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​​​Historic Preservation
Why It’s Important and How Much is Enough?

A personal essay by Paul H. Belz

Once a year the regional mall I frequent for exercise walks sponsors a community and home improvement weekend which crowds the promenades with displays for groups as diverse as gutter-guard companies and historic preservation groups.

It was at one such display that I learned of an opening for the directorship of a local historic preservation group, an ironic twist since the ultra-modern mall was primarily responsible for bankrupting the small businesses which had occupied most of the historic buildings throughout the town. I applied for the job.

Across America during the waning years of the 20th century, retailing evolved from urban Main Streets to simple suburban strip shopping centers to enclosed local malls, to mammoth regional centers, and, finally, to the “big box” discount stores. Due to crime and low profit potential major retailers “redlined” or avoided many urban neighborhoods.

The attractive common denominators throughout the evolution were one-stop shopping, convenient parking, and, in the case of the discount centers, low prices. Those lures combined to devastate small family-owned retailers that had long anchored the Main Streets in small suburban towns.

Fueled by well-capitalized conglomerates, America’s history began dying along with its Main Streets as small, historic buildings were demolished to accommodate larger structures that could thrive within the new retail paradigm.

Historic preservation groups panicked because in the new American ethos nothing old was revered. Old people were shuffled to warehouses labeled with polite euphemisms to live their final days in segregated societies, while old buildings were simply demolished. The farm of George Washington’s youth and the Manassas Battlefield were respectively threatened by a mega-mall and an amusement park. The end of the twentieth century was a sad time for heritage lovers, the American family, and old people.


En route to my job interview, I parked on the fifth floor of an eight-story concrete parking garage, dodged grease slicks left by poorly maintained cars, hopped across urine stains left by homeless humans on stairway landings, and ultimately wound my way through the gloomy, sterile structure to the plain concrete sidewalk far below. Directly across the street was my destination.

I entered a stark room with a rectangular table of sufficient dimensions to accommodate twenty people and a woodworking pedigree suggesting importance for the tasks it serviced.

But the room held no accoutrements boasting of past triumphs, no photos heralding former leaders, and no colorful maps outlining current projects such as one invariably finds in a productive office. There was nothing to broadcast pride of accomplishment. Not even a plant was visible to soften the palpably funereal ambiance.

It struck me that the four elderly town leaders, who were oddly dispersed equidistantly around the sprawling table, seemed separated from me by a continent of space. What did seem alarmingly close was a looming presence outside the front window.

The modern, mixed-use building across the street occupied an entire city block. It presented a seventy-five foot length of its tall, fenestration-free south wall to the occupants of our office. Fortress-like, it conveyed what seemed a particularly personal and hostile message to those conducting my interview since it was built by a prominent Chicago real estate developer and the group I was meeting with—which had futilely opposed the structure—was the board of directors of the town’s oldest preservation group.

It was as if that beast of a building was keeping watch over the token efforts regularly taking root in the preservation office, and daring anything inside to blossom.

Nearby, another entire block of Main Street was occupied by a concrete library with a facade so un-welcoming and an architectural style so grotesque that one’s initial glance at the building evoked sympathy for the community.

Yet another full block had been occupied for over a decade by a derelict three-story building devoid of windows and squatting hideously on the southeast corner of the town’s busiest intersection.

The block immediately to the north of that blighted space was the site of a huge department store and adjoining parking garage which again presented a canyon-like, unfriendly, windowless wall to the outside environment.

Historic buildings all over the area were being neglected or destroyed by profit seekers and replaced by visually and psychically-assaulting structures designed to last less than a generation. The riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 made windows anathema.

My interview site was in the heritage-ravaged Main Street epicenter and I whimsically pictured it as the historical equivalent of a galactic “black hole”, sucking away the town’s identity. Even the home in which F. Scott Fitzgerald lived while Zelda was receiving psychiatric care nearby had been razed for a permanent surface parking lot.

The four elderly community leaders took turns narcotizing me with gloomy tales of futility, apathy, and hopelessness.

As their new executive director my mandate would be simple: to make certain the organization’s newsletter got produced and mailed in a timely fashion; to coordinate the group’s 4th of July float, which was essentially an old John Deere tractor on a flatbed; to schedule tours of remaining historic structures; and to boost membership through low-budget legerdemain.

Mercifully, the room’s miasmic environment of burnout and gloom received a fresh breeze when the interview was interrupted by the unanticipated arrival of a young intern wannabe with a historic preservation degree from a nearby college.

