January 9, 2017

Why Do Old Places Matter?

Why Do Old Places Matter Santa Sabina in Rome Interior

photo by: Nick Thompson/Flickr/CC BY NC SA 2.0

Santa Sabina in Rome, Italy.

In 2013 Tom Mayes, deputy general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was selected as a winner of the Rome Prize, which is awarded to about 30 emerging artists and scholars who represent the highest standard of excellence.

A lifelong preservationist, Mayes is the principal lawyer for legal matters relating to the National Trust’s 27 historic sites and for historic property real estate transactions, and has expertise in architectural and technical preservation issues, collections management, preservation easements, the Americans with Disabilities Act and historic shipwrecks.

When he isn’t working on legal complexities, Mayes considers the role historic places play in everyday life. This prestigious award sent Mayes to Rome on a six-month tour of discovery where he sought to answer the question: Why Do Old Places Matter? This photo essay presents Mayes’ answers along with links to that longer posts that explore the answers in more depth.

Find Out More

Tom Mayes’ popular Why Old Places Matter series is now available as Why Old Places Matter, the only book that explores the reasons that old places matter to people. Although people often feel very deeply about the old places of their lives, they don’t have the words to express why. This book brings these ideas together in evocative language and with illustrative images for a broad audience. Order your copy today.

Cover of Why Do Old Places Matter by Tom Mayes
Why Do Old Places Matter Mt. Zion Rosenwald School Exterior

Mt. Zion Rosenwald School (1925) was the first public school for African-American students in the Mars Bluff community.


“In a world that is constantly changing, old places provide people with a sense of being part of a continuum that is necessary for them to be psychologically and emotionally healthy.”

Why Do Old Places Matter Gate at Ramah Cemetery

Cemetery gate at Ramah Presbyterian Church in Huntersville, North Carolina.


“Old places help us remember. Old places… trigger memories people already have, give specificity to memories, and arouse curiosity about memories people don’t yet know.”

Why Do Old Places Matter Flowers on a Farm

The cedar trees on this pasture at Mayes' family farm creates a sense of individual identity.

Individual Identity

“…[O]ld places…serve as reference points for measuring, refreshing, and recalibrating our identity over time. They are literally the landmarks of our identity.”

Why Do Old Places Matter Exterior of the U.S. Capitol Building

photo by: Architect of the Capitol

Exterior of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Civic, State, National, and Universal Identity

“Americans argue vociferously about what our country is, who it is for, and what it means. These debates help reshape and re-form and—hopefully—deepen our understanding of history and identity. The old places that embody our identity are the perfect venues for those discussions and debates.”

Why Do Old Places Matter View of Kykuit and Three Pools

Kykuit, a Historic Site of the National Trust in Tarrytown, New York.


“The history of preservation demonstrates a remarkable march of the ugly transforming into the beautiful.”

Why Do Old Places Matter Statue of Robert E. Lee and His Horse

photo by: Duncan Kendall

The State of Virginia monument at Gettysburg depicts General Robert E. Lee astride his favorite horse, Traveller.


“What is it about old places that give them this unique capacity to ‘convey, embody, or stimulate a relation or reaction’ to history? … [P]eople feel the excitement of experiencing the place where something actually happened, from the shimmering watery fortress of Fort Sumter where the Civil War started, to the quiet rooms of Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts.”

Why Do Old Places Matter Exterior of Farnsworth House

photo by: Carol Highsmith

Farnsworth House in Chicago.


“These special places, these works of architecture, are works of art. Like painting, music or literature, these buildings help us understand our capacities as humans.”

Why Do Old Places Matter Acoma Sky City, San Esteban del Rey Mission Church

Acoma Sky City, which includes San Esteban del Rey Mission Church, is a Historic Site of the National Trust.


“…old places that are considered sacred are treasured by the religious and the non-religious. Why? Because these old places provide people with ‘restorative benefits that foster meditation and reflection and … a sense of peace or serenity,’ and with all the other benefits that old places provide—continuity, memory, identity, and beauty—that are psychologically and sociologically beneficial.”

Why Do Old Places Matter Interior of Studio A on Music Row a National Treasure

photo by: Rick Smith

The interior of Studio A on Music Row, a National Treasure in Nashville, Tennessee.


“Just as people once traveled on pilgrimages to visit the relics of saints, they now go to visit the places where creative people worked, dreamt and struggled. From Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, Donald Judd’s loft building in Manhattan, Jackson Pollock’s house on Long Island, to William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, these places attract people who want to connect with the creative power of art and artists.”

Altar at the Kwai Tai Temple in Mendocino, Ca.

Kwan Tai Temple in Mendocino, California.


“Without exactly paying attention to it, we also absorb information about people and how they lived—what they ate, how they worked, how they made money, how they lost money, how they coupled, raised their families, and lived and died. And in learning about others from the past, we learn about ourselves.”

Why Do Old Places Matter Wing Luke Museum Skylight Detail

The Wing Luke Museum was awarded the 2014 Trustees Emeritus Award for Excellence in the Stewardship of Historic Sites.


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

Why Do Old Places Matter Tour of the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street

Visitors engage with an educator during a tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a National Trust Historic Site at 97 Orchard Street.


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

Why Do Old Places Matter Athens, Georgia, Street Life at Night

Old places, such as this historic neighborhood in Athens, Georgia, foster community.


“Old places foster community by giving people a sense of shared identity through landmarks, history, memory, and stories, by having the attributes that foster community, such as distinctive character and walkability, and by serving as shared places where people meet and gather.”

Why Do Old Places Matter Interior of the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville

photo by: Historic Tennessee Theatre Association

The interior of the Tennessee Threatre in Knoxville, a historic tax credit project.


“Old places support a sound, sustainable and vibrant economy that also fulfills deeper human needs of continuity, identity, belonging, and beauty.”

Thompson Mayes, Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel

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.

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