July 18, 2014

Why Do Old Places Matter? Sacred

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

Throughout the world, people revere old places as sacred.

On my first visit to the Catholic pilgrimage site Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico, like many people of many faiths (or no faith at all), I was stunned into reverent silence by the palpable sense of sacredness at that old place. I don’t know if it was the altitude, the impact of coming into the dim, dusty chapel from the brilliantly sunlit skies of New Mexico, the lingering smell of incense and burning candles, the rhythmic voices of the pilgrims in prayer, the old paintings of Santos, or the sight of aluminum crutches lining the walls of the side chapel, left behind by those who believed themselves healed, but something touched me. I felt that I had come in contact with the sacred, even though I’m from a different faith.

The Sanctuario de Chimayo in New Mexico is a place of pilgrimage | Anna Rumiantseva Fine Art

People all over the world find old places like the Santuario moving, and actively seek to experience the feelings I had at that remarkable place. From the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem, the Ka’aba at Mecca, St. Peter’s Basilica, Santiago de Compostela, to the Shrine at Ise in Japan, Varanasi in India, and Mount Taylor in New Mexico, sacred places have been revered for thousands of years by many different cultures. The age-old experience of visiting a sacred place remains so meaningful today that millions of people continue the tradition of pilgrimage, travelling to sacred places that have also become tourist destinations.1

Sacred Earth, listed different factors that he thinks cause people to perceive sacredness in places—visual beauty, geophysical characteristics, building materials, light and color, sound and music, aromatic substances, the awareness of centuries of ceremonial activity, collective belief, the power of ceremonial objects or relics, and others. Gray writes, “I believe that the nature of a person's experience of a sacred site may be influenced by them having what Devereux [author of a book titled Sacred Geography] calls a "multi-mode" approach to the sites, that is, by experiencing the sites from the vantage points of both knowing and feeling, both mind and heart.2 Reading this, I was struck by how similar this explanation seems to be to my own experience at the Santuario de Chimayo—and at many other old places.3

Regardless of the source of the perception of sacredness, these places are also valued by those both inside and outside of the specific faith because of history, architecture, art, memory, identity and beauty—and broader senses of the sacred.4 In reviewing the definitions of sacred places from a behavioral, emotional, or place-anchored perspective, the psychologists Daniel Levi and Sara Kocher wrote “[s]acred places promote different types of emotional experiences. Religious tourists experience a ‘sense of God’s presence’ and respect for the spiritual values of the place, while even nonreligious visitors find sacred sites to be spiritually alive, feel a sense of peace or serenity, and find the place to be awe-inspiring.” (citations omitted).5 In short, 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,”6 and with all the other benefits that old places provide—continuity, memory, identity, and beauty—that are psychologically and sociologically beneficial.

The site of Lumpkin's jail in Shockoe Bottom, Richmond, Virginia, was a center for slave trading and is considered by many to be a hallowed place | David Herring

here are also places that are revered and treated as nearly sacred, because of their history, because of the difficult past they may represent, or because they serve as memorials or sites of conscience—places that are set apart, as Jaeger said. The World Trade Center site, Gettysburg, and the slave trading forts of western Africa, all are made sacred—are sanctified—by the loss of life or freedom that occurred there. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience encourages these sites to use their unique sense of sacredness to start discussions about difficult histories and to apply these difficult lessons of history to issues of today. Shockoe Bottom, in Richmond, Virginia, one of the largest slave-trading sites in America, was recently listed on the National Trust’s list of 11 Most Endangered Sites. Shockoe Bottom is now revered because of the newly rediscovered history of human tragedies that occurred on the site —the humiliation of being bought and sold, and separated from family, friends, and familiar places – and the resistance mounted by the people who endured these brutal acts. The very title of the National Heritage Area called Journey through Hallowed Ground conjures the sacredness of a region deemed hallowed for revolutionary patriots and the conflict and reunification of the Civil War. These sites remind us of the unique power of old places to be sites of memory, to provide a venue for the re-examination of history, and to spur activism to create a better future.

Partners for Sacred Places, the organization Bob Jaeger heads, encourages congregations of all faiths to understand the value of their historic churches and synagogues, both for the congregation and for the larger community, including recognizing these buildings as assets for the arts, food and nutrition, and a myriad of other community programs. While these historic and architecturally significant buildings may be treated as sacred—or not—by their congregations, the work of Partners reminds us that, in addition to providing the city or town where they are located a sense of history, identity and continuity, they also serve in other ways. As beautiful and architecturally distinctive places, they are often primary tourist destinations—such as St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, or Carmel Mission in California. Like sacred sites everywhere, these religious properties have a broader beneficial impact on their communities, and have the capacity to inspire and “lift people out of their lives.” And in this way alone, they fit into that broader understanding that Bob Jaeger explained to me, of sacred as places set apart by and for the community.

