February 7, 2014

Why Do Old Places Matter? Beauty

Access the rest of the Why Do Old Places Matter series.

Old places are beautiful.

When asked once why old places matter, Mark McDonald, president of the Georgia Trust, exclaimed without hesitation, “Because they are beautiful!” Google the phrase “beautiful places,” and the results typically show old cities, old towns, and old buildings, along with natural places and a smattering of newer places. From the Zen gardens of Kyoto, to Bernini’s colonnade at St. Peter’s Square, to the Ruins of Windsor in Port Gibson, Miss.,—beautiful old places are treasured throughout the world as places where people experience the power of beauty.

Beauty—and the threat to beautiful places—was the driving force for many early preservation efforts. In Charleston, S.C., the people who formed the art movement known as the Charleston Renaissance sought to keep the beautiful and picturesque. As the Morris Museum of Art website states, "Alice R. H. Smith, Elizabeth O'Neill Verner, and other Charleston artists helped inspire the historic preservation movement, awakening their neighbors to the charm and significance of the city's architectural heritage, through their images. As a result, the city's architectural and cultural heritage became the focus of pioneering efforts in historic preservation.”

A sculpture placed against the landscape at Kykuit, a National Trust Historic site operated by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund | Ron Blunt

Similarly, in Texas, the San Antonio Conservation Society was created by artists who were concerned about the loss of beautiful places in their city. In places throughout the world, artists who care about beauty were—and are—often at the forefront of saving threatened places. Today Charleston and San Antonio now reap a rich harvest of benefits—including economic benefits—because they kept their beautiful old places.

Beauty remains at the heart of why people care about old places. As Marta de la Torre and Randall Mason put it in their study of the values of cultural heritage, “The many interpretations of beauty, of the sublime, of ruins, and of the quality of formal relationships considered more broadly have long been among the most important criteria for labeling things and places as heritage.”1 Or as Dan Hurlin, one of the visual artists here at the American Academy, said to me, “The primary reason to save old places is because they are beautiful, whether it’s Penn Station or Fallingwater.”

Beauty, however, as Dan hints at in using two very different places as examples, is not a simple topic. Philosophers, artists, architects, planners, and poets have explored the idea of what beauty means for more than two millennia. From Plato and Aristotle, to Vitruvius, to Burke, to Keats, to Kant, to Dave Hickey,2 people have debated, defined, re-defined, dismissed, and rediscovered the meaning of beauty. Is beauty balance and harmony? Is it proportion? Is beauty about truth? Moral goodness? Awe or transcendence? Is beauty inherent, or subjective? Is beauty only what one person perceives, or is it universal? The idea of beauty raises seemingly endless philosophical questions. Reviewing the many attempts to define beauty over the course of human civilization is a fascinating journey through history and art.3 Yet regardless of how beauty is defined, people perceive and desire beauty in their lives and in their communities. And they find beauty in old places.

The church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome, Italy, considered a masterpiece of the baroque architect Francesco Borromini and widely regarded as beautiful | Catie Newell

As I read and talk to people about beauty, a few words and phrases capture the experiences I’ve had—and that I believe other people also have—at beautiful old places: delight, exhilarating surprise, speechlessness, the language of timeless reality, echo of an ideal, sudden unexpected harmony of the body, mind and world.4

One of the many buildings in Rome that is open only for a few hours every week—on Sunday morning—is Sant’Ivo, a Baroque church designed by Francesco Borromini. The interior is light-filled and tall, and plays with scale and perspective. The form of the space is a complex of triangles and curves, convex and concave. The pilasters are grey. The walls are plain. My eyes were drawn upward, and I felt amazement and awe, and somehow, in that moment, in that lofty space, the world was a great and wonderful place. Altogether, it’s what the architect Catie Newell, a Fellow here at the Academy, described to me as “that moment of gasp.” A moment when we are stopped in our tracks and taken out of ourselves, when we feel that the universe is a big and amazing place, and that we are part of it. That may be as close to my own subjective idea about a moment of beauty as I can get.

Old places may be beautiful for their design, but sometimes they’re beautiful because of their very age—because of the mark that time has left upon them. Ruins have been the exemplars of the concept of the sublime for hundreds of years, epitomized by the famous gothic ruins of Tintern Abbey on the River Wye in Wales.

The Ruins of Windsor—monumental Corinthian columns that are all that remain of a vanished plantation house—in Port Gibson, Miss., have been a southern pilgrimage site for generations because of the palpable sense of time and loss. The same holds true for the ruins of Barboursville in Virginia, where one can see the structure of a Jeffersonian building, burnt to the ground on Christmas Day, 1884. Today, we have the proliferation of “ruin porn” sites on Facebook, Pinterest, and Flickr devoted to the evocative, gritty and sad abandoned buildings of Detroit and other cities. All of these are about beauty—the beauty to be found in old places.