Her unbridled enthusiasm was in such stark contrast to that of the board members, I immediately determined not to become a party to the tokenism to which this organization’s directors placidly acquiesced.

Just as the proverbial deckhands rearranged the chairs on the sinking Titanic, these token preservationists were sponsoring teas and giving tours while developers trashed historic buildings all around them. Government officials—ever mindful of the source of their campaign donations—quietly and quickly signed demolition permits. Demolition sometimes occurred in the middle of the night if a building’s inclusion on a historic preservation list was imminent.

One of the burned-out board members said to me unashamedly, “No one gets elected to office by preserving an old building, they get votes by creating jobs, and ugly office towers make that possible.”

A few outraged letters to newspaper editors from concerned but immobilized citizens was the meager evidence that anyone in the community even cared about the despoliation enveloping their living environment’s core.

The town consisted of seven separate universes cobbled together inefficiently; a medical realm with two hospitals on the south side; a university, also on the south side; a central government campus of courthouses and offices; the Main Street retail shops; the regional mall on the north side; another college on the north side; and finally, the perimeter residential areas. The universes were not integrated, they worked at cross purposes, and they exhibited no coordination. Preservation was catch-as-catch-can.

Local preservationists endured a cruelly ironic setback when a bypass road that would have made Main Street pedestrian and parking-friendly was defeated by residents on the east side—a designated historic black neighborhood which would have been bifurcated by the new arterial road.

As I sadly trudged back through the grimy high rise parking garage and paid the exorbitant $9 fee, I vowed to crystallize in my own mind just what apathy toward historic preservation might portend for a society. I declined the subsequent job offer.


History is the study of how people in the past have forged the present. The person who restricts his knowledge of human experience to his own life’s era cuts himself off from the enlightening experiences of preceding generations. He consequently impoverishes himself in the present and diminishes his effectiveness in the future.

Bill Gates could not have reached the pinnacle of the computer world without knowledge of and appreciation for what preceded him in the industry.

He is evidence that appreciation of the historical affords living men a basis for thought and action, just as one’s memory of one’s own experiences provides a basis for personal aspirations and daily conduct. Knowledge of history makes one better able to understand the present and to envision possibilities for the future. Gates utilized history very well in building Microsoft and popularizing the personal computer in the 1980s.

History provides neither specific answers to present questions nor a crystal ball for gazing into the future. It is the challenge of the living to build on and improve what we inherit as Gates did with computer technology, Albert Einstein did with mathematics, and Thomas Jefferson did with political theory. But by providing vicarious experience, history does supply wisdom, content, and guideposts relevant for life in the present and the future. Judicious preservation of land and buildings provides us with tangible links to that wisdom and content.

The importance of our physical genealogy or “family tree” has long been appreciated for religious, scientific, and recreational purposes.

What may be equally important is our spiritual genealogy. Just as we have connective tissue throughout our bodies literally holding the organism intact and a genetic makeup from our ancestors accounting for strengths and weaknesses in that organism, there is intellectual, social, and emotional connective tissue found along history’s time line which holds together our families, communities, and civilizations. I call that our spiritual genealogy.

The many bits and pieces of intellectual, emotional, and social connective tissue are sorted, selected, and synthesized by philosophers and leaders to formulate values that collectively form the ethos, mores and very identities of our individual communities and families.

Within those communities and families we find our own personal identities. Old buildings, along with history’s great personalities, treasured artifacts, and imposing monuments, are reminders and beacons which keep our identities and values on track and in focus through a largely subconscious process.

Celebrating a holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King is a very visible, conscious reminder that an important part of who we are is the set of values he held dear.

In a similar vein, preserving a historic but economically worthless slave hut on a busy commercially zoned highway becomes, to all who pass by, a daily, silent, subconscious reminder of those same values. Repetition is an important part of education and without it, much learning is soon forgotten. Historic structures provide that repetition.

Appreciating the concept of spiritual genealogy and therefore history’s importance means acknowledging that time is a defining dimension of our existence.

The benefit of doing so is that it lends meaning, motivation, and dignity to our lives. The drawback of not doing so is that to disregard history is to abrogate much of the advantage and pleasure of being human and to ensure that history’s mistakes will be repeated.

Such a posture in effect puts the evolutionary clock in reverse. That premise can be understood by comparing ant societies to human societies. Like mankind, the ant builds a highly complex society. But the ant hatches, eats, fights, builds, reproduces, and dies following instincts which have no need for cognizance of historic connections. The ant does what it’s programmed to do.

