Executive Director’s Blog
The most powerful word in the English language is…December 7, 2016
This past spring, I joined a group of friends to cycle the Natchez Trace Parkway, 444 miles from Nashville to western Mississippi. On day 2, we arrived near Florence, Alabama and stumbled on Tom Hendrix, an older gentleman who has dedicated the last thirty years of his life to building an incredible meandering stone wall through a peaceful woodland – a monument to his great-great grandmother, Te-lah-nay.
As a young member of the Yuchi tribe in the early 19th century, Te-lah-nay was part of the what we now call the Trail of Tears, a forced 1,000-mile march westward of native people to Oklahoma, a painful chapter of ethnic cleansing in American history and more accurately described as a death march. Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 “re-appropriated” millions of acres for use by white settlers by nullifying any native right to the land and banishing wave after wave of original people to an unfamiliar world. Though thousands perished on the freezing cold trail, Te-lah-nay survived the brutal trek.
Te-lah-nay believed she would die anyway, living so far from all she loved and one day simply walked out of her camp to return home to where her heart still lived, near the singing Tennessee River. Against all odds, and despite deadly conditions, she succeeded in walking for five years until she arrived at her beloved homeland.
Te-lah-nay’s great-great grandson, Tom Hendrix, built the wall we saw in Alabama as a memorial to her – one stone for each step she took to come home. It is a very, very long wall. This sacred space has become a place of sanctuary for many. People from all over the world send stones to add to the wall, which has a mystical, otherworldly quality to it. Even my sweaty, bike-geared group -mostly scientists- fell into hushed voices while meandering around the woodland gardens that surround this unlikely memorial to the sanctity of home.
Many miles north, and much less remarkably, the cottage above has belonged to my family for four generations. We have fished and paddled and swum the waters, watched a thousand sunsets, spent time with dying parents, celebrated birthdays and babies and tended broken hearts and occasionally limbs. It is the heart of our family life. It is home to us.
Everyone has such a place, and we can become truly heartsick when removed from it.
Ask anyone and they will tell you about the place that nourishes them. Where is your sanctuary- that particular special spot where it all makes sense? As Maya Angelou wrote in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
There is not a single building or place that the preservation or conservation worlds care about that does not mean home in some way, to someone: a place of worship like the First African Meeting House in Boston, Thoreau’s cabin, a lighthouse in Maine, a row house in Baltimore, an old movie theater, a family farm. A place for which one would make sacrifices to return, like Te-lah-nay.
I worry that the field of historic preservation too often “re-appropriates” properties and sites to fit one version of history and that we too often miss the organic, native connection between heart, home and place. Perhaps we have become too academic – floating too far away from the hearts of most people and loftily telling them why “this place matters” when there are others who can tell us so much more about why it does matter, why it is home, to them.
Breathing LightsOctober 10, 2016
“For one sparkling minute each night, skyscrapers, tugboats, hotels, a yacht club and police cruisers send a blinking goodnight message to sick kids inside a children’s hospital. A gesture that began with a single light six years ago has become a nightly display along the Providence River — and a highly anticipated ritual — inside Hasbro Children’s Hospital.” ~ Matt O’Brien, Boston.com
The messages are exchanged each night at 8:30 PM – four flashes “Goodnight Hasbro” come from as far as a church group in East Providence, 2 miles away.
The return message from the kids is two flashes- “Thank you.”
The real message- we haven’t forgotten you.
Check out the full story by Matt O’Brien here- it will make you a happier person.
Just a few days after this story was published a captivating piece on a public art installation came out in the Albany Times Union, “The Art of Bloomberg-funded Breathing Lights.” Like the lights flashed between Providence and the children at Hasbro, lights come at dusk on in old structures in Troy, Schenectedy and Albany- a coordinated effort to bring attention to dark, abandoned buildings and disenfranchised neighborhoods. From 6-10 each night through November, using a Breathing Lights map (www.breathinglights.com) you can visit these neighborhoods and see this art installation in person.
Amy Biancolli’s article about this project is so beautifully written, I encourage you to read it in its entirety at: http://www.timesunion.com/living/article/Biancolli-The-art-of-Bloomberg-funded-Breathing-9611606.php?cmpid=fb-desktop
Here is a snippet: “On Locust near Chestnut, a gathering of adorable clapboard homes breathe in companionable silence. According to (artist Adam) Frelin, the team worked hard to find L.E.D.’s that echoed the incandescence of occupied homes, and their efforts paid off: the light beaming from within is warm and human, asking poignant questions in the darkness. What happened inside these houses? Why are they empty? Where did everyone go?
The lights humanize as they illuminate. In North Troy, the neighborhood around River Street has several lit structures, including an enormous, 20-window building on 7th Avenue and a tiny white clapboard house covered in vines on 6th. On River, sitting at the intersection with Smith, sits an empty shop with a winking storefront. Imagine the bustle that once marked that corner.”
