This land is your land….but, this building is not your building

Posted April 7th, 2015 by maryalbro and filed in Executive Director's Blog

Newport Film

A warm summer evening last year at the Preservation Society of Newport County’s

Marble House mansion for the NewportFILM screening of “Keep on Keepin’ On”

a documentary about the life of music legend Clark Terry

FREE and open to all.


I distinctively remember singing “This Land is your Land” in Miss Potter’s 4th grade music class at Ivy Drive School.

And, I believed it.  Like many of my peers, I believe in the sanctity of open places, maybe even that the divine can be found in nature.  I have happily volunteered over the years to clean nature preserves, raise money and awareness, and write grants to preserve open space.  The 4th graders around me felt that connection too.  At our recent 30th high school reunion, many of those same “kids” were engaged in the protection of environmental resources.

But none seemed to be engaged in historic preservation, support for which lags far behind land protection, perhaps because buildings are built to keep nature out.  The grand American historic architectural gems weren’t built for you and me- they were built for those who could afford them.

So, how does the historic preservation world, which does not have a particularly strong history of cross-cultural connectivity or inclusivity, allow the public to feel the joint custody felt by so many in the land conservation movement?

Let the light in, let everyone fall in love with the building.  Know that as historic preservationists, we run the risk of acting in so precious a manner that the very preciousness of the building is being lost to future generations.  Be open to a variety of uses, some of which might feel a bit risky after years of cautious protection.

Will grounds get muddied and upholstery ripped?  Maybe.  Sometimes.

But without the light and warmth and touch of people who care as much about historic buildings as they do about redwood forests and golden valleys, they will die a perfect precious death, unnoticed by those who could have protected them.

Historic preservationists need to let go of the perfect, embrace the risky and allow the light and warmth of people to be their buildings’ most precious ornaments.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

~Leonard Cohen,  “Anthem”

Mary Anthony

Executive Director

  • Gay Wagner

    Mary, you give voice to an old fashioned and outdated historic preservation philosophy, thank heavens. In the past 30 years, historic preservation has broadened the kinds of buildings it treasures and the kinds of uses it houses in them. Maybe not so much in New England, I acknowledge, though Historic New England looks increasingly at everyday material culture associated with its properties. Another great example is South Carolina’s Drayton Hall, with cutting-edge research and interpretation of slave life.