Most of the places I’ve noted above are well known sites, recognized as sacred by many people. But as individuals, we may have our own personal sacred sites. The landscape architect Loretta Gargan spoke to me about a view from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Farallon Islands that she considers sacred since it reminds her of family members she has loved and lost.7 For myself, I consider the country church cemetery where my mother, father, sister, aunts and uncles, and grandparents are buried, among their ancestors, and under a cluster of old cedar trees, as sacred. I imagine many old cemeteries are sacred to other people.8

Mount Taylor, in New Mexico, is considered sacred by the Pueblo of Acoma and other Native Americans | Theresa Pasqual

And of course, some old places are revered simply because of their age. Perhaps that’s why people always want to know if a place is the oldest. There’s something about the age that makes a place venerable, as Ruskin and others noted. This sacredness may resonate for people regardless of their specific faith. As my colleague Roberta Lane put it in talking to me about why old places matter, “I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but sometimes I need to commune with old places.”

When old places are thought to be sacred, the sense of sacredness can be lost or diminished because of destruction or inappropriate activities or intrusions. Their very sacredness can cause them to be targets for destruction by groups that disapprove of a different religious faith—as with the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Sites can also be fought over when they are sacred to different religions, as we see in Jerusalem, which is sacred to the three Abrahamic faiths. Gentle souls everywhere protest the violent tendencies of religious extremism that leads to destruction, and it is a tragedy for civilization when a sacred old place is destroyed out of what I will simply call misguided religious fervor.

The very popularity of some sacred places can also diminish people’s perception of a site as sacred. In a study about the perceived authenticity of sacred sites, the environmental psychologists Levi and Kocher found that while a site “…perceived as containing historic architecture that was well preserved or maintained increased the feeling of sacredness,”<sup>9</sup> sites were viewed as inauthentic when they had “modern and nonreligious features, such as new buildings, sports places, housing, administration buildings, and modern technology.”<sup>10</sup> Levi and Kocher, and many other writers, highlight common negative factors including “the presence of too many tourists and tourist-related commercial activities, and maintenance issues that showed signs of disrepair or created noise and other disruptions.”<sup>11</sup> I imagine we’ve all had an experience like the one I had at Glastonbury Tor in England—a beautiful and special site degraded by shops full of badly molded metal dragons, baskets of crystals, and mass-produced dream-catchers. Even the Santuario de Chimayo has been threatened by the possibility of increased tourism and development.

Despite the immense love and devotion that people show toward sacred places, in the professional preservation community, we tend to distance ourselves from talking directly about sacredness. Much official preservation work happens through government agencies that, following Constitutional due process and establishment clause requirements, apply objective criteria in determining whether a site viewed as sacred meets the standards for designation on the National Register of Historic Places, a state register, or under a local ordinance. At the federal level, most places that are viewed as sacred are designated under the criteria for “traditional cultural properties,” or “TCPs” as they are commonly called, which permit the consideration of sacredness from a historic perspective.<sup>12</sup> The New Mexico Supreme Court, in upholding the designation of Mount Taylor as a traditional cultural property, wrote “Although these findings undoubtedly include a religious component, because religion is part of culture and history, the findings are nonetheless based primarily on historical evidence.13

While we’re comfortable acknowledging the fact that specific communities, particularly Native Americans, ascribe sacredness to a place, and determining whether the place meets the requirements for designation as historic, we’re often uncomfortable talking about sacred places directly, or acknowledging that places may be sacred. Yet underlying the objective determination of historic are deeply-held beliefs about the place, beliefs that resonate with many people. Here’s a description of Mount Taylor from its determination of eligibility for the National Register:

“The Acoma refer to Mount Taylor as Kaweshtima, which means “a place of snow.” The mountain is central to the Pueblo’s belief system, and is a place where religious practitioners as well as the community as a whole have historically gone, and are known to go today, to perform ceremonial activities in accordance with traditional cultural practices that are important in maintaining the identity and cultural continuity of the community. The Acoma view the mountain as a living, breathing entity that encompasses all physical attributes such as the plants, animals, stone, minerals and water, as well as air, clouds and rain, which are all believed to embody spiritual elements.”14