My friend once told me she knew her marriage was over when she returned home from a business trip late one night and the porch light was not on, again.
It’s a little thing but it’s everything, isn’t it?
Perhaps this is why this project is so special. Amy writes “Art always invites us to see, but good art challenges us to see in a new way — to notice something that’s been squatting in plain sight all along. Most of the buildings in “Breathing Lights” are just such ignored and invisible objects. Many are ramshackle houses that most of us, if we’re being honest, drive past with a blind eye. We turn from their weathered faces in the same way we look past the homeless. We’d rather not see them, so we don’t see them at all.”
That’s why we should shine a light on, and for, them- sick children, old buildings, disengaged family. It is so easy to look past them, to leave them to the dark.
It’s a simple but profound gesture- leave a light on. The breathing lights remind us, and them, that they are not forgotten.
Yet to Come: The Most Important U.S. History MakersSeptember 4, 2016
Home for a future history-maker? photos courtesy of the L’Enfant Trust, Washington, DC
There is some serious stuff going on right now in the world. Racial tensions, Zika virus, an angry election, unsustainable energy demands, environmental degradation and climate change happening much faster than we thought it might.
And on a much smaller and more selfish level, I had my own challenging stuff this week. The first day of my vacation landed me in the hospital for major emergency surgery. (Because, vacation.)
These forced groundings – snowstorms, airport layovers and hospital visits- do have a benefit. They allow time and brain space for serious reflection. (And this one also came with narcotics, so I took some bad pictures of the historic homes on Friendship Sreet from my window. Because, still vacation.)
Reflections on my work at the 1772 Foundation always point back to the 1772’s focus on historic properties redevelopment programs: preservation that puts people and community at the forefront and values entrepreneurial approaches to saving buildings and neighborhoods.
We focus on this area at some expense to more traditional architectural and historic gems, since our limited funds must be used in a highly strategic way to make an impact in an underfunded field and we can’t fund it all. It is fair to say that a significant percentage of 1772 money is diverted from some of the more classically important and beautiful historic buildings to this redevelopment work, and it is something we constantly question and reevaluate.
My grounding gave me time to question and reevaluate and I was reminded of a simple truth: so much of the great arc of U.S. history is yet to come. To stand firmly in 2016 and only look backward- at buildings and historic figures fixed in the past- is to ignore this elementary but profound fact. It hasn’t all been done yet. We have astonishing challenges before us- as difficult and as critically important as the American Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, etc. We need spirited, brave, innovative leaders to take us into the next 240 years. Perhaps our preservation work should always be focused on the future.
The efforts of our future leaders deserve to be nurtured in rich and vibrant communities; in places and spaces that cherish indigenous character, beauty and history but still leave room for revolutionary new growth and the great and good history-making that will take root in these incubator spaces. This is people-based preservation; the very type of preservation on which we focus through our historic properties redevelopment funding.
So, my narcotic-filter hospital window pictures of the historic homes turned out to be meaningful to me. During my forced grounding, I reaffirmed my belief that we need to save these neighborhoods and communities for the history-makers yet to come- those who will create new sustainable energy methods, who will teach us how to be kinder to each other, and who will find cures for disease and global warming. Because that is what preservation is really for- to provide an enriched environment for the history yet to come.
Pokemon, Popcorn and Public SpacesAugust 1, 2016
It started the night before at the public tennis courts, when a mismatched gaggle of young people skipped straight through our game, clutching cell phones, laughing and oblivious. They were heading for the cemetery. In relaying the story to my son later that night I added that I thought they were looking for a place to smoke pot. “Uh, no, mom. They were looking for Pokemon.”
I downloaded the app and was hooked in five minutes. The next night found me at Queen Anne Square at 10 PM “walking the dog”. (I was looking for Pokemon. Newport is lousy with them.)
The Square is lovely; beautifully landscaped and sloped gently towards Narragansett Bay under the lights of the Trinity Church steeple, a church built in 1725 and a familiar landmark to those walking, driving, or boating.
Strangers were connecting quickly to get updates and learn strategy. A sweet young man, Gerald, helped me and another middle-aged newbie with strategy. We had an easy conversation while the dog waited patiently. It turns out we are work neighbors: Gerald at Inpopnito, a place that my family loves, and me at 1772 down the street at IYRS. I pass him every day.
The square and the surrounding area are rich Pokemon hunting grounds. The streets and public spaces (including many historical sites and markers) are the framework of the game, which uses GPS and local landmarks as touchstones like the historic Redwood Library and the League of American Wheelman Monument. Outside of a historic preservation conference I have never heard this many historic places being discussed with such intensity.
