Historic Preservation: A Remembrance of First Principles, part II

In Part I, I sketched 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, although we are individuals, we are part of larger communities within society, nature, history, and the Transcendent Mystery that we call God. Preservation 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.

IV. Three Contradictions

I note a tension between the implied goals of historic preservation and the direction of the modern world. This tension highlights both the potential and the problems within preservation which I’ll summarize as three contradictions:

A. Historic preservation asserts the value of history while the modern trend has been to reject the past in favor of an all important present.
Beginning with the Enlightenment and afterward, the West has often demonized the past as a place of darkness—something to be repudiated, rather than recognized as the source of human experience and insight. The call for “building new by destroying the past” echoes through modern history from Urban Renewal to Le Corbusier to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, all marching toward garish utopias dominated by stark, nightmarish forms.

B. Historic preservation implicitly asserts a non-positivistic interpretation of history while modern education and disciplines are dominated by positivistic methods.
Modern movements assert that the only legitimate knowledge is based on science. We call this positivism or scientism. The question of significance comprehends and transcends positivism because scientific methods say nothing about the meaning of history and place.

C. While historic preservation implicitly asserts the significance of history, it is supported by institutions based on a poor understanding of this concern which in practice tend to subvert it. This is because its professionals and regulations are heavily influenced by the dominant positivism. Questions that transcend positivistic methods are incomprehensible and consequently irrelevant. The focus shifts to that which can be comprehended, namely surveying, and recording and maintaining, and promoting, and funding. Foundational concerns — if anyone has the audacity to raise them—are regarded as a potential embarrassment and even a threat, as I have discovered.

I once attempted to recall basic principles in an introduction to our state’s comprehensive preservation plan. I assumed that minimally it might generate constructive dialogue. The reception however was less than positive. I was told that we were only required to follow the regs; we were not required to think about them. In other words, preservationists are “not paid to think.” This implies that the ideal is to act uncritically–and therefore irresponsibly.

With this prohibition against thinking, the task of recovering the symbolic depths of experience on which preservation is based was deemed irrelevant. I suspect that such a view is far too common. If so, the public outreach of preservation does little toward raising levels of understanding. As Jacques Barzun has observed, although there is “more and more cultural stuff to house, classify, docket, consult, and teach… culture…is declining. It is doing so virtually in proportion as the various cultural endeavors—all this collecting and exhibiting and performing and encouraging—grow and spread with well-meant public and private support.”

V. Conclusion

Historically the preservation and dissemination of culture have been concerned with wisdom — raising the horizons of understanding and moral concern. However, today these goals are hardly acknowledged or comprehended as the result of modern society’s fixation on empirical methods and specialized knowledge for the sake of producing information and commodities. It seems almost obvious that preservation with its implicit focus on matters of meaning and its recognition of the value of the past should find its ultimate potential in recalling those first principles of life that are so often marginalized if not forgotten.

This potential can only be realized through maintaining a constant dialogue with and critical appropriation of insights from the past. Preservationists should be able to awaken pietas, an awareness of our relationship to history, place, and community and their formative role in our lives and understanding. The landscape and its relic features should not be perceived as merely matter but as a source of beauty and wonder. We must learn, following Niels Bohr, that “the walls and ramparts [can] speak a different language” that can reveal “human depths”: in particular they point to the foundational questions of preservation: who are we, where did we come from, and where are we going?

(I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Stephen Slimp, University of West Alabama, who read the draft of this essay and made thoughtful suggestions.)

Categories: Historic Preservation

3 replies

  1. Amen! Beautifully written Jack!

    My experience is that a common thread among successful preservation projects (primarily those that require at least some degree of private fund raising) is that an individual or group of individuals have found this passion – this piety – and IT is the force that drives them to attend countless public govt. meetings trying to convince their elected officials to hear their pleas (or sometimes to get elected themselves), or to chain themselves to the historic trees, or to donate funds or help in fund raisers… These folks typically know the history and the stories embodied in these structures and they understand that the loss of these structures is also a loss of those memories — or at least the tangible evidence of those memories… Communities appear lost when their historic fabric disappears.

    Some of the recent public funding has gone a long way in encouraging some of these groups by providing seed money to further their cause. The enabling of these local champions is a very important part of a successful preservation project. Perhaps there could be more education — more partnership – between the professional preservationists – and the local supporters. The surveying and documenting and interpreting of the architecture helps enhance and fuel this passion… The education and guidance of the appropriate methods of restoration helps further the cause. The power to preserve our important places — to convince communities of that importance — and to enable the successful outcome — lies in the combining of these forces… The honoring of what everyone brings to the table — and the complete sharing of information and resources — documentation, case studies, examples, available resources, history, stories, money, etc…. — is necessary to preserve (and restore) our tangible heritage.


  2. Jack, this essay makes me think of a quote from the introduction of David Lowenthall’s The Past is a Foreign Country (p. xvii):

    “Preservation has deepened our knowledge of the past but dampened creative use of it. Specialists learn more than ever about our central biblical and classical traditions, but most people now lack an informed appreciation of them. Our precursors identified with a unitary antiquity whose fragmented vestiges became models for their own creations. Our own more numerous and exotic pasts, prized as vestiges, are divested of the iconographic meanings they once embodied. It is no longer the presence of the past that speaks to us, but its pastness. Now a foreign country with a booming tourist trade, the past has undergone the usual consequences of popularity. The more it is appreciated for its own sake, the less real or relevant it becomes.”

    While acknowledging the truth of this statement and also of many of your points, I also believe that our whole civilization has turned its back on the deeper meanings, perhaps as a result of the heterogeneous society we live in, in favor of quick sound bites. This blog has been my way of trying to struggle with how to communicate the history and meaning in everything that is around us, but it’s a small effort and perhaps only appeals to those already in tune with those deeper meanings.


  3. Well said, both Lowenthal and Malvaney. Modern society has “turned its back on the deeper meanings. . . in favor of quick sound bites” . . . and other trivia, I might add.

    It has been my vision that preservation serve as a prophetic voice to call the public back to a deeper appreciation of its lived environment. However, this will not come easily. It will require much study, thought, and dialogue. And, I must admit to being rather discouraged in this regard. The “professional” environment that I have encountered has not been receptive to thought and dialogue. Indeed I have encountered obstacle after obstacle thrown up to prevent speaking and publishing on subjects that might question the rather superficial status quo. I must say that this blog is one ray of light in a rather dark firmament.



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