In contrast, historic preservation puts humans in touch with the ages, reminding us that we are part of a larger and more significant organism—civilization—and as such have the ability to utilize free will, ambition, and imagination; not merely instinct.

Why is that important? Because all of the progress man has made as a species has been accomplished since he stopped living alone in a state of nature and began living in communities. Throughout history each generation has built on the innovations and ideas of previous communities and civilizations. Ants can’t do that.

The downside for humans is that they can undo their progress, while one ant generation cannot reverse what a millennium of evolution has crafted.

The unique American constitutional, federal, democratic republic was one pearl for humanity resulting from its ability to build on past innovations. The government which began in 1789 demonstrated that free will, ambition, and imagination allow one species to progress faster than those controlled by instinct and evolution alone.

The ant, while also part of a large, complex society, is still doing exactly what it did millions of years ago, because it can’t learn from history. It can only change through evolution, not by the conscious decisions and the imagination of brilliant individuals or forward-thinking communities.

Historic preservation reminds us that the larger organism we are a part of cares about us and being a part of that organism requires that we respect ourselves, our fellow creatures, and all those who will follow us in time.

The reward for doing so is that the human species makes progress which the ant can never make. A human can decide to plant an oak sapling knowing that he or she will never live long enough to enjoy the tree’s shade. The ant does not have the volition to perform altruistic acts for future generations if those acts depart from programmed instincts.

But free will is a double-edged sword. It allows humans to disdain sanity and grace and turn back the evolutionary clock. Sadly, since World War II ended, we have built structures which will neither endure a single human life span nor speak to any era but our own.

Old buildings like old people are essential to a healthy and mature society because they provide a sense of transitional moderation and continuity with the past.

Modern construction, sadly, excludes visually appealing and psychically soothing solutions to the problems posed by the cycles of weather and light. With electricity and central heating we simply eliminate those concerns, resulting in Walmart buildings with no windows.

Modern building patterns fail to draw us in. They violate human scale and are devoid of charm. Modern structures frustrate our innate biological and psychological needs such as the instinct to seek natural daylight, the need to feel protected, to mingle in the town square, and to keep a destination in sight as we move about town.

Streets used to be charming and beautiful. The public realm of the street was understood to function as an outdoor room. Today the outside is virtually sterile, meaningless and often dangerous. Many Main Streets are plagued with huge structures devoid of windows and which dwarf nearby shops and homes. They create a fortress or canyon effect which shouts to the public outside, “We don’t care about you!”

Historic buildings are routinely destroyed because they cannot provide the immediate economic returns of larger, more efficient structures.

This escalating disconnection from the past diminishes us spiritually, impoverishes us socially, and degrades the aggregate set of cultural patterns that we call civilization.

Historic preservation’s plight is analogous to the “canary in the coal mine” story in which miners lowered a canary into the mine to test for poison gases. If, in the pursuit of profit, the miners ignored the fact that the gases subsequently killed the canary, they in turn would be killed upon entering the mine shaft.

Similarly, society should not ignore the pervasive destruction of historic property. The attitudes that allow historic buildings and land to be destroyed are insidiously permeating all of society’s institutions including the religious, educational, and familial.

The attitudes can be synthesized into two words; “me today.” Me today translates into religious values that are dissolving into secularism and moral relativism along with classroom values that are detouring from learning subject matter in a disciplined environment to social engineering in an anarchic one.

A society which becomes reliant on such foundation values has made an evolutionary U-turn and is headed back toward the “state of nature” where the individual was very much alone. That society would be ignoring the dead canary analogy.

In the cocoonish suburbs of America we see ample evidence that this is happening. Big-screen televisions, movie videos, computer games, the Internet, wide streets, huge building setbacks, cul-de-sacs, and exclusionary zoning all conspire to fashion lives so insular that many don’t know their next door neighbor’s name.

We see the cost to a society, which has elevated individual self-esteem to its preeminent value, reflected in the ominous escalation of road rage, domestic terrorism, incidences of spousal, child, and elderly abuse, and school violence.

Loss of historic buildings signals the homogenization of our culture, leaving no discernible difference between shopping and living in one city as opposed to another. The Rite-Aid drug store which replaced the unique, historic, corner building in New Mexico is essentially identical to the Rite-Aid drug store which replaced the unique, historic, corner building in Vermont. But, of course, if we prefer to live in cocoons, homogenization is inconsequential to that goal albeit deadly to society’s progress.