The Pokemon Go phenomenon reminded me why the board and staff at 1772 have been thinking so much more about the importance of public byways and places to preservation- how we navigate and use the connective tissue of our historic cities. We are increasingly aware of the value of getting out of cars and moving by bicycle and by foot- how these modes of transportation clearly promote human-scale interaction and deeper appreciation of place.
It was evident last month on my trip to Copenhagen as we were gliding by bike through the incredible medieval city and I was surprised to feel a similar response while enjoying a little childish adventure in Queen Anne Square with Pokemon Go, a smashing success at enticing people out of their houses and into the streets and public spaces to explore the richness that has been there this whole time.
When we think of restoring historic cities, we have to pay serious attention to the role of the “arteries”; spaces where the energy of residents and visitors should flow freely. Car-free byways and public spaces are where we connect face-to-face and where community bonds are formed. This is both the historic use and the promising future of public byways and spaces. We have coined a term at 1772- “integrated historic revitalization” and these spaces are what integrate all of the historic pieces. A little Pokemon Go on a warm summer night reminded me why. After a horrifying week of escalating worldwide violence it was especially uplifting and reassuring to find so many strangers connecting on a warm summer night under the glow of the Trinity Church steeple.
My Pokemon Go career ended at level 5. I still don’t really know how to use it. But, I had a blast for a day or two and I got out of my house and rediscovered parts of my home city that I had missed or forgotten about. I also got to meet my neighbor Gerald and that was great, too. Go see him at Inpopnito: Popcorn in Disguise at 387 Thames Street in Newport, RI.
Historic Cities After Cars…June 22, 2016
New York, Philadelphia, DC, Milwaukee and Richmond were all on my travel docket within the past month which wrapped up with a week-long Citybuilders Symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark. The first thing I noticed, on the first morning in this medieval city of 600,000 was the noise- or the lack of it. Even at the busiest time of day, in the busiest part of the city, there was more of a hum than the cacophony I had recently experienced in other cities.
Most people cycle or take public transportation in Copenhagen. Over the past 30 years, automobile traffic has been relegated to a more appropriate place in the transportation food chain. The streets have been systematically reconfigured over the years to favor thoughtful protected bicycle lanes that make cycling the fastest, cheapest, most efficient and pleasurable way to get around the city.
While none of our lecturers stated this as one of the desired impacts, it was my observation that the emphasis on bicycles actually has been an incredible boost to historic preservation/revitalization there.
Why? Bicycles have a much smaller footprint than cars. Check out how big a difference at http://indy100.independent.co.uk/image/29187-m4oqnr.gif Far fewer parking spaces, garages and square feet of road are needed for them. They pollute less, make less noise, and allow commuters and tourists to move along at eye-level, at moderate speed, unwalled off by glass and chrome, and in concert with other humans.
Citizens shop, dine and live very locally in Copenhagen, as was the case for hundreds of years in historic cities before cars choked out this historic way of life. Public life is rich and varied and connected and very local- the way it was before cars became the priority.
Better transportation options make the streets, which comprise a very large percentage of public space, public again. All over the world, we have let cars devour ancient roads and lifeways. Our most important public spaces (and this is key) were not built for cars. They were built for people and horses. Streets were where much of daily public life unfolded, before cars made it too noisy and dangerous in most places to serve that critical function.
In short, historic revitalization of cities is strongly supported by the bicycle- they do not require huge amounts of public space and they have a gentler, more fluid interaction with old buildings and with the historic uses of the street- the connective tissue that makes the historic city whole.
The return to my home city of Newport, RI reminded me that the needs of people here have been taken over by those of cars in this beautiful city and made me wonder if a better transportation system here could be as successful as in Copenhagen. Both are historic cities, with a significant seasonal tourist influx. They are vibrant, creative, densely populated places with museums, libraries, and scores of unique architectural gems. Their histories are shaped by the sailing and the sea and thus know old connections with the rest of the world. People are drawn to these cities, for their historic charm and natural beauty.
But, in Newport, the car is still king. This is truly unfortunate. We can do much better and, in doing so, we could serve as a great example to other historic cities. It is not easy to challenge the cherished theory that cars are the only way to get to the heart of Newport and that cars are the best way to move people. A better way to reach the heart of this city is to go back to the future, when the needs of people were more important than those of cars. I look forward to the day when the paradigm shifts to allow people to safely move through this historic city without creating noise and air pollution and in a way that honors the historic buildings and streetscapes.
Brent Runyon: 60 Years of Preserving our PastApril 8, 2016
We are reprinting an article written by our colleague, Brent Runyon, which was published today in the Providence Journal…The image above is of Brent at the Wedding Cake House on Broadway in Providence…
April 8, 2016
A little more than 60 years ago, on Feb. 20, 1956, a group of Providence residents incorporated a new nonprofit organization: the Providence Preservation Society. The group was formed, in part, to protest a proposed urban renewal plan for the College Hill neighborhood. Like many such plans at the time, the proposal called for demolition of numerous 18th and 19th century buildings in an attempt to improve the area.
