- Historic Sites
To Save The World We Built
Every town you pass through has felt the impact of the modern historic-preservation movement. Now a founder of that movement discusses what is real and what is fake in preservation efforts.
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
When did you become interested in historic preservation?
When Cleo and I traveled in Kurope in the first years after the war, we behaved like ordinary tourists, visiting the standard landmarks and looking at them just as interesting old artifacts. I don’t think it even occurred to me to be surprised that they were still standing, that it required organized curatorial activity to keep them there.
After four or five years of making these annual trips, the State Department asked me if I would meet with a visiting architect from Czechoslovakia. Although I had heard of historic preservation, she was the first specialist in that field I had ever met. I was even more startled to learn that her specialty was churches. She claimed that every church of any historic significance in that communist country either had already been restored, was in the process of being restored, or was slated for restoration. The next year. I toured Czechoslovakia and, by God, I found it was true. That’s when I really got introduced to the whole concept of restoration.
There’s no point in pretending that restoration is a cheap activity.
The other reason for my growing interest in preservation was an increasing dismay at the consequences of urban renewal, which originally had struck me as a logical therapy for ailing cities. I must say it wasn’t until Jane Jacobs began her polemics that I was forced to look at what was happening. The more I looked, the more dismayed I was at the wholesale destruction of old buildings in every city in the country.
Since we had no governmental agencies dedicated to preservation, it seemed to me the universities should assume the responsibility and begin training people. My approach was pragmatic, not antiquarian. The next step was how to accomplish it.
How did you feel entering a field that traditionally had been the domain of ultraconservatives?
When I became involved in the historic preservation movement, I was compelled to reorient my thinking about the active preservationists in towns like Charleston, Savannah, Natchez. Ninetynine percent were white, upper-class Southern women, very often the kind of women I had grown to dislike or distrust because of their political biases. But then I began to realize that many of these same women, in their own context, were really quite radical. They insisted that the historic patrimony be preserved and were quite militant in the battles they fought to do it. I realized there was the possibility of united action, and it was really none of my business whom these women voted for as President so long as they were in favor of preserving all of downtown Savannah and were willing to go out on the picket line to do it. Until very recently the vast majority of landmarks in this country have been saved by such women.
How do you feel about being called the godfather of the preservation movement in America today?
That’s not correct. If there’s any godfather of preservation, Charles Peterson certainly would be it. He founded the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1933, which was one of the main generators of the movement. During the restoration of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Charlie vehemently opposed the demolition of dozens of historic Victorian buildings to make way for a series of plazas like Versailles that would have put Independence Hall in a completely artificial context. If I’m the godfather of anything, it’s education in historic preservation. There’s no question that the program at Columbia has contributed mightily to the cohesiveness and strength of the field.
What sort of curriculum did you envision?
One thing I learned in Europe was that preservation involves not just architects but a range of specialists trained as art historians, engineers, social historians, planners, chemists—a whole spectrum of talent. That struck me as logical and that’s what we aimed for at Columbia.
Since this was the first full-scale graduate program in the country, how did you manage to get the teachers you needed?
There was no possibility of hiring fulltime preservationists, even if we’d had the funds. Instead, I brought in a whole range of specialists to lecture—usually at nominal fees. For example. I persuaded a remarkable woman from Michigan who had degrees in home economics and nutrition to prepare a series of talks on preRevolutionary cuisine, relating it to the physical aspects of the colonial kitchen: what the recipes were, what the equipment was, what the foodstuffs were. We had a Canadian specialist on pre-electrical lighting who really understood the physics and chemistry of early lamps. Another chap lectured on the American food industry, one lecture being on ice and refrigeration and its impact on what people ate and another on canning and transportation.
Aren’t students of architecture usually exposed to many different bodies of knowledge in their training?