Why Do Old Places Matter?
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 longer posts on the Preservation Leadership Forum blog that explore the answers in more depth.
“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.”
“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.”
“…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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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."
“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.”
Preservation Leadership Forum is a network of preservation professionals brought together by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Forum provides and curates cutting edge content, offers online and in person networking opportunities, and brings new, diverse perspectives to the business of saving places.