National Register and Other Simple Tools

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on the value of the non-flashy National Register, I wanted to mention how struck I was with the book Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks and its emphasis on the importance of simple educational methods in the growth of the preservation movement. The author, Anthony C. Wood, who has been in the middle of New York City’s preservation world for several decades and who interviewed many of the early preservation leaders in the city for the book, highlights how significant various low-cost tools were in the grassroots struggle for preservation during the 1950s and 60s:

  1. the creation of a list of landmark buildings
  2. architectural tours of various neighborhoods
  3. plaques for “listed” buildings
  4. exhibits of important and/or threatened landmarks

Wood specifically shows how the “list,” begun in the 1940s by architectural historian Talbot Hamlin but only “completed” in the 1950s, became the basis for all sorts of educational efforts by the various civic and neighborhood groups fighting for the cause of preservation in those early years. Although this list focused on antebellum buildings, it formed the core of what became the Index of Architecturally Notable Structures in New York City, which later became the first New York Landmarks in 1957. Of that book, Wood notes:

Modest in appearance, mimeographed and stapled with its only visual being [a] cover drawing from Magical City by Vernon Howe Bailey, its impact was monumental. It provided the intellectual capital for many landmark public education efforts, helped guide the work of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and was the basis for Alan Burnham’s hardcover and well-illustrated book of the same title in 1963.

I know we’ve all gotten so very sophisticated (well . . . at least I have) that maybe we think anything worth doing has to be glossy and full-color and involve an “internet presence” and expensive graphics. All that is well and good if you can afford it, but it can’t replace the value of the simple tools, like getting out on the pavement with other people and looking at significant (and maybe even some less significant) buildings. Those are the kinds of grassroots connections that even a fancy website can’t give you.

Please excuse me now as I start singing “Simple Gifts” . . . .

Categories: Architectural Research, Historic Preservation, Preservation Education, Preservation People/Events

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