Gardens to Gables

The Practical Preservationist

I never intended to be a preservationist – and I certainly never daydreamed about the wild and hedonistic lifestyle of an architectural historian. No, from the age of 11 (after my goal of being a veterinarian was derailed by my father informing me that I needed to take more of an interest in science and math to be a vet) I determined I would be a college English professor. My mother had been a teacher, I loved to read and write, and after touring the southeast with my older sisters on their college visits, a college campus seemed like just the place to settle.

Centre College, a private liberal-arts college in Danville, Kentucky, was not on my sisters' Grand Tours of Institutions of Higher Learning, but is where I settled for four years.

Centre College, a private liberal-arts college in Danville, Kentucky, was not on my sisters’ Grand Tours of Institutions of Higher Learning, but is where I settled for four years.

And I adored the quintessential scenic college campus  (thank you Centre College)…but the idea of a job after college, rather than graduate school,  seemed appealing and daring! After a brief foray into public relations, I took my first job working for a preservation non-profit. That was longer ago than seems possible, and on this first day of May, reflections on preservation and my part in it seem apt. Beyond the excitement and glamor of the Oaks and Derby, it is the start of Preservation Month! (Wait – you didn’t have that on your calendar? )

Streetscape in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, otherwise known as the center of Derby frenzy,

Streetscape in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, otherwise known as the center of Derby frenzy,

Preservation Month dates to 1973; created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it brings together public and private partners to “promote historic places for the purpose of instilling national and community pride, promoting heritage tourism, and showing the social and economic benefits of historic preservation.”[1] As I consider that statement, and think about the events of the past week in the community I call home, I am struck by the discordant rhythms of preservation in Lexington.There are so many positives – the adaptive reuse of the McKim, Mead and White Fayette National Bank into a new 21C Museum Hotel – the retention of housing stock in some of our older neighborhoods – and a recognition that it is the unique fabric of the Bluegrass that attracts visitors and enhances the quality of life for residents, and while shopping centers have their place, they cannot be the core of a strong and diverse community.

The 15-story Fayette National Bank Building, constructed 1913-4, was designed by the firm of Mckim, Mead and White. It is slated to become Lexington's 21C Museum Hotel.

The 15-story Fayette National Bank Building, constructed 1913-4, was designed by the firm of Mckim, Mead and White. It is slated to become Lexington’s 21C Museum Hotel.

Then there is the continuing saga of CentrePointe, which must be one of the most expensive and ridiculous holes in the ground, and the apprehension surrounding the fate of a mid-century bank building, Peoples Bank. We are a state of strong property rights proponents – and not particularly a state where preservation is supported or appreciated. As a Kentucky native, farmer’s daughter, and architectural historian who finds herself standing on a stranger’s porch hundreds of times a year, explaining what on earth I am doing – I often describe myself as a practical preservationist.

The  cranes do add a badly-needed sculptural air to the giant pit.

The cranes do add a badly-needed sculptural air to the giant pit.

My father is a storyteller in addition to a farmer. We talk about people who died over 150 years ago like we saw them at the last family reunion. He cherishes the land that has been in our family for almost 200 years, and his role as a steward of that legacy matters to him. But he is also incredibly frugal, pragmatic, and practical. From him I learned not only the power of the dollar but also how buildings exist to be used by people, and without a function, or a purpose, their value teeters. When I bemoaned the loss of a former tenant house on a remote part of our farm, he asked me how I would have re-purposed that dwelling, and explained the very realistic financial aspect of maintaining a resource.

My great-grandmother (standing), my great-great-grandfather, and in his lap, my great-uncle and my grandmother.

My great-grandmother (standing), my great-great-grandfather (sitting), and in his lap, my great-uncle and my grandmother.

On the opposite side (as is often the case), is my mother, whose approach is much more emotional. She understands a fierce and unreasonable attachment to a place, a landscape, a falling-down old barn. Despite living on the farm where I grew up for over 40 years now, her home is still counties away, on the banks of the Salt River. My passion and energy for the places that matter to people comes from her. My common sense approach to the reality of preservation in the lives of everyday people comes from my father. Though it may seem as blasphemy, especially on the first day of Preservation Month – not every building can be saved.

Balancing the two philosophies extends way beyond the small world I inhabit. The field of historic preservation is a web of tightropes of compromise, extending in a multitude of directions – vaguely like a world created by Escher and Rube Goldberg. In honor of that dance carried out daily in communities across the country, by citizen advocates, practitioners, and officials – I will have a blog post every day of the month – related in some way to preservation and the meaningful places and buildings I’ve encountered thus far. And I promise these posts won’t be so meandering as this one – so Happy 1st day of Preservation Month! A mint julep would not be an inappropriate way to celebrate.

I couldn't resist this one - my first time in that lovely Southern city of Savannah, Georgia. Please direct your attention to the historic plaques, likely National Register designations, on the right of photo. I would be the small creature who looks most unhappy, and either just completed or is fixing to have a huge hissy fit in the giftshop of the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace house museum (Savannah's first National Historic Landmark). I am glad to report that my tolerance for historic places has increased since then.

I couldn’t resist this one – my first time in that lovely Southern city of Savannah, Georgia. Please direct your attention to the historic plaques, likely National Register designations, on the right in photo. I would be the small creature who looks most unhappy, and who either just completed or is fixing to have a huge hissy fit in the gift shop of the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace house museum (Savannah’s first National Historic Landmark). I am glad to report that my tolerance for historic places has increased since then.

 

 

[1] Succinct description courtesy of the National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/Nr/feature/presmonth/index.htm.

 

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4 Thoughts on “The Practical Preservationist

  1. Lynn Mitchell Lind on May 1, 2015 at 6:19 pm said:

    Love the post. If ever you’re near charleston, please pop by & see our new old place – 1790! Would love to talk shop.

    • JR Brother on May 2, 2015 at 12:32 pm said:

      Thanks Lynn! I would love to do so – I haven’t been to Charleston in ages. Such a beautiful city…

  2. d. eads on May 1, 2017 at 8:39 pm said:

    good read , david eads , Avalon 539 w, second st.

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