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The Future of the Past

How to Reinvent Historic Preservation

A movement that began in earnest when Penn Station was demolished more than 50 years ago can still be a force for good, but not without a change in its mission.

Architect, January 2017

My first job out of graduate school was an internship at Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. It was the early 2000s and the magazine overflowed with ads and famous bylines, thanks to the pre-internet economy and an editor-in-chief named Robert Wilson.

Wilson and the other editors saw themselves as cultural omnivores in a field that had become ossified and narrow. So they ran articles about a road trip through the Navajo Nation, the reglazing of Lever House, the glories of Las Vegas’ fake monuments. To highlight the break with old-school preservation, Wilson pointed to the cover of an issue published before he had helped relaunch the magazine in 1996. It showed a white woman in colonial garb, holding a teacup in a stuffy period room. You could almost hear the grandfather clock ticking forlornly.

Wilson and his staff were onto something. Historic preservation was starting to change. Once dominated by a rigid concern for accuracy—painting shutters the right color, repointing the bricks just so—it was becoming more flexible and self-aware. Today, preservation no longer pits itself against the forces of philistinism, hoping to rescue architectural gems one by one and mothball them against the ravages of time. The new preservation movement cares about neighborhoods as much as individual buildings, and not just gussied-up districts like the French Quarter or Old Town Alexandria. It recognizes the importance of non-buildings, too, like cemeteries, plazas, and parks. It looks beyond architecture for reasons why a place resonates, often finding them in social history.

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Photograph courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation