened, from pockmarked ramparts of Fort Sumter where the Civil War started, to the quiet rooms of Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Simply put, old places tell us about the past.

We love and revere old buildings for their art and craftsmanship -- and for the way they make us feel. Works of architecture are works of art. Like painting, music, or literature, these buildings help us understand our capacities as humans.

The religious and the non-religious alike treasure old places that are considered sacred. Why? Because they help us meditate, reflect, and be at peace. There are also places revered and treated as nearly sacred because of their history, because of the difficult past they may represent, or because they serve as memorials or sites of conscience.

Older places spur the imagination, spark creativity, and support the creative economy. They lend authenticity to their neighborhoods and inspire the people who use them.

Without realizing it, we absorb information about prior ways of life from the places people inhabited -- how people worked, how they played, how they lived and died. And in learning about others from the past, we learn about ourselves.

Skylight at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, Washington.

In trying to envision a more environmentally sustainable world, we hope for a world where we are more appreciative of the communities, buildings, and things that already exist; and we also hope to continue to use them, so that we’re not constantly tearing buildings down and throwing things away.

Old places connect us to our ancestors and our ancestors connect us to old places, giving us a sense of belonging and continuity.

Old places foster community by giving people a sense of shared identity through landmarks, history, memory, and stories; by having community-centric attributes such as distinctive character and walkability; and by serving as communal places where people meet and gather.

Old places support a sound, sustainable, and vibrant economy that also fulfills deeper human needs of continuity, identity, belonging, and beauty -- which brings us right back to where we started.

Now that we’ve successfully preached to the choir, let’s all get out there and start sharing those old and historic places that matter in our own lives! Stay tuned in the weeks ahead for more information on how to save a place.

Adapted from Thompson Mayes’ Why Do Old Places Matter? Blog Series from Preservation Leadership Forum. For a deeper discussion on why old places matter, check out the Spring 2015 issue of Forum Journal (free and available to all). Special thanks to Priya Chhaya for her editorial support.

Julia Rocchi is the senior director of digital marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.


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