In response, PPS brought together planners, policy makers and preservationists to produce the iconic College Hill Study, which became a model for preservation as a means of community renewal. For the first time in national history, urban renewal funds were used to save old buildings — rather than to destroy them.
PPS’s “founding feat” preserved the past, but also contributed powerfully to the future. Walk down Benefit or Main Street today for a vivid picture of the lasting impact of that effort. Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design, College Hill and Providence would simply have far less appeal — appeal that is now recognized worldwide, and that has attracted and will attract investment in our city — had it not been for PPS’s forward-thinking founders who valued the past and believed that our future depends on it.
That kind of forward thinking is still one of our institutional values. It runs through all of our present day education and advocacy efforts, from a conversation on building livable neighborhoods at last fall’s Providence Symposium, to our 2016 Most Endangered Properties list, which features a collection of industrial, educational, and religious buildings that could net tremendous returns to Providence if repurposed.
We also recognize that Providence’s future success hinges not only on preserving the past but also on our city’s environment, economic development, and neighborhood vitality. There is an intrinsic relationship between these concerns and the quality of the places where citizens live, work, learn and gather.
That is why we introduced Jennifer Bradley, at the time a fellow and senior adviser of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, to Providence in 2014, when she discussed how Providence’s assets — chiefly our cultural heritage — can be used to build a bright economic future. Her former colleagues, Bruce Katz and Mark Muro, reinforced this notion in a Providence Journal Commentary piece, in which they cited Rhode Island’s “historic industrial character … and quality of place” as assets that “are investments in the fundamentals of economic development.”
Taking the long view is particularly critical as the city considers its single greatest present-day opportunity: the former Route 195 land. On the surface, development of the land is not primarily about historic preservation; it is about the city’s future. The future of this city has been a clear concern of PPS’s since our founding; in fact, it is stated in our mission to improve Providence by advocating historic preservation and the enhancement of the city’s unique character through thoughtful design and planning.
To that end, we concur with the recent Rhode Island Innovates report, which stressed the importance of including Downtown and nearby areas in the innovation district, which would help knit together Capital Center, Downtown and the Jewelry District, producing a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.
And even while we crave “cranes in the sky,” we should demand high standards for architecture and siting, knowing that what is built on the land must be excellent for this generation and all to follow. Where there is any lack of political will, or laws that do not ensure excellence, PPS will advocate, as it has since 1956.
Like our founders, we envision a Providence that celebrates and preserves its past, building a vibrant and sustainable future where people and the economy thrive. This vision is only realized with a breadth and depth of partnerships with our members, donors, volunteers, and event-goers. Please visit us often at our new headquarters at The Old Brick School House (24 Meeting St.) and on the web at www.ppsri.org. We hope you will join us for an education program, advocacy effort, or signature event in 2016, our 60th anniversary year.
Brent Runyon is the executive director of the Providence Preservation Society.
Four observations about black historyFebruary 23, 2016
If you are like me, born white in 1964, chances are your exposure to black history is limited and maybe a little skewed. Mine was both, but I’ve been playing catch-up and here is a quick synopsis of what I’ve learned.
First, it is fascinating and inspiring. Read about the brilliant entrepreneur Madame CJ Walker, The Periwinkle Initiative which strives to locate and mark the graves of enslaved Americans, Joseph McGill’s narratives that bring history to life through the Slave Dwelling Project , Garrett Morgan (you can thank him for traffic lights, among other inventions) and other incredible historical figures at Black History mini-docs. Visit the first, second or third African meeting houses in Boston, Nantucket and Portland, ME: Museum of African American History Abyssinian Meeting House. Read about The Green Book and what it was like to travel during Jim Crow. (with thanks to Dr. Gretchen Sorin, historian and 1772 trustee, who has studied and written extensively on this topic.) Tip of the iceberg- fascinating and inspiring.
Second, I learned it is too easy to avoid the reality of how a thousand threads of historic injustice permeate the fabric of our current world. Inequity is an ecosystem and it is analogous to the environmental movement; my recycling does not mean the air and water everywhere are clean and pure. If I don’t attend to the bigger system of pollution/injustice, I am not doing enough. Check out this video about the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the first slavery museum in the U.S. In particular, I was struck by the importance of the answer to the (rather dumb) question, “Why can’t they just get over it”? We have to know (all of us) the magnitude of what “it” is. Understanding “it” is not for the lazy or those who avoid being uncomfortable. I am both, but I try anyway. Black history is our history- learn about it, discuss it, understand its importance to all Americans. As one of my teachers reminded me, “sunlight is a powerful disinfectant”. No one is lazier than I and I’ve learned first-hand that it is worth the effort to bring our history into the sun for a good, long clarifying discussion. See #1-it is also fascinating and inspiring.
