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No pop quiz this time

November 4, 2009

Scottish Baronial style, at Essential Architecture, click image to visit

My last post pondered “historic preservation” as a phrase and whether other terms could more suggestively embrace the idea and practice.   Vince Michael of Time Tells suggested “heritage conservation” as an alternative in response to Donovan Rypkema’s National Trust conference call to action. (Click here to read the amusing Rypkema/Michael aftermath at Rypkema’s blog, including a link to his talk.)

Kaitlin, from Preservation in Pink, weighed in on behalf of the current terminology:

 I think the bigger issues lies in public education and defining historic preservation to people. So many people don’t even know what “historic preservation” means. Thus, if we start from scratch and explain all of the tangents that are part of the umbrella of historic preservation, perhaps we’d have a better shot at making friends. After all, historic preservation is SO much more than buildings.

And I think Kaitlin hit squarely on the problem there in her defense — historic preservation is so much more than buildings.

The way people hear the term now, they react strongly (not in a good way) to the “historic” part — fearing either a pop quiz loaded with dates they forgot to remember, or they put their dukes up ready to argue that nothing “historic” (see “Founding Fathers” in any history book) ever happened there.  It doesn’t capture those aspects of neighborhood character, economic revitalization, identity of place (aka “character”), and cultural and artistic inheritance that are all part of preservation.

“Historic preservation”  as a phrase doesn’t seem to capture the public imagination.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation had success with its “Place Matters” campaign because “Place Matters” does not suggest the need for a degree or a knowledge of architectural styles.  We can all relate to “place” and we all have an opinion about the places we love and that matter to us — significance there can be personal, historic or simply sentimental — no research required.

11-Disneyland CastleOne of my professors asked each person in the class to make a list of the top ten most important sites /places /buildings.  If he’d presented it as a quiz, or added the word “historic” it would have completely altered the way I thought about the question.  But I was given the leeway to define importance (what matters) in my own way.  It was fun — if a bit overwhelming — to think about all the possibilities.  I limited myself to the United States to keep my brain from exploding.  And I included the first McDonalds and Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland because they were icons representing entities that defined modern culture internationally.  My point is, take away the intimidating words, make “historic preservation” about a place that matters — whether it’s neighborhood or burger shack, and you engage people.

Further evidence of terminology intimidation?  I have a friend who reads this blog.  A smart friend.  A friend who likes many of the same things I do.  But the friend has never commented on a single post.  I suspect this is because there’s an internal monitor that says without “knowledge” of the subject of historic preservation, their opinion might be “wrong” somehow.  What if they call that Queen Anne building a Victorian house and it’s wrong?  Well, both are right but maybe one is more “right” than the other.  All over the internet, people weigh in with opinions on songs, movies, politics, or starlet’s fashion choices — but generally historic preservation only spurs public debate over demolition or funding issues.

So we need a phrase along the lines of “Place Matters” — something that is less tagline but still branding-friendly. (You can look forward to a t-shirt  contest in the future!)

There are so many historic preservationists out there who would never identify themselves as such.  And that’s detrimental to the various organization attempting to undertake historic preservation in all its various forms.  So everyone put on your thinking caps and come up with new ideas.

And if you’d like a bit of a chuckle, below is the link to two Glaswegians having a merry conversation about “place.”  I knew the Glasgow before-and-after they marvel at, the sooty city they describe as being “black and white” that recently, in comedian Billy Connolly’s words, pulled back the sunroof and let the light in.

It’s a great example of how to mainstream historic preservation the “Place Matters” way.

Later, Connolly mentions his home in Scotland.  “Is it a castle?” asks Ferguson.  Connolly answers that it’s a baronial house.  He could have added the usual sort of guidebook definition along the lines of “Buildings of the style frequently feature towers further adorned by small turrets. Roof lines are uneven, their crenelated battlements often broken by stepped gables. While small lancet windows may appear in towers and gables, large bay windows of plate glass were not uncommon, but even these would often have their individual roofs adorned by pinnacles and crenelation”


Instead, Connolly explains that Scottish Baronial style has pointy towers, the kind of pointy towers you trap virgins in.

See?  “Pointy towers you trap virgins in” has it all over “pinnacles and crenelations” for the mass audience.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. annefontaine permalink
    November 5, 2009 11:16 pm

    I love Billy Connolly! Great clip. I’m thinking of slogans for your t-shirt contest.

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      November 5, 2009 11:44 pm

      I can hardly wait! I think there may need to be a prize.

  2. March 31, 2010 11:00 pm

    Check out my recent post about Don Rypkema called “Don Rypkema Does the Math” at my blog Loved this post.


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