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Preservation Needs a Vocabulary Reset

By Clem Labine

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July 11, 2009 at 4:05 pm, Andy says: “Preservation is a group of ideas whose time came – yesterday. Now it’s time to move on.”

You find a lot of crazy comments on a website. So my first reaction to the comment from "Andy" was to dismiss it out of hand – especially since I don't agree with Andy's opinion. But as I thought about it, I realized Andy had summarized an attitude that is gaining momentum in our culture. And I find the attitude alarming!

The contentions of this essay are: (a) The humane values inherent in the preservation movement are essential to building a sustainable, civil society; (b) In our rapidly changing economy, many – especially the young – are becoming indifferent to historic preservation; (c) To advance the cause of preservation, we have to sell it in a different way than we did a decade ago. In other words, we need a vocabulary reset.

I come to these conclusions reluctantly. Ever since I started the Old-House Journal in 1973, the public's taste for traditional architecture and historic preservation has been increasing year by year. In 1973, for example, "Victorian" was a synonym for bad taste. But now "Victorian" is a sell word used by virtually every bed & breakfast across America. House plans sold today by mail-order design services feature homes based almost 100 percent on traditional forms. Organizations like The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America have been growing in membership and influence. These – and other similar trends of the past four decades – had led me to believe the desire for preservation and traditional architecture would grow inexorably with each passing year. But I fear I was wrong.

It's the 1960s All Over Again
Lately I've felt like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, in which Murray's character, Phil Connors, finds himself living the same day over and over again. Several recent occurrences have given me the sickening feeling that I may be living the same decades over again. Assumptions that I believed had become mainstream wisdom are now being challenged on all sides; we're fighting battles I thought had been won long ago.

My complacency about preservation's advances was first undone by developments in my home borough of Brooklyn. With infill construction, there's now a growing disdain for making accommodations to historic context. This tendency is promoted by – believe it or not – the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, which advocates "clear differentiation" in additions and new construction in historic neighborhoods. Here are some other straws in the wind:

– A recent issue of The New York Times headlined its Home section with: "After All Those Brownstones, A Blank Canvas" – and then chronicled the delights of inserting Modernist interiors into historic buildings.

– The new Dwell magazine – founded in 2001 with a mission of "Bringing Modern Design to Everyone" – now has a circulation of 325,000. By contrast, Old-House Journal, founded in 1973, has a circulation of only around 150,000.

– Rizzoli has come out with a glossy book titled Brooklyn Modern that promotes grafting Modernist interiors and exteriors onto the city's older buildings.

But what really showed me how times are changing – and how the vocabulary of debate is evolving – was a developer's program to get people behind an outrageous $4-billion mega-development adjacent to Brooklyn's brownstone neighborhoods. The story is complex, but the bottom line is that through a clever campaign of half-truths and non-truths, the developer's public relations team managed to persuade a majority of the community that the ill-conceived project was "progress," when in fact it was a re-run of failed polices of 1960s "urban renewal." By using a basketball arena as a stalking horse to divert attention from 16 enormous skyscrapers, and by making slippery promises about "affordable housing" (with plenty of escape clauses), the project flacks endlessly promoted "Jobs, Hoops, and Housing." Verbal sleight-of-hand played on economic fears and gained wide support for this badly planned project. Reason could not prevail against emotion.

Preservation's Inconvenient Truth
Preservation's public appeal may have been merely a point on the oscillating sine curve of popular taste. Our culture has an ever-shortening attention span combined with a ravenous appetite for novelty. Historic preservation is no longer a rarity, and thus doesn't have the cachet of an exclusive cult. For many younger people, preservation has the same appeal as "your father's Oldsmobile."

As a result, mainstream media has less interest in historic preservation than it did a few decades ago. Back when "less is more" ideology reigned supreme, the idea of reviving richly ornamented historic buildings seemed radical to editors who thrive on all things new and different. Our successes in preservation have ironically caused our undoing with the media: We're not considered new and exciting any longer. That's the preservation movement's own inconvenient truth.

The Great American Reset
No one knows what the American economy will look like two years from now. But everyone agrees it will be quite different from what we've known. Some are calling the upcoming radical changes "The Great American Reset."

In this reset economy, even environmentalists feel beleaguered. Lisa P. Jackson, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, recently wrote an essay titled "Why We Need to Sell Environmentalism." Her major point was that many people are so consumed with short-term survival problems they can't afford to think about long-term consequences. As Jackson noted: "Over the years, environmentalism has largely been seen as an enclave of the privileged." You could replace the term "environmentalism" with "historic preservation" and the sentence would be doubly true.

If Jackson is having trouble selling environmentalism in the face of global climate change, just imagine how much harder it is to get the general public – and especially people suffering economic hardships – excited about historic preservation.

Preservation seems irrelevant to many today because we haven't modified our vocabulary in light of changed realities. Most people are worried about their jobs, their financial security and the economic stability of our nation. These are urgent, short-term problems – with many conflicting solutions being debated in the public forum. It's easy to brush preservation's concerns aside using emotionally loaded terms to marginalize us.

The Flip Side of Preservation's Vocabulary

What We Say: What They Hear:
Historic Preservation Elitist Obsession
Community Revitalization Gentrification
Preservationist Nostalgia Merchant
Neighborhood Revival No Affordable Housing
Building Recycling Energy Inefficient Buildings
Building Restoration Displacing Poor People
Preserving Neighborhoods No Construction Jobs
Humane Values Dead White Men
Stewards of Our Architectural Patrimony What's He Talking About?

Old Values, New Words
To attract greater public support, preservation must seem radical and relevant again – not by changing our values, but by changing the vocabulary we use. Some of this vocabulary change has already started, but needs to be accelerated. Here are a few thoughts to advance the dialog:

– Emphasize "now" benefits. Abstract ideas like "we need to understand where we've been in order to know where we're going" don't gain traction when people have short-term problems.

– In public discussions, drop the adjective "historic." When survival is the issue, history doesn't seem important.

– Use "conservation" instead of "preservation" whenever possible. The green movement has already built a lot of credibility for the word "conservation."

– Stress that building renovation and restoration is labor-intensive – and that means jobs that can't be outsourced.

– Stress green aspects of building recycling by saving embodied energy in existing structures and reducing demolition debris carted to landfills.

– Bringing old buildings up to LEED standards means even more jobs.

– Use "green," "sustainable" and other related earth-friendly terms as often as possible.

Now let's get back to our energy-saving, job-creating, conservation tasks that create sustainable communities!  


Clem Labine is the founder of Old-House Journal, Traditional Building and Period Homes. His interest in preservation started with his purchase and restoration of an 1883 brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he still resides with his wife, Deirdre, his German Shepherd, Xena, and black cat, Willie. He is now editor emeritus of Traditional Building and Period Homes.
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