Third, and this isn’t fair at all, I learned that there are African-American history scholar-angels among us who continue to do more than their fair share to bring all of us to a greater understanding. I have been privileged to learn from some of these amazing teachers. They know their subject matter cold and they have the added burden of patiently walking me and others through history so that we can well and truly get it. When I think about what will move the needle on the much-hyped and much-needed “national discussion” I know these chosen ones probably hold the keys to success and, with it, they carry the added burden. I for one am grateful for their bridge-building and patience with a remedial student. Let’s support these history heroes whenever possible: Joseph McGill of The Slave Dwelling Project, Sandra Arnold of the Periwinkle Initiative, Dr. Lonnie Bunch and staff at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Leonard Cummings at the Abyssinian Meeting House to name a very few. There are many, many more which leads me to my last observation: I have much more to learn- a lot more listening and reading to do. But, I want the opportunity to be a tiny part of a better ecosystem and I welcome the chance to learn from and support the scholar-angels who will lead us all through history to a more just, richer and sunlit place. It is a fascinating and inspiring journey.
P.S. There is always a For Dummies book- ISBN-13: 978-0764554698
Volcanos, bicycles and moving forwardJanuary 13, 2016
Copenhagen photo from Great City.org
Art’s Brief History of the World
If you haven’t seen How We Got to Now, check it out. In this series, Steven Johnson takes a fresh, wide-angle look at history and puts together seemingly disparate pieces to show us what really happened. Think skimpy bathing suits have nothing to do with the Chicago sewer system? Think again. Unlike the straight-arrow timelines we endured in history class, this is the real history deal- messy, haphazard, exciting and sometimes explosive. How We Got To Now
At the 1772 Foundation, we have been thinking a lot about how our field has become too much like a straight-arrow timeline. We know that there are architectural and historic gems that need and deserve care- they are the jewels in our built history collection and they are well-suited to the timeline approach to history. But they only account for a small fraction of the historic building stock in this country. The entire spectrum of historic structures needs attention and it is messy and exciting business.
Like repairing a bicycle, historic preservation is not just getting the paint color right, but contributing to dynamic system in which the gears, wheels and brakes work together to propel us forward. We need to consider the whole bike if we are to propel this preservation puppy to a successful and sustainable place. Urban planners, low-income housing developers, environmentalists, city officials, transportation experts, business owners and residents all need to work together if we want historic preservation to become a true historic revitalization movement.
And, interestingly, bicycles might be one of those disparate pieces that helps move us forward – one of the slices of the of the historic preservation pie of collaborators that will help historic revitalization evolve.
Historic cities lend themselves beautifully to the incorporation of non-motorized transportation options. Like my home city of Newport, older cities were not built to accommodate the huge influx of car traffic that is dealt with every day. Parking in the summer is a competitive sport, the fragile colonial houses and churches shake when big trucks thunder through, and pedestrians must brave cross walks in a man vs. car situation that has ended tragically far too many times.
But it could look more like Copenhagen, where about 55% of daily trips are by bicycle. This is holistic, sustainable systems change and it directly serves the preservation needs of fragile historic downtowns. Check out Cycling Copenhagen, Through North American Eyes for a little inspiration.
Creating protected bicycle lanes in historic cities greatly reduces pollution, congestion, and frustration. Bicycles are efficient, compact and quiet. They promote human-scale interaction. They take up far less space than cars. Construction costs for protected bike lanes are a fraction of that eaten up by building car infrastructure. As my friend Bari Freeman of Bike Newport summed it up- bicycles are gentle on our fragile historic cities.
Economically it makes sense, too. Comprehensive bicycle infrastructure would expand historic downtown residential options because it could relieve would-be developers of the burden of providing unnecessary parking spaces. Typically hard-to-develop second floor lofts above businesses could be created with greater flexibility for the millennials and baby boomers who overwhelmingly want to live in places where cars do not dictate how their daily life unfolds.
Bicycles gliding through the tight narrow streets of historic cities looks and feel right, because it is. It is an inspiring image that reminds us that we can be more involved as preservationists than just guardians of crown jewels. As preservationists, we can and should support this type of wholesale change that makes cities more livable and lovable. (If the word lovable sounds too mushy, a must-read is How to make smart growth more lovable and sustainble by F. Kaid Benfield. Fantastic.)
- Dr. Arthur Spivack explains, “The 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora was one of the largest in recorded history and put a bunch of aerosol into the stratosphere. This led to the “year without a summer” in Europe due to the reflectivity of the aerosols blocking the sunlight. As a result of the associated crop failures due to the lack of a summer, there wasn’t enough feed for horses in Germany. This inspired Karl von Drais to invent the first proto-bicycle as an alternative means to get from town to town. About 50 years later, the ball bearing was patented as a device to be used in bicycles which were then fitted to the winning bicycle ridden by James Moore in the world’s first bicycle road race, Paris-Rouen, in November 1869. The ball bearing ultimately enabled much of the Industrial Revolution.”
