Historic Preservation: A Remembrance of First Principles (Part I)

Today’s will be the first post by new MissPres contributor Jack Elliott. It’s a paper he presented on February 5th, 2010, at the Saving Places Conference in Denver, Colorado.

As you may remember, Jack published an article last fall on the SpiroNews site provocatively titled “Why Should ‘Heritage’ Be Preserved?” I responded to the article with a few thoughts of my own in Dec 2009, Jack commented on my comments earlier this year, and since then we’ve been having a conversation behind the scenes that I think would be good to have out in public on the World Wide Web.

As you’ll note in my original post “Why Preserve,” I don’t necessarily see preservation or the current state of the preservation movement in all the same ways as Jack, but I do believe he raises some important points about why we care so deeply about historic preservation, what defines preservation, and whether preservation has become so enmeshed in the weeds that the movement has lost its original passion and soul.

I think his emphasis on the religious or spiritual dimensions of preservation and history strike a chord in Mississippi especially because in some ways (I say this as a non-native), Mississippi and other Deep South states like Louisiana have been slow to embrace the pure materialism of the Modern world. Those of us who have traveled around the state have seen firsthand than many people value their historic places not just because it’s an exceptional work of architecture (sometimes it isn’t) but because of the people and memories associated with that place.

Jack Elliott (who should not be confused with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott or the journalist Jack Elliott, also of Mississippi) comes with strong credentials to contribute to our discussion on Preservation in Mississippi: a native Mississippian, he has been a historical archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for 25 years. He’s done fieldwork in the Middle East, but lives in a Greek Revival cottage in the middle of a cow pasture in Palo Alto, Clay County. He says that history and place have been his inspiration in life. He writes regularly, with articles in the Journal of Mississippi History and Preservation Forum, among other outlets.

When I read Jack’s writing, I’m sometimes reminded of Peter’s comment about Paul to the effect that “he writes some things hard to be understood.” But just as Paul’s letters are worth the reading, Jack’s perspective on preservation, although critical at times, has weight and depth and I hope will stimulate thought and discussion.



I. Introduction

The greatest potential of historic preservation isn’t merely in temporarily saving a vast potpourri of old buildings and sites from the inexorable ravages of time. Instead, in recalling the significance of the past – we potentially dip into a great reservoir of personal and collective experience. The term significance – or meaning — recalls the symbolic dimensions of the past where words and images, good and evil, facts and mystery interplay in memory. This stands in contrast to the modern, narrower emphasis on the empirical and material.

Despite the current focus on preserving old things and information, an occasionally recalled intuition hints that preservation is about more. Richard Moe writes that historic places help us understand “who we are, where we came from, and what is the legacy that shapes. . . us.” Or a preservation film similarly tells us that historic places ask the questions: “Who are we? Where do we come from? And, Where are we going?” We might also recall the book, With Heritage So Rich (1966), a key factor in the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. Its authors warned against placing too much emphasis on merely “saving bricks and mortar,” of becoming “a cult of antiquarians”; instead they said preservation must “give a sense of orientation to our society, using structures and objects of the past to establish values of time and place.” The practice of historic preservation, then, is–or should be–a deeply and richly philosophical experience.

One would think there would be more emphasis on such questions. Yet as we spend more and more money on preservation are we encouraging reflection on them or are we simply saving bricks and mortar?

As modern society emphasizes scientific methods as the only canon of truth and education as job training, we grow increasingly incapable of understanding that which isn’t empirical. We marginalize what doesn’t increase production. The shards of the past increasingly become little more than curiosities to be collected and displayed.

Preservation implies more than merely saving old stuff. It implies a consciousness of our role within the larger context of life which includes community, the past, and nature. However, understanding these concerns requires not objective study but reflection on remembered experience—both our own and those of the greater tradition—and the ability to communicate this to the public.

II. A Remembrance

As a child I loved to explore the prairies around my home. It was an exercise in wonder. There were gullies cut into chalk beds covered with the bleached fossils of a vanished sea. Elsewhere were places where I found stone tools and pottery shards left by nameless Indians from centuries past. I couldn’t dig in my yard without finding more recent artifacts – pottery, glass, rusty nails. I discovered that my home was on the site of an extinct town known as Palo Alto. It had been founded by my ancestors in the 1840s. I still recall walking along a sunken road bed and in my mind I could see the scene from long ago, of a street lined with stores and houses and filled with mules and people.

