Responses to Davarian Baldwin's Keynote

30 Sep 2015 2:33 PM | Christine R Henry (Administrator)

Below are three thoughtful and thought provoking-responses to Professor Baldwin's keynote address from Louis Nelson, Jennifer Baughn, and Jennifer Cousineau.  Please join in the conversation and leave your comments below.

by Louis Nelson, University of Virginia

2016 is the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. For many of us in the world of historic preservation, this is a fantastic time to reflect on the great work this legislation has enabled and our part in it as practitioners and academics. But it also presents the opportunity for us to open a dialogue about how we might want to shape historic preservation practice in the coming 50 years. I have one point for consideration that I think demands some thoughtful debate. I am not very well versed in front line preservation practice, but it does seem to me that the parameters set out in the Historic Preservation Act still depend so heavily on architectural/material integrity that it does much to undermine our recognition of marginal communities, those who by choice or by condition do not leave any easily legible mark in the materiality of our built environment. The most poignant examples that come to mind are the spaces of the enslaved on Southern plantations and, after the Civil War, the innumerable free black communities whose landscapes have retained their small building footprints but whose actual houses have been improved through the years. We demand the preservation of the Great House, but the enslaved village is allowed to fall into ruin. We demand the preservation of late nineteenth-century main street facades, but the back alleys, the shadow landscapes, are ignored. If anyone cares about the preservation of these kinds of spaces, it is the membership of the VAF. So to that membership I ask a question: What changes in legislation will attend to these concerns? How can we insist that our Federal Government recognize the dignity of all Americans, not just the privileged?

by Jennifer V. O. Baughn, Chief Architectural Historian, Mississippi Department of Archives and History

The narrative I heard in Davarian Baldwin's thoughtful keynote address was a familiar one to preservationists everywhere: a modest yet significant building and a scrappy local preservation group go up against an institution with money, power, and influence. Modest and scrappy lose. The local group used traditional preservation language and arguments to save their building, while the University of Chicago employed skewed marketing-speak to argue that they were saving an "institution" while knocking down that institution's building. That this kind of spin won the day proves nothing except that money and power and influence will usually win the day.

In my nineteen years at the Mississippi SHPO, I have worked to preserve white-columned mansions, African American schools, country churches, synagogues, civil rights sites, and houses that floated off their foundations in Katrina. In all these cases, and more, the traditional preservation language and standards of the National Preservation Act of 1966 have served well; they have been able to stretch when needed and yet remain focused and detailed to remain useful.  Sometimes, I admit, the National Register criteria make me want to beat my head against a wall, but in my more rational moments, I understand that the program will not maintain the level of public respect and acceptance it has if it is seen as flimsy and changeable.

What we need, instead of a change to the criteria, is broader scholarship about marginal communities so that more and better National Register nominations can be developed. VAF could assist in this by sponsoring field schools that return year after year to dig into the history and contexts of our minority places. Importantly, these need to happen not just on the East Coast, but in the under-studied areas of the South and Midwest. In ways that the under-staffed SHPOs cannot, these field schools could delve into why a place is significant, what buildings and culture have been lost and what remains, and develop an integrity standard that would be foundational to National Register listing. A final project would be a completed National Register nomination that we can present to our review boards. Just this year in Mississippi, we hope to consider a nomination for Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County, a 1970s church that was rebuilt after two arson fires in the civil rights period. This nomination, which we hope will be just the first of many that recognize the "rebuilding" period after the tumultuous 1960s, will be researched and prepared by students from Delaware State University led by Robin L. Krawitz.

It's important to remember that National Register listing does not equal preservation; it is just the first step in preservation. Like many ideas and programs, preservation struggles in poor and depopulated communities. Even when grants help, buildings can be lost because there is no use for them or no income to maintain them. But I wouldn't be in preservation if I hadn't seen it succeed on the Gulf Coast, in rural communities, and even in struggling Jackson. The traditional criteria, honestly but creatively applied, can provide a spark for, if not racial reconciliation, at least the beginning of a respectful conversation between groups that historically have not been on equal terms.


Some Thoughts on Heritage Practice in Canada

by Jennifer Cousineau, Archeology and History Branch, Heritage Conservation and Commemorations Directorate, Parks Canada:

Having been active on the front lines of federal heritage practice for six years, I can fairly observe that Canada, like the US, is due for a re-think as regards its principal policy instruments. As of this moment, federal heritage professionals use criteria that depend heavily on architectural and material integrity. Large, permanent, architect-designed, relatively intact buildings pass through the system with more ease than places that cannot be so described.  Like Jennifer Baughan in Mississippi, I have seen all kinds of sites successfully achieve National Historic Site status in Canada, from immigrant districts to ordnance buildings and from the humble to the fantastical. What remains a challenge, in particular for someone trained in the VAF tradition, is that many of these are designated despite a perceived lack of architectural merit or integrity, even when these are fully present to those trained to recognize them.

The First Baptist Church at Amherstburg, an excellent example of the kinds of buildings designed and treasured by mid-nineteenth-century African Canadians, was designated a National Historic Site of Canada, but not principally on the strength of its architecture. In such a case, a complex and flexible design might appear on first glance humble, unspectacular, and much like many other such churches in the region. A lack of valuation of the vernacular, the typical, the marginal, the ephemeral, and the changed, tends to elicit evaluations based on cultural or associative values, with the result that meaningful elements of the built environment can sometimes be overlooked. This does a disservice not only to proponents, but also to the broader public. Stated another way, the scholarship and fieldwork produced over more than three decades by members of the VAF and other like-minded folks has yet to fully be absorbed in federal heritage practice north of 49th parallel. While it true that designation should not be the end, but one of many means to achieving a vibrant sense of place, legislation, policies and criteria that reflect both time-tested ideas and pressing new ones can be excellent tools for creating meaningful, sustainable places.

With respect to the various actors in heritage conservation, some important differences between Canada in the US emerge. Canada is a larger country with a much smaller population, strung out, with a few important exceptions, in one long line close to the international border between British Columbia and Nova Scotia. Historically, and often out of necessity, Canadians have relied on the public sector to provide services that have linked them to each other and knit them into a nation. Among these were essential services such as the post-office and the railway but also cultural services that have had the potent effect of disseminating ideas about what it means to be Canadian. With a relatively small private sector, and an increasingly creative third (non-profit) sector, a fruitful approach to the future of heritage might be to ask how we can all work together more effectively. Perhaps the most important question, in light of recessionary economies and reticence to enlarge the public sector, is who will lead?


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