Beowulf, Bread and Car WrecksNovember 30, 2015
Detail of the opening words of Beowulf, beginning ‘Hwæt’ (‘Listen!), from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r. – See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/03/monsters-and-marvels-in-the-beowulf-manuscript.html#sthash.otwMznqQ.dpuf
“Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellenfremedon!”
(traditional translation: “Listen! We have heard of the might of the kings”)
Hwaet! (rhymes with sat) is the first word of Beowulf, written about 1,200 years ago. But Jonathan Brown reports a challenge to its meaning in the Independent (Tuesday 5 November 2013) in his article, “Listen! Beowulf opening line misinterpreted for 200 years”
In graduate school, most of us used a “Listen up” approach to Hwaet. But Brown reports that since it was first published in 1819 “it has variously been translated as “What ho!” “Hear me!” “Attend!” “Indeed!” and more recently “So!” by Seamus Heaney in 2000.”
And there shouldn’t be an exclamation point. Oops.
According to Dr. George Walkden at the University of Manchester (U.K.), the better translation of the opening line is “How we have heard of the might of the kings.” Subtle, but important in the world of Beowulf.
Historical scholarship is hugely fascinating and sheds a light on pieces of the past- Walkden’s scholarship shows us, for instance, that the original listeners probably weren’t unruly. His work and the really fascinating work being done around African American history in this country matter- their scholarship enriches our lives by helping us understand how we came to be the people and civilizations we are today.
But Hwaet! (old school) Let’s go from the 1,200 year-old Beowulf kerfuffle to today. Five people see a car wreck from different vantage points- various ages, eyesight, experiences. Ask them what happened five minutes later. Five different accidents.
So, how do we treat historical scholarship? If one event can produce a multitude of responses minutes later and a 1,200 year-old text still has a misinterpreted FIRST WORD, then what should we think of history in general? There are some very big reasons to look at all of documented history with a very cautious eye.
First, it’s history, rarely herstory, kidstory, or enslaved peoplestory. All of our forebears had stories worth telling; most are forever gone. Until fairly recently, you had to be able to read, write and be chosen for publication by a small group of outlets to have your story told. We also should consider that most of written history focuses on wars, politics, major social upheaval, not the story of routine life. So, we only have a sliver. It is important, but we should know it will never be whole.
In the field of historic preservation, I often hear that buildings tell a story- told through architecture and placement and the narratives of the lives spent within. I would respectfully suggest that like car wreck testimonies and Hwaet!, this is where our approach falls apart a bit and leads to what I believe is The Big Question for historic preservation – Are we spending equal time looking forward or are we stuck over analyzing the sliver of the past we have documented?
Once a building is preserved and its story told it is like baked bread. Done. Preserved in its final format. We can spend earnest hours discussing the subtleties of the preserved history, the Hwaet! of the house, but it would be a true revolution if we in the historic preservation field instead spent fully half of our time looking forward. Unlike an ancient transcript, we have a whole usable building. In fact, we have hundreds of thousands of buildings in this country that are historic and still very much needed, now. If we restore and use them thoughtfully and artfully, they will do much for the future- they will keep an incredible amount of wreckage from our landfills, they will contribute to vibrant downtown cultures, economic revitalization, provide needed homes and spaces to create art and, yes, they will still tell a historic story.
So, perhaps we need to stop trying so hard to bake history and begin to employ a sourdough bread starter approach- bake some, but leave some to feed the future. Perhaps we should focus fully half of our historic preservation efforts on historic revitalization, preservation with a future.
In Paterson, NJ, the historic brick Paterson Silk Machinery Exchange building on Spruce Street has been turned into transitional housing for kids “aging” out of foster care. http://www.njcdc.org/housing/independence-house/ It is a very cool contributing building in a historic area that has recently been named an urban National Park.
“New Jersey Community Development Corporation worked with the New Jersey Department of Children and Families to create William Waldman Independence House, a safe, inviting and inspiring place which provides housing and supportive services for young people in their final years in the foster care system. The residents are supported 24 hours a day by NJCDC staff and receive assistance in building independent living skills and in developing vocational interests. This assistance includes creating Individual Success Plans that measure regular progress in attaining personal goals. During their time at Independence house, the ten residents pursue educational opportunities (high school diploma, GED, college courses, vocational training) as well as regular employment, preparing them to face the world of juggling various responsibilities as adults.”
Hwaet! Listen up! Yo! Oi! Indeed! What ho! Attend! The Paterson Silk Machinery Exchange tells an important historic story AND provides a little starter dough for a better future. Let’s hope that the next 1,200 years give historic preservation and revitalization equal time because maybe one of these Paterson kids will become a dragon slayer. Maybe he or she will become the most important story ever told by this building. We don’t know, because their stories haven’t been baked yet.
