January 22, 2014

Why Do Old Places Matter? Civic, State, National, and Universal Identity

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Old places embody our civic, state, and national, and universal identity.

Jamestown. Mount Vernon. Independence Hall. Old South Meetinghouse. Valley Forge. The Missions of California. Fort McHenry. The Alamo. Sutter’s Mill. Harpers Ferry. Fort Sumter. Gettysburg. Appomattox. Little Bighorn. Pearl Harbor. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The very recitation of these names conjures the long timeline of American history. These places—and countless others—embody the history and principles of the United States. For generations, these places have inspired Americans to learn our uniquely American story.

Just as these places embody an American identity, old places throughout the world embody civic, state, national, and universal identity. Stone cottages with thatched roofs embody Irishness. English country houses and cozy pubs stand as symbols of something particularly English. Temples and Zen gardens symbolize Japan. The pyramids of Egypt and the Parthenon in Greece are valued throughout the world as symbols of our common humanity. Old places help form, maintain, and transform civic identity—whether it’s a city, county, state, region, country, or even the world.

Americans—and people everywhere—care deeply about the old places that embody their shared identity, whether national, civic or more broadly cultural. They speak forcefully and eloquently about these places when they are threatened. From the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the Virginia countryside where the Battle of the Wilderness took place, people strive to save these places because they matter to our collective sense of who we are. As the Civil War Trust notes on its website: “Can you imagine a fast-food restaurant in the middle of Arlington Cemetery? Can you imagine paving over the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial? Can you imagine destroying the remaining original copies of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution? Of course not. But with each square foot of battlefield land that is consumed, whole chapters of America’s history are being ripped out of the book of our national memory, and an irreplaceable piece of our important heritage is lost forever.”

The Washington Monument reflects the national identity of the United States | Michael Pollock

In America, we’ve had policies to preserve places of national identity for more than 75 years, and patriotism and national identity have been key drivers of movements to save old places.1 But we aren’t as single-minded or as uncritical about our civic or national identity as we may have once been. As I listen to people talk about the reasons that old places matter, I noticed that, although many people mentioned national identity and patriotism as a reason that old places matter, others are reticent to refer to national identity—or patriotism—as a reason for saving old places. This reticence seems to reflect what American academic and literary critic Edward Said described as the “… vexed issue of nationalism and national identity, of how memories of the past are shaped in accordance with a certain notion of what “we” or, for that matter, “they” really are.2

What is this “vexed” issue of national identity, and how do we responsibly talk about places that reflect our national—or other identities? Many of the places we first deemed worthy of preservation were saved to celebrate and promote an idea of a shared American heritage—essentially an American identity. The Daughters of the American Revolution, the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, and many other state or local organizations saved old places to promote American ideals. These places inspired people about American history and American institutions, while also acting to form an American identity. The places we sought to preserve represented what we valued from the past. At the same time they also represented what those who saved these places aspired for America to be.

Countless writers and scholars have criticized the selective choice of what was preserved as part of our national identity, by whom, and for what purpose.3 As someone who has cared about old places for most of my life, I am painfully aware of the exclusive character of many early preservation efforts, and the conscious attempts to use old places to tell only a selective view of American history—essentially to define American identity in a way that left people or issues out. Slavery and enslaved people were not acknowledged at plantation houses. Native Americans were treated as an inhuman enemy at frontier sites. The presence of Irish, German, and Eastern European people was not recognized at a host of places that they built, and where they lived and worked. For many years, mill workers, farmers, mechanics, and shopkeepers were not visible in the old places that were preserved as sites of our national identity.

The process of redefining who “we” are is continuous, and today our old places increasingly reflect a more diverse history. Lowell, a textile mill town in Massachusetts, has been a National Park since 1978. Steel mills are preserved in Pittsburgh. The reality of slavery is acknowledged at plantations. In my view, it is critically important for people who care about old places to acknowledge the sometime exclusive history of the preservation movement, and to continue to push to have all the stories included in the places that define who we are as Americans. 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.

Edward Relph, a geographer who pioneered theories about place, noted when he reflected back on his early work, “I realize that place and sense of place, which I then represented as mostly positive, have some very ugly aspects. They can, for instance, be the basis for exclusionary practices, for parochialism, and for xenophobia. There is ample evidence of this in such things as NIMBY attitudes, gated communities, and, more dramatically, the political fragmentation and ethnic cleansing that beset parts of Europe and Africa and that are sometimes justified by appeals to place identity.”4

Bitter disputes over old places are a testament to how much these places matter. They matter. Sometimes they matter so much that their meaning may lead to war and to the destruction, as in times of conflict, of sites that symbolize a specific identity. A famous example is the destruction of Old Town Warsaw during World War II, or more recently, sites in the Bosnian war, when “…factions attacked the cultural heritage of other groups, acts that both violated the laws and customs of war and served to destroy these groups' collective memory, both internally and to the outside world.”5

Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, epitomizes the history and identity of the United States for generations of Americans | iStock

Nationalism and national identity have a dark history. One of the surprises of Rome for me is the prominent presence of buildings from the Fascist era. Mussolini made dramatic changes to the city plan and built hundreds of buildings, many of which consciously sought to tie the Fascist regime with the image of Imperial Rome. The buildings are often monumental, stripped-down versions of Classical buildings—a distinctive style developed to create a new national identity, just as Americans built Greek and Roman style buildings to tie our nation to the republican and democratic ideals of the classical world. The Fascist identity Mussolini sought to create was utterly discredited with the defeat of the Axis in World War II. But the buildings remain and are actively used today. People differ about whether and how the meaning and history of these buildings should be acknowledged and recognized.

Reynold Reynolds, a filmmaker and a Fellow here at the American Academy, shared with me a film he made about the demolition of the Palace of the Republic in Berlin, the former home of the People’s Assembly of East Germany. The Palace was originally built in 1973-74 on the site of the Berliner Schloss, (which was heavily damaged by bombs in WWII and destroyed by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1950), perhaps the most symbolically powerful site in Berlin. As a representation of the ideals of the GDR, the Palace was without question a symbol of a national identity. But it was a national identity that was no longer valued when Germany was reunited in 1990. Despite the fact that the building represented a discredited regime, Reynolds’ project shows that many Berliners viewed the demolition as the erasure of their history, and the loss of the opportunity for that history to be acknowledged and transformed. As Reynolds said, “… thousands of citizens demonstrated against the planned demolition and hoped the building would be protected against historical censorship, but alas, one day, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the Palace completely disappeared.”6

The continued presence of old places permits the acknowledgement of history—and former identities—and the transformation of identity over time—the necessary and continuous critical revision of identity, informed by the past. Monticello now doesn’t hide the reality of Jefferson’s life with the enslaved people he owned, although that was not always the case. The enslaved people and their descendants—both literal and metaphorical—are now visible and present at the site. Monticello is the venue for understanding this history, which leads to a deeper understanding of our national identity.

The Coliseum in Rome, a place that gives visitors a palpable sense of time | Peter Krogh

I have heard people say that identity is different in America than in European countries, which have a more homogenous culture. As French historian Pierre Nora stated, “In the United States, for example, a country of plural memories and diverse traditions, historiography is more pragmatic. Different interpretations of the Revolution and the Civil War do not threaten the American tradition because, in some sense, no such thing exists….”7Although I don’t necessarily agree with Nora’s statement, as I think about old places that represent an American national identity, it seems to me to be very American to voice critiques about that identity and to express diverse viewpoints about what the place means. Our old places of national identity can be the forum for this very American expression of views. What could be more patriotic than that?

Recently, I spoke with Jukka Jokilehto, who has been developing ideas about universal cultural value for the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), about the fraught nature of identity. Jokilehto shared a critically important idea during our conversation. Places that reflect universal human values also reflect the diversity of cultural identities. In other words, places that are important to all of us arise from places that are important to some of us. When I spoke with Sofia Bosco, the Rome director of Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), an Italian preservation organization, about old places in Italy, she clearly didn’t think about old places in Italy only as Italian. The FAI website features people all over the world talking about why places in Italy are important to them. As she told me: “Italy is a public museum of the history of everyone...the physical identity of a country is more than a library or a warehouse. It’s there for you, for everyone.”

Old places embody our ever-changing shared identities and serve as tangible sites for transforming identity. While we should guard against the dangers of nationalism, these old places, through the diversity of identities, reflect our universal humanity.

I’d love to hear what you think about the “vexed issues” of shared identity, national identity, and old places.


  1. The Historic Sites Act of 1935 expressly declared a national policy “to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States.” 16 U.S.C. 461.
  2. Said, Edward W., “Invention, Memory, and Place,” Critical Inquiry, 26:2, 177 (2000).
  3. See, e.g., Barthel, Diane, Historic Preservation Collective Memory and Historical Identity, New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 1996; Page, Max and Randall Mason, Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States, New York and London: Routlege 2004.
  4. Relph, Edward C. “Reflections on Place and Placelessness," Enviroment & Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, (1996).
  5. Supple, Shannon, “Memory Slain: Recovering Cultural Heritage in Post-war Bosnia” InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 1(2) (2005).
  6. Falkner, Gerhard and Reynold Reynolds, The Last Day of the Republic, Nurnberg: Starfruit Publications, 2011] http://artstudioreynolds.com/artworks/city-films/. See also, Ladd, Brian, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.
  7. Nora, Pierre, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire.” Representations 26, 10 (1989).

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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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