My own experience interlaced with family, community, and history, and I found myself at the center of an interconnected web of associations. My knowledge of the past was not merely about facts and material things, but also a symbolic process through which much more was revealed. It linked my present to the past and pointed to the future. Pervading all was a sense of wonder and beauty, of something partially but never fully disclosed, of something transcendent that tantalized and inspired. Loren Eiseley pointed to similar experiences which had “led [W.H.] Hudson to glimpse eternity in some old men’s faces at Land’s End” and which had “led Thoreau to see human civilizations as toadstools sprung up in the night by solitary roads.”

When I later learned to study the past through scholarly methods, I immediately sensed that there was something more than the methods could capture. My suspicions were confirmed by the physicist, Niels Bohr, and his recollection of Kronberg Castle, home of the historical Prince Hamlet:

Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists, we believe that a castle consists only of stones and admire the way the architect puts them together….. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and the ramparts speak a different language…. everyone knows the questions Shakespeare had [Hamlet] ask, the human depths he was made to reveal….

Here history and place aren’t so much objects of study, as part of a dynamic whole in which one consciously perceives and responds to something that transcends. The “human depths” encountered bring us into the realm of the questions that lie at the basis of historic preservation: who are we, where did we come from, and where are we going?

III. First Principles

For the Greeks memory was the path to recollecting first principles, the basics of life which we take for granted. Such reflection is driven by questioning wonder that leads beyond the everydayness of life. They called this wisdom – or love of wisdom. As John Burnet pointed out in his study of Greek thought: “Wisdom is not a knowledge of many things, but the perception of the underlying unity [of seemingly unrelated facts].”

This underlying unity includes far more than material objects. It also includes the conscious processes that reveal the order of the world. This order is symbolically mediated and includes the range from empirical facts to symbols, values and qualities. Life and history are symbolically mediated to us.

1. History is symbolically mediated. History isn’t experienced directly. We can no more see five seconds into the past than we can five years. As St Augustine pointed out, our experience is always from the infinitesimally small realm we call the present – the eternal present. From this perspective the past is recalled, remembered, through complex symbolic processes. The past is effectively all that we can know, while the future is known through anticipation

2. History has a mythic dimension. The symbols of the past aren’t simply facts. They potentially have a mythic quality. By myth I don’t mean fiction. It is the symbolic form through which aspects of life are presented, questions of origins and identity, not least being the recognition that behind the order of the world lies a mystery beyond comprehension – the mystery of being – why do we exist rather than not exist?

Augustine meditatively explored the relationship between the accumulation of images from the past and the ideals available to humans. He saw the past of memory and the future of anticipation as integral parts of present experience, with the past serving as an inner teacher that provides imperfect images of more transcendent goals. This interplay of past and future, object and value, experience and symbol, was nicely captured by Robert S. Dupree: “The shards of the past are both remembrances and foreshadowings of the community that resides in human hope and the spirit, [they are] the sacrament of community.”

3. History is personally formative.

The past plays a formative role in our personal existence whether we recognize it or not. This realization is behind the traditional concerns with personal formation (whether they be Confucian learning or Greek paideia), that is the cultivation of virtues such as wisdom and pietas through exposure to insights and symbols from the past.

Because historic preservation is concerned with the symbolism of history and questions pertaining to basic principles, it would not be far off mark to say that it has a stake in encouraging these virtues. This would necessarily involve raising horizons of understanding and moral concern, effecting personal transformation through exposure to symbols from the past.

Closely related to wisdom is the virtue of pietas, or piety, which shouldn’t be confused with the way the term is often used today. A spirit of pietas is a respect for nature, other people, and the past, respect growing out of the knowledge that they represent a larger community of being to which we owe our existence and our responsibility. Richard Weaver described pietas as a “lost power or lost capacity for wonder and enchantment.”

Wisdom and pietas are concerned with transcendental values – the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. According to Freeman Tilden in his wise little book, Interpreting Our Heritage, Beauty is the key to understanding the need to preserve, because Beauty is the call of wonder, the call toward something beyond, the guide toward the True and the Good. He wrote that it is “the path along which our quest for understanding must go. Surely we deal with an essence that is beyond our powers of expression. But we can, and we do, feel its reality.”

This sketches out the key concerns of preservation. Beyond simply saving bricks and mortar it is a call to roots, to first principles, to the understanding that there are wholes in which we participate. It is a call to broader horizons of understanding and moral concern. It is the recovery of a direction—however poorly understood–that contrasts with the dominant direction of the modern world toward fragmentation and specialization. It is a call to wonder and wisdom.


Stay tuned tomorrow for the conclusion of this call to First Principles.

Categories: Historic Preservation

1 reply


  1. Leadership in “people-centered preservation” — who seems to get it and who does not | Conserving the Human Environment

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