May 8, 2020

Sheltering in Place

  • By: Thompson Mayes

Home. In recent months, people all over the world have been spending more time at home, sheltering in place. Many are getting to know their dwelling places more deeply, noticing details—a slant of afternoon light against a wall, the sound of the floorboards warming with the day, a bullseye at the corner of a doorframe.

Ann de Forest, the editor of Extant, the magazine of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, wrote to me about the daily walk she and her husband take in their historic neighborhood, “I'm following the progress of various gardens, the slow unfurling of the trees, reading the historical markers, layering those walks with memories from the 30 years we've lived in West Philly.”

The front porch is a quintessential element of North Carolina houses.

photo by: Nancy Pierce

View of the porch at Nina Simone's Childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina.

I am deeply grateful that I also have a long-familiar place where I can be—a place that makes me feel safe, and that is full of memories. I acknowledge that that is not true for everyone, and my heart aches for those who do not have a secure place to be. I am also thankful for those who are not at home, the people who are risking their lives to keep us healthy, fed, and safe during this extraordinary time.

At one of my talks on Why Old Places Matter, a woman in the audience raised her hand and said I had missed a reason that old places matter. She said that she was comforted by her old home as she grieved for her husband. That idea rang true for me, as I recalled my own mother’s fierce attachment to our farm after my father died.

In response to loss or threat, our homes and the familiar places of our lives can give us comfort, solace, and a sense of security. I imagine that people will remember this extraordinary time keenly, and that wherever they spent the coronavirus will take on newly profound memories.

Paul Edmondson, president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote recently about the way we can turn to historic places—whether our homes, our neighborhoods, Main Streets, or historic sites—not only for comfort and solace, but also for the perspective of history, even if we are not able to visit in person. These places provide the perspective that we have met challenges before and have come through.

I think about the places of quarantine that the National Trust has worked with partners to save over the years, from the Lazaretto in Philadelphia, the oldest surviving quarantine facility in the Western Hemisphere, built in response to the 1793 yellow fever epidemic; to Ellis Island, where the hospitals for the contagious remain unrestored; to Angel Island in California, where Asian immigrants to the United States were processed and quarantined, leaving powerful poems carved on the walls.

Photo taken in 2010 of the poetry on the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

Poetry from the walls of Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco, California.

Imagine the sense of loneliness, fear, and separation that people in these places must have felt, cut off from everything familiar and also from their families and friends, far from home. The existence of these places reminds us that we have been through quarantines and epidemics before, yet without the comfort of our homes and the technologies that keep us connected.

I had planned to be in Scotland in late March 2020 at a symposium on emotional attachments to historic places, which was obviously cancelled, and although I missed the chance to visit historic Edinburgh, I’ve continued to ponder the ideas in light of the coronavirus and its impact on historic places. One of the key themes was that heritage—historic preservation—is not static, not frozen in some specific time, not fixed forever in a statement of significance, but is a process.

Historic preservation is about that the way we ascribe meaning to historic places and is therefore ever changing. Heritage is not the buildings or landscapes; it is the meanings we give the buildings and landscapes. Those historic places of quarantine suddenly feel more significant because of what we can learn from them to help us today in our present crisis.

Ellis Island Hospital Complex

photo by: Clara Daly/

Interior of the Ellis Island Hospital Complex.

In an essay titled "The Great Empty," Michael Kimmelman wrote about places that are usually teeming with people, like Times Square in New York and the Spanish Steps in Rome, but are now vacant. Kimmelman acknowledges the feeling of beauty that comes from the absence, a sense of the sublime, akin to the feelings inspired by ruins.

Staring at the images, it seemed to me that although the photos show places empty of people, the mind nonetheless seems to fill people in—to imagine them. I think back to an earlier crisis, the AIDS epidemic, and the evocative works that the artist Steed Taylor created for an exhibit titled “Once Removed,” of photos of him with his family and friends in different places, but with the image of himself marked out with black magic marker, forcing viewers to imagine a world without him.

As I stare at these images, it dawns on me that the people we imagine missing from these places are not random unknowns, not computer-generated figures from an architectural rendering, not strangers. The people we imagine in these empty places are us.

A look at the architectural detail at Federal Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

photo by: Donnelley Marks

Architectural detail of Federal Hall in New York City.

Kimmelman wrote that these empty places “remind us that beauty requires human interaction.” It is people who give places meaning, that turn spaces into places, as the cultural geographers say, and that turn buildings and landscapes into heritage.

I’m grateful I can visit these places virtually in the present moment, but I look forward to being able to visit those historic places of quarantine in person to see what I can learn, and to return to the other old places that are presently vacant—whether Times Square, the Spanish Steps, or the old places in our communities and towns. These places meant something before the coronavirus pandemic, but now that we have seen them empty of the very people that give them meaning—ourselves—perhaps they will take on new significance.

Ghost Fleet of the Potomac, Mallows Bay

photo by: Peter Turcik, Chesapeake Conservancy

Kayaker's along the Potomac River at Mallows Bay, viewing the Ghost Fleet, one of our National Treasures.

These places are our homes no less than our apartments and houses. When we are able to return to these places of our lives, I hope that our absence will help us remember to value these old places that give us comfort and perspective, and to help those places challenged by the shutdown, whether a historic site that has lost admissions, the Main Street businesses that have been without customers, or the places like National Trust Historic Sites that we visit for solace, perspective, and comfort. The truth of it is, whether we are at our homes, or out in our world at the places we love, we are always sheltering in place.

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Tom Mayes, chief legal officer and general counsel, has worked on the full range of National Trust legal issues since he joined the National Trust in 1986. He received the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation in 2013 and is the author of the book Why Old Places Matter. @thompsonmayes

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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