As I talk to people about beauty and old places, I note that many architects and artists—like many preservationists—hesitate to talk about beauty. The hesitancy is for many reasons—the difficulty of defining what beauty is, the loaded cultural aspects of beauty, the subjective nature of people’s experience of beauty, or even the simple fact that decision-makers sometimes consider beauty frivolous or expendable.

Ruins have long been associated with the idea of the sublime and are often considered beautiful, such as Carmo Convent in Lisbon, Portugal | Tom Mayes/National Trust for Historic Preservation

As Dan suggested by mentioning Penn Station and Fallingwater, beauty is found in many different types of places, and people’s experiences of beauty often differ. Feelings and opinions about beauty also change over time. The history of preservation demonstrates a remarkable march of the ugly transforming into the beautiful. Victorian buildings were condemned as the worst expressions of a degraded era; Art Deco was considered commercial and hideous; industrial buildings were treated as having no architectural value; midcentury modern was dated. All of these were once considered ugly, and are now (generally) considered—or starting to be considered—beautiful. It’s always easier to save a place that people consider beautiful than a place—no matter how historically significant—that people think is ugly.

The many heated (to say the least) discussions I have had about my view that beauty can be found in the poured concrete walls of Brutalist buildings, highlight the fact that the field of preservation is one of the venues in which concepts of beauty and ugliness are publicly debated. Even I was surprised by the lyric beauty of a video of Parkour athletes performing amid the brightly graffiti-ed and spalling concrete of Miami Marine Stadium. A building may be considered beautiful when built, then ugly for a generation when “dated,” then beautiful again. The march goes on.

Beauty has financial as well as psychological and sociological benefits. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia published a report in 2008 that analyzed the financial benefits of beautiful places. The definition of “beautiful cities” used in the report expressly included a determination of places that were historic through listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The authors recognized that leisure visitors and permanent residents were attracted to places because of an area’s “special traits, such as proximity to the ocean, scenic views, historic districts, architectural beauty, and cultural and recreational opportunities.”5 They concluded that “beautiful cities disproportionally attracted highly educated individuals and experienced faster housing price appreciation….”6

When I mentioned Sant’Ivo above, I described a moment of beauty. These moments happen in unexpected places and at unexpected times. Yet I think it’s important for people to live in beautiful communities every day, to be surrounded by beauty, and for it to be accessible to everyone, rich and poor. It’s good for people, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about it and demand it, as many community leaders did during the City Beautiful Movement more than a century ago.

In England, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment published a series of essays on beauty in 2010 to encourage people to engage in decisions about their built environment. As one essayist wrote, “Whatever the reasons, as the 2010 Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) study People and Places suggests, beauty is fundamental to many people’s lives. Where we find beauty varies, but we do agree that appreciating it is a deeply positive experience contributing to happiness and wellbeing. This fact alone is enough to justify taking beauty more seriously. And a proper understanding of what beauty is and the purposes it may serve will show why beauty should even be integral to planning and policy.”7

The heavily graffitted interior of Miami Marine Stadium | Jason Clement/National Trust for Historic Preservation

Old places are a key aspect of what makes our communities beautiful. As Alan Powers said in Beauty: A Short History, “[Preservation] was far more powerful as a means of restoring ideas of beauty in the public realm than architecture and planning of new buildings had ever been on their own. It was also a means of engaging a citizen population in debate and decision-making about their environment.8

In an interview with Sofia Bosco from FAI, she told me that she thought Italians are incredibly talented and creative because they live in contact with beauty every day of their lives. I’m an unabashed believer in the power of beauty. I think it’s time for us not only to get comfortable talking about beauty, but to rise up and demand it in our cities, towns, and countryside, so that we can all have the experience of beauty.

President Kennedy said, “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our National past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.”


  1. De la Torre, Marta and Randall Mason, “Introduction,” Assessing the Values of Cultural Heritage, Getty Conservation Institute, 2002, 12.
  2. Hickey, Dave. The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993).
  3. For further reading, see Eco, Umberto, Ed. On Beauty, (London: Secker & Warburg, 2004); Powers, Alan. Beauty: A Short History. Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, 2010.
  4. See Hickey, Dave. The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty; Cunningham, Sarah Bainter. “The Compass Of Reason: Intellectual Interest In The Beautiful As A Mode Of Orientation.” Doctoral thesis. Vanderbilt University 2004. De Botton, Alain. The Architecture of Happiness, (London: Penguin Books, 2006); Pallasmaa, Juhani, Encounters I, Architectural Essays, Peter MacKeith, ed, (Rakennustieto Publishing, 2012).
  5. Carlino, Gerald A. and Albert Saiz, Working Paper No. 08-22, City Beautiful, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, September 2008, 3.
  6. Carlino, p. 33.
  7. Kieran, Matthew. The X factor: beauty in planning. Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, 2010.
  8. Powers, Alan. Beauty: A Short History. Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. 2010, 24.

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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.

tmayes@savingplaces.org @thompsonmayes

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