Paul Newman’s ToasterSeptember 24, 2015
Linden Place in Bristol, RI received a 2015 grant from the 1772 Foundation to repair the leaded glass fanlight windows
”We’re a throw-away society, aren’t we? We throw away everything. We never even try to fix things – we throw them away, we destroy things – appliances that break, old buildings because they’re old, we throw away relationships that aren’t exactly what we thought they’d be, we throw away wives, husbands, marriages.” Paul Newman quote ~ NYT February 11, 1990
Paul Newman is the patron saint of people, places and things that may seem to have lost their value but whose worth has only been enriched by time and struggle: critically ill children, historic buildings, his beautiful wife, and broken toasters. His eyes were startling blue and piercing- windows to a soul that was worth exploring; soulfulness wrapped around the idea that being a throwaway society is truly wrong.
I thought about his quote while discussing the problem of how to handle historic windows, the “eyes” of historic structures and the frequent target of environmentalists and home improvement businesses who push replacement windows as an energy and cost-saving solution for home and business owners.
Historic windows can be a real challenge – often wooden, single-paned, leaky and of random sizes. So, why not throw ’em away and replace with something that promises so much more like manufactured vinyl replacements?
Because, as with many overly simplistic solutions, this one fails to look at the real impact of caving to this “easy” solution.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation outlines the case for a Paul Newman-approach in:
Here’s the rundown from the Trust’s excellent piece, which I encourage you to read:
~ Historic windows, particularly those made before the 1940’s, are from old growth wood which is denser and stronger than modern equivalents.
~ Replacement windows probably won’t fit right- the original ones were custom-built for the opening. Guess what ill-fitting windows do? Leak.
~ When you replace, you throw the old one in a landfill. Don’t throw old growth wood and craftsmanship into the landfill. Just don’t.
~ New factory-built windows can’t be repaired easily because they are manufactured as a unit. Historic windows can be and, even better, by local craftsmen. If the manufactured window has a broken component and it can’t be fixed, we will now be contributing another window to the landfill. Let’s not do that.
~ Historic wood windows, combined with storms and weather stripping, can be nearly or as energy efficient as replacements.
~ The energy cost-savings payback period on factory built units is pretty long – some studies show up to 40 years, and that’s before you consider that replacement windows typically fail within 20.
~ Historic windows are character-defining. Maybe this is the softest argument but, when you look at a historic building that has replacement windows, it generally looks wrong. One colleague referred to this short-sighted solution as “gouging out the eyes” of the building for economic and environmental reasons that just don’t hold up. Our culture and history is embedded in the complete structure- design and proportions matter.
Windows are the eyes of a house, and eyes are the windows to the soul. Don’t gouge them out. Don’t put them in a landfill. Think of Paul Newman’s beautiful peepers and his more beautiful soul, which celebrated the beauty of older and imperfect people, places and things. All are worthy of a little more care and effort and their value will only appreciate with our thoughtful attention. Think before you throw them away.
Old quilts and summer chillsAugust 5, 2015
In early April, my family joined a funeral procession that led to Center Cemetery in New Milford, Connecticut where my father was laid to rest with military honors. He was buried next to his immediate family and near his ancestors whose birth and death dates span over 200 years. It was a raw, cold day and we were broken-hearted. After eighty-eight years on this earth, seven children, two wars, two heart surgeries and a year of suffering, there was no doubt that he had earned some rest but we were still not ready to lose him. He mattered to us. His life is forever interwoven with the lives of his extended family.
Three months later I found myself at Fordham University in New York. I was there to meet Sandra Arnold, the founding director of the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans. Sandra has assembled a talented team “to create the first and only national registry for the burial documentation of enslaved Americans [which] will be publicly accessible and a valuable research tool for scholars, historians and institutions interested in reconstructing the history of American slavery. Most importantly, the registry will provide crucial genealogical assistance to those seeking to restore families separated by the institution of American Slavery.” To hear more of Sandra’s fascinating story on NPR, check out: http://www.npr.org/2013/03/24/175141077/marking-forgotten-slave-burial-sites-online
Just a few days after meeting with Sandra Arnold, historian and writer Theresa Guzman Stokes brought me to God’s Little Acre Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island where African Americans have been laid to rest since the early 18th century. These burial sites are already in the National Registry, thanks to Theresa and her husband Keith Stokes who together have researched, written, lectured and educated the public on the African American experience from colonial days through Newport’s Gilded Age to the present. Theresa’s knowledge is boundless and her enthusiasm is captivating. She reminded me that cemeteries are places of history- for the living to remember the past. Check out some of the Stokes’ work at: www.colonialcemetery.com
I learned from these two scholars that these burial sites are critically endangered and, without them, our full history has not been told. “[Burial sites] have been bulldozed over by shopping centers, crept over by weeds and forgotten by time. Across the country, from Lower Manhattan to the Deep South, are unmarked slave burial sites, often discovered only by chance or by ignominious circumstance as when construction crews accidentally exhume bodies when building a shopping mall.” – New York Times, March 18, 2013
Nationally, we need to pay much more attention to this or we risk losing a full, robust and finely-grained historic picture. My grandmother’s quilts remind me of this: the bold colors and patterns represent wars, migrations, great leaders, and major milestones. But the individual threads represent the fragile, individual lives that contributed daily to the larger picture. If these threads are missing or frayed, the larger picture is blurred and unclear.