Historic structures inarguably contribute to the uniqueness of communities. They help formulate a community’s personality and somewhere-ness. For each building that dies, a community loses a bit of its identity and the vacuum is filled by the nothingness and artificiality of modern construction and huge, boxy-like mega-stores.

Our personal individuality is expressed within the context of vibrant and healthy families and communities. As these institutions lose their uniqueness and die there are no substitute forums where we can express our individuality and have its acceptable limits defined.

Consequently, moral relativism, self-preservation, and self-aggrandizement are becoming the ethos of our society as the former defining and limiting institutions of family, community, school, and religion become powerless and less relevant to individuals.

As neighborhoods everywhere witness historic buildings being needlessly destroyed to make way for poorly constructed, unfriendly but efficient money-making structures, think of the dead canary in the coal mine. Will we heed the message?

There is significant evidence that modern society does value historic preservation to some degree. The problematic ingredient in the sour preservation soup is that politicians operate in a sound-bite era of election campaigns. The builder of the office tower can explain its benefits in a thirty-second television commercial. The environmentalist or preservationist cannot defend his goals and articulate the results in such time frames, nor can he present costs and benefits neatly in a spreadsheet.

Consequently, paving the way for a developer to erect an ugly, job-producing, tax base-enhancing structure will unfortunately glean more votes for a politician than will saving an old slave hut on a commercially valuable piece of land. The public will decry the destruction of the slave hut but then they will vote for the official who got the office tower built and created some jobs. The developer’s objective lends itself to a more compelling Power Point presentation.

Where is the evidence of history’s importance to the average citizen?

On the family level the importance of history is often illustrated by media coverage of tragedies such as residential fires. When the media asks survivors to list their most painful losses, family mementos and photographs are invariably high on the list. Since the monetary value of such items is usually negligible, why are these losses so painful? Because the loss makes fire survivors realize that these possessions, which perhaps depicted an actual image of their great grandmother, are concrete links to their past and represent part of their very identity.

Irrevocably losing the photos leaves the family with only memories, which are less tangible evidence of their links to the past. Those memories will die with the individuals and remove the historical links one step further to oral or written history, assuming someone pursues such initiatives.

The more personal and tangible the links to our past the more real and meaningful is our personal identification with it. Family history cements our place in the sea of humanity and even if there are no kings and queens in our past we find comfort in knowing our origins and connecting our past experiences with our present-day realities. The comfort is always there and is invaluable, even if it only lurks on a subconscious level.

It’s why so many adopted children later conduct determined searches for their birth parents.

It’s why Alex Haley’s Roots was such a wildly popular novel and motion picture. Knowing their origins helps blacks plan the actions and conduct of their present lives by working to continue the slow evolution away from the injustices faced by their ancestors. That same knowledge serves as a constant reminder to whites that from 1808 to 1861 the laws forbidding the slave trade were ignored with impunity and that the primary culprit was the Northern states, not the Confederacy. Northern cities’ wealth and the American standard of living was built on slavery. Northern citizens need constant reminders of that as German citizens need reminders of the Holocaust.

In historic preservation terms, it’s why preserving slave dwellings and middle class dwellings is just as important to society as protecting huge estates belonging to the Rockefellers or Vanderbilts.

Preserving old houses provides us with tangible relics which teach us about our ancestors and their societies’ social and economic priorities. They serve as visible benchmarks in brick and stone and oak of how our present society is doing. Are the same injustices being repeated? That log house belonging to a slave ancestor makes us think of that issue each time we drive past it. To use computer terms, it keeps the issue stored in RAM memory instead of lost on a backup drive somewhere. Should that be sacrificed for a new office building because the land is now more valuable?

Understanding our “spiritual family tree” is an important tool for us in continually reaffirming who we are, determining whether we like who we are, and deciding what new directions we wish to chart for the future. Knowing where we’ve been and where we came from is important to that process and preserving old buildings is integral to it.

As the century turned from the 20th to the 21st, the family was disintegrating, but, hopefully, this pendulum of change will swing back toward a realization of the importance of the family unit and its integration into a healthy surrounding community.

One hopeful sign for preservation is that neighborhood groups seem to fight development and espouse preservation vehemently. Unfortunately that passion is seldom carried into the voting booth. Until the day arrives when voting majorities are willing to place quality of life above the economic bottom line, forward thinkers must fight relentlessly to preserve our “spiritual genealogy” in the form of old buildings and land.