Theresa Pasqual, the former tribal historic preservation officer of Acoma, says, “In the United States, we’re uncomfortable talking about particular beliefs. Yet to have a full and rich understanding of the sacredness of place, we have to look at the core values of the people. Our language does not have a word for ‘ownership.’ We don’t have a word for ‘preservation.’ We have a word for ‘stewardship.’ We have a word for ‘sacred.’ Perhaps for preservation to be all inclusive we need to talk about the sacred. It’s the transmission of knowledge that is important—the stories, the songs. These give us a sense of who we are as a people and give us the understanding of sacred places in the landscape. Those values are the things that bind us together. We have to get over our uncomfortable-ness of talking about those core values or we won’t have the rich understanding of place.”15

Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, an active congregation, a place for learning about religious freedom, and a National Trust Historic Site operated by the Touro Synagogue Foundation | Stanley Goldberg

Preservationists tend to be more comfortable grappling with old places as simply material objects or buildings rather than spiritual places. I was intrigued by an article in The Getty about a site in India called Sarnath, a site holy to Buddhists. Also an archaeological site, Sarnath remains a place of pilgrimage, and the article highlighted the challenges of honoring its history as a holy pilgrimage site, while also maximizing its value as a historic archaeological site. “Candles and sheets of gold leaf are often stuck onto the stupas and architectural remains, despite signs discouraging it. These gestures are ones of respect and are not intended to mar the site, yet they do pose a concern for the long-term preservation of these remains.”16 As the article highlights, while it’s important to protect the site from damage, we have to be careful as preservationists not to let our preservation instincts prevent the ongoing use of these places—it’s the ongoing use that causes people to continue to value them, and that in fact, gives them much of their power.

I understand why government agencies must apply objective criteria for what is historic. But for the rest of us, our reticence to talk about the sacredness of old places seems to cut us off from the potential power of these old places. Perhaps we should allow ourselves to give voice to the places that we really care about and consider sacred in our own way. After all, these places have the capacity to provide deep spiritual and psychological benefits, and for me, this is really what preservation is all about—making our present and future lives better.

Like many people who return to Rome, or when leaving Rome, my partner Rod and I feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to the Church of Santa Maria and the Martyrs, better known as the Pantheon, sacred to the Catholic Church, once sacred to the Romans as the temple to all the gods, and I think, sacred to architects, architectural historians, and everyday people like Rod and me who care about old places. Entering that round, domed, marbled space, aware of the deep and long history, seeing the signs of age in the wear on the stone, and looking up at that great oculus open to the sky like an enormous eye, well, it feels like a place set apart, a special place, sacred in the many ways we find old places sacred.

I’d love to hear what you think. What places do you find sacred?


1. See The Alliance of Religions and Conservation website.
2. Gray, Martin. “Sacred and Magical Places.” www.sacredsites.com. See also, Sacred Earth.
3. Note also that the factors are similar to the explanation given by architectural theorists about the experience of architecture, referred to generally as “atmospheres.” See Zumthor, Peter. Atmospheres. Birkhauser, Switzerland (2006).
4. Some congregations may not consider their building sacred, but only a meeting house for the congregation. In addition there may be conflicts between the religious beliefs and the preservation of historic buildings, such as when a congregation wishes to remove iconography that is inconsistent with religious beliefs, or demolish a building altogether.
5. Levi, Daniel and Sara Kocher. “Perception of Sacredness at Heritage Religious Sites.” Environment & Behavior 45(7) 912-930, 917 (2012).
6. Levi and Kocher, 917, citing Herzog, T., Ouellette, P., Rolens, J., & Koenigs, A. “House of worship as restorative environments.” Environment & Behavior, 42: 395-419 (2010).
7. Personal Interview. June 11, 2014.
8. Note that the National Register does not designate cemeteries – though they are definitely places “set apart.”
9. Levi and Kocher, 923.
10. Levi and Kocher, 923.
11. Levi and Kocher, 925.
12. Parker, Patricia L. and Thomas F. King. “Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties,” National Park Service, 1990, rev. 1992, 1998. Commonly referred to as Bulletin 38. For legal issues involved in the designation of historic religious buildings, see, e.g., Preserving Historic Religious Properties, Massachussetts Preservation Coalition and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. June 2005.

13. Rayellen Resources, Inc. v. New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee, slip op. 17 (NM Sup. Ct. Feb. 6, 2014).
14. Benedict, Cynthia Buttery and Erin Hudson, “Mt. Taylor Traditional Cultural Property Determination of Eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places,” February 4, 2008, 17. The idea that all aspects of Mount Taylor—plant, animal, and stone—are a living being seems to touch on other recent theories of ecology, on the vibrancy of matter, and theories of the numinous (the idea of spirits inhabiting places or things), concepts that underlie preservation philosophy, and could be explored more.
15. Interview. Telephone. June 26, 2014.
16. Cumo, James. “Holy Site, Historic Site, The Challenge of Sarnath,” The Getty, Spring 2014, J. Paul Getty Trust.

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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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