Seeing samples of the individual records sent to Sandra Arnold for the national database sent chills up my spine – as did hearing Theresa unpack the narrative of an entire life by looking at one stone. The interconnectedness made possible by modern technology allows these scholars to reach back and reclaim the individual dignity and the missing pieces of history that remain buried in sites across the country. Their work will make a far better American historic quilt by reversing the fraying and tears and by making the colors more refined and vibrant. If we fail to support such efforts not only will it be a failure to provide the absolute minimum amount of dignity and respect to our forbears, but also a failure to weave in precious pieces of genealogy and key pieces of the “narrative of our nation.”
It did not occur to me on that sad, cold April afternoon that there was privilege in that moment for my family and for most modern Americans. There is no doubt in my mind or heart that the Americans who lie in unmarked graves in this country matter as my father mattered. They raised families and food, built buildings, fought wars and provided the critical labor without which this country could not have survived and grown to wealth and strength. The absence of basic searchable information about these lives is like pages and chapters ripped from our history book. After meeting with these two scholars, the importance of their work became even more clear to me. It matters to not only direct descendants but also everyone who believes we should keep our full history from fraying into a blur.
~ Mary Anthony, August 3, 2015
For more information, http://www.periwinkleinitiative.org
The Periwinkle Initiative is a public humanities and education initiative with the important mission of building the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans (NBDEA) – the first and only national database to document individual burials and burial grounds of enslaved Americans. The Periwinkle Initiative also advocates for public policy that protects the burial grounds and recognizes their historical significance.
The Periwinkle Initiative derives its name from the flower that certain scholars believe was the most common wildflower brought to gravesites of enslaved Americans. This perennial flower has guided researchers to many abandoned burial grounds that would have otherwise gone undetected. The resilient Periwinkle is a perfect symbol to represent the endurance of enslaved Americans and their legacy.
Hoop skirts and fast foodJune 27, 2015
Shopping on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont
Backward-looking, elitist, snobby, precious, architectural appreciators with an affection for hoop skirts. Those are terms I’ve heard many times associated with those of us in the field of historic preservation. And, sometimes its kinda true. Being a sensitive lot, many of us have shied away from judging buildings too much because we don’t want to be thought of as elitist or backward-looking. We don’t want to say historic buildings are better. But, that’s kinda true, too. The reality is that most of us have a visual preference for more thoughtful design, and older buildings and neighborhoods are found to be more visually appealing by many of us, whether we call ourselves historic preservationists or not.
Instead of shying away from judging we should acknowledge that even young kids know that older buildings, particularly those built by skilled craftsmen with true artistry on a human scale, just feel better. We know it when we see it. No matter what the building’s modern function is- elderly housing, high tech incubator, restaurant or home, the refinement and charm brought by age evokes a positive instinctive response. Beacon Hill in Boston, the lovely squares of Savannah, and Rainbow Row in Charleston are beloved by residents and tourists because they feel right. Like local food, historic buildings are organic and have evolved over time to meet the specific needs of their location and history- they have terroir. Chain restaurants and pharmacies look freakishly similar no matter where you go. With few exceptions, they look like they were dropped from space by alien invaders. And, that might be kinda true, too.
In acknowledging and maybe even capitalizing on visual preference for historic structures and neighborhoods, we might be able to find all those latent historic preservationists we’re told are out there. If they’re taking pictures of historic neighborhoods, they probably care. We should not ignore their captivation.
Here’s a simple test, inspired by a program developed by The Dunn Foundation and Scenic America called Viewfinders that explores this concept with young people (credit to A. Nelessen Associates, who originated the concept of the visual preference survey.)
Here’s my version:
Where would you rather live, shop, eat out, go to school?
Go to school?
To be clear, I love modern architecture and I don’t believe inspired design is limited to old buildings. But its okay to recognize that historic buildings are often more solidly built, thoughtfully designed, uniquely situated and organic. It is time for us to be more bold in assessing visual preference when it comes to preserving our old buildings. They feel good to all of us, whether we call ourselves preservationists or not.
Maybe historic preservation is in your blood if your visual preference bends to them, as well…
“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”