It will be an angry generation fifty years hence if the present materialistic, historically apathetic citizenry allows significant quantities of tangible history to disappear. Once gone it can never be resurrected. The disappearance of tangible history leaves us mere memories which diminish further with the passing of each generation.

For those who say, “history is useless, let’s move forward and not live in the past,” it would be wise to stop and ponder for a moment.

Picture a United States without any historic monuments. What difference would it make if there were no Ellis Island, no Golden Gate Bridge, no Washington Monument, no Statue of Liberty, no Gettysburg, no Yellowstone National Park, no Everglades, no Arlington National Cemetery, no Martin Luther King birthplace shrine?

If one concedes that some historic preservation is necessary on the national level it should logically follow that the same benefits of spiritual genealogy that accrue to the nation are important to every other segment of society. States, cities, counties, neighborhoods, families and individuals, even young teenagers all need to pursue some degree of historic preservation to develop those unique qualities which separate humans from ants or any other instinct-ruled species.

With teens it may be something as simple as concert ticket stubs, a diary, a first baseball glove, a lock of hair from a former boyfriend, or an autograph from a childhood hero. For states it might be a battlefield. For counties, towns and cities it is more likely to be commercial and/or residential buildings, monuments to war heroes or simply preserving scenic lands.

If one acknowledges the need for some nebulous degree of historic preservation, all that remains is to determine its appropriate limits.

What benchmarks determine that which is worth saving? Who determines a worthy preservation target? There must obviously be a winnowing process since it’s undesirable to save everything old be it buildings in a town or a teenager’s concert tickets.

Places of grand construction, grand architecture, and grand beauty are as alluring today as they were hundreds of years ago. Beautiful churches, gardens, and homes provide oases within the bleak modern landscape and remind us of what we are capable of creating. Places of horror are preserved to remind us that man has the capability of retrogressing to unspeakable depths of callousness and evil.

To that end, the huge Holocaust Museum in Washington and the tiny slave hut that’s now a plantation remnant on a busy road can both fill important niches. The Holocaust Museum serves as the destination for once in a lifetime pilgrimages and the slave hut as a daily reminder for local travelers.

Monuments to people of grand achievement, the instruments of grand accomplishments, and sites of grand events, which defined an entire society or a small community, all evoke memories which speak to our values and very essence and are therefore worth preserving.

But just as families don’t save every single photograph they take, communities don’t need to preserve every single building. Progress and population growth demand new construction. How much to save? Enough to weave an historic fabric through a community. Enough to provide continual reminders to passers-by of the messages of history which that community deems definitive of its essence.

What is paramount is that a democratic process reflecting the will of the people determines what will be preserved. Whether it’s an entire town such as Salem, Massachusetts or Williamsburg, Virginia, or merely sporadic structures at strategic locations, the critical determinant should be the local citizens’ desires, not the strategic plan of a multi-national real estate developer or a single generation of a controlling political party with a self-serving agenda vis-a-vis what should be preserved.

Historic preservationists will usually endeavor to save every old building and real estate developers will usually endeavor to tear them all down or move them to other locations. It is up to the general public to educate itself about the importance of preservation in its communities, strike a comfortable balance between the two conflicting forces, and then play the role of arbiter.

It is government’s obligation to make certain that the people maintain sufficient legal wherewithal to ensure that their wishes will prevail over the mega-dollars and legal weapons at the disposal of huge corporations or specific political parties. Just as those who would incite a riot cannot hide behind the shield of “free speech,” those who would rape society’s landscapes must not be allowed to prostitute the “private property rights” protection or the eminent domain provision of the Constitution.

Whether it’s the town of Williamsburg or just a few buildings in a hamlet, the crucial imperative is for citizens to understand why preservation is important in their personal lives and the lives of the communities in which they reside.

If they embrace preservation by defining quality of life in terms which recognize the importance of spiritual genealogy and the values that have evolved through the ages, as opposed to the present trend of endlessly pursuing creature comforts and ephemeral agendas, then future generations might look back on our time and affirm that we were good custodians of democracy and American culture.

We might similarly avoid what John Adams feared and democracy’s enemies predict; the inevitable implosion of every democratic republic due to complacency, greed, and the loss of the historical thread which maintains a nation’s values and identity.

Vigilance must be universal, courageous actions must abound, and hope must transcend generations.

It's important to understand the relevance of historic preservation and the extent to which it's appropriate.