Does Historic Preservation Have An Image Problem?

In this economic climate, there is one word on everyone’s lips: jobs.  So it’s no surprise that the University of Kentucky’s 7th Annual Historic Preservation Symposium hosted by the school’s historic preservation program and the College of Design (COD) focused on just that.

Entitled “Preservation = Jobs,”  the two day event highlighted the ways in which preservation leads to job creation through economic revitalization, environmental sustainability, entrepreneurship and the building trades.  It also highlighted something else:

Historic preservation has a perception problem.

Several of the four speakers who graced the stage at Lexington’s Carnegie Center acknowledged that they were “preaching to the choir,”  and they were right. Though the symposium was free and open to the public, the audience was largely made up of historic preservation professionals (state and non-profit employees, developers, tradesmen, etc) and HP students. In other words, people who already know that historic preservation generates jobs and can bring money and investments to flagging communities.

Many people with no ties to the preservation world, however, believe that historic preservation is elitist, time -consuming, difficult to accomplish, complicated legally, expensive and a drain on resources. A lot of people truly believe that it is easier and less expensive to replace something old with something new, whether that means knocking down a building to make way for new construction or replacing historic windows, and that these activities are better for the economy than preservation.

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General Broadwater at the American College of the Building Arts. Image via ACBA

Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Colby Broadwater, the president of the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, SC, compared this perception of preservation to wine.  When he was a kid, if you wanted wine there was the red jug or the white jug.  And people didn’t mind because they didn’t know any better. But as people learned more about wine, they began demanding better quality and a larger variety. Today, you can purchase an infinite variety at a wide range of price points and the industry earns over $32 billion dollars a year in the US – all because of the educated consumer.

Therefore, the questions that the presenters and subsequent panel discussions kept coming back to over and over revolved around education.

How do we get our message out there and start correcting misconceptions?

Unsurprisingly, there were as many opinions about this quandary as there were people in attendance!

Broadwater, whose graduates have a 100% employment rate has watched Charleston rise to become Conde Naste’s number one travel destination based on seven square miles of preserved historic districts. The people who come to see old Charleston have a $3.22 billion economic impact on the city each year. Those dollars generate jobs for craftsmen like his graduates, the hospitality industry, city and state employees (taxes ya’ll!), retailers, and the list goes on and on. Numbers like that are their own advertisement.

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During the panel discussion that followed Broadwater’s presentation, Patrick Kennedy, the former Kentucky Heritage Council Restoration Project Manager, cited his belief that we are on the cusp of a second Craftsman revolution.  His evidence – growing movements to eat local, be local, and value quality and new television programs on networks like HGTV that feature craftsmen and preservation, both of which create a more educated consumer and better steward of the built environment. They are able to make smarter choices about their property and are less susceptible to the salesman (who probably doesn’t know any better himself) who shows up at the front door with a magnetic sign slapped on the side of the truck to convince homeowners that spray insulation (which can cause moisture problems in older buildings) or new windows (which aren’t necessarily more energy efficient or less expensive) or vinyl siding (which becomes brittle over time, blows away in strong winds, and can’t be maintained) will improve their house.

Joe Pierson, Executive Director of The Kentucky Trust for Historic Preservation warned that in our effort to educate and advocate for historic preservation, the message is changing too often.  “Stop piggy backing on the green movement and jobs… HP looks wimpy for doing it! We need a full-throated preservation argument!”

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Image via Ziger/Snead

Because historic preservation is an umbrella term that encompasses so many disciplines, it is easy to hop-scotch around with the message. The past three symposium themes are a perfect example: jobs, adaptive reuse, and diversity. Nevertheless, Pierson’s opinion earned a quick rebuttal from the UK COD Abell Chair, Doug Appler, who emphasized the importance of learning “all the languages and learning who to use each one with, ” whether that language be numbers (money, jobs, percentages, etc), cultural value, how HP fits into other movements (like the green movement), or arguments that find a personal connection with the business owner, politician, or homeowner with whom you are trying to educate about the benefits of preservation. It is dangerous to assume that everyone has the same value system.

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David Feldman on his porch in Merion with his cat Panther. The house needed work when he bought it in 2000, but he was impressed by the stone walls, woodwork, and fine neighborhood. It was a home worth nurturing. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer) Image via Philly.com

Learning to communicate with and build relationships with the leaders of other movements, city leaders, and entrepreneurs is the key to unhinging a lot of misconceptions about preservation, according to David Feldman, the founder of Right Sized Homes, and Todd Barman, the Senior Main Street Program Officer at The National Trust for Historic Preservation.  By building relationships with these business and community leaders, preservationists can educate about the benefits of historic preservation and work together with the leaders to create preservation positive policies and opportunities and to build stronger communities.

According to Feldman and Barman, by creating strong communities we can attract more people and more jobs to our cities. Cities with sustainable and vibrant city centers, strong communities, and historic walkable neighborhoods close to transit are the fastest growing cities in the United States, because the millennial housing trend has turned the traditional formula on its head. Rather than finding a good job and moving to the place where that job is, millennials are picking the city or neighborhood where they want to live and then finding a job.

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Image via North Carolina Main Street Center

At the top of his presentation, Feldman (whose company aims to improve the quality of life in existing urban neighborhoods through sustainable renovation and infill), outlined what he called the jobs/people paradigm, “Jobs attract people. People attract jobs.”  By working with policy makers, community leaders, and by educating the consumer we can shift the perception of preservation so that more built and cultural history can be preserved in our communities (which creates jobs), thereby creating the kinds of places people want to live (which attracts jobs) and the kind of place people want to visit (which creates even more jobs).

 

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  1. Pingback: This Week | Bricks + Mortar

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