As a 1995 Phi Kappa Phi Fellowship recipient, I was given the opportunity to attend the triennial convention and symposium in St. Louis in 1995 to make a brief presentation about my expectations for graduate study in historic preservation. To summarize my perception, I stated, "I hope to demonstrate that historic preservation is not just about saving an old building or somebody's silver service. Indeed, historic preservation can touch most aspects of our lives." At the time, I vastly underestimated the accuracy of this statement. My four semesters of graduate study and thesis research have yielded greater insight into the significance of historic preservation, and the following observations are based on this experience.
Since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966, the historic preservation movement has increased in depth and breadth. Such noteworthy accomplishments as the restoration of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and protection of Civil War battlefields have embedded in the American psyche the importance of saving historic sites for the benefit of future generations. However, for many lay observers, preservation continues to be associated with rescuing decrepit mansions inhabited by eccentric matrons and restoring the buildings to a mythic past of opulent splendor. While preservationists certainly remain interested in preserving outstanding examples of architectural design, their concerns extend into a myriad of economic, social, and political realms that have a significant potential effect on the fabric of American life.
NHPA AND ITS EFFECTS
The NHPA includes innovative elements that form the bedrock of the evolving movement. This U.S. Congressional act provided for the creation of the National Register of Historic Places, a listing of sites, buildings, structures, and objects found to be significant at a national, state, or local level to American history, architecture, archaeology, and/or culture. The NHPA also authorized matching grants for preservation projects, required the creation of state-level historic preservation officers to coordinate programs, and established the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, with which all federal agencies must consult before demolishing properties listed on the National Register. A pair of additional Congressional actions, the Department of Transportation Act and the Demonstration Cities Act, respectively, forbade destruction of historic properties listed on the National Register if feasible alternatives existed and required the Department of Housing and Urban Development to preserve and restore structures of historic or architectural value in implementing its projects.
Although not necessarily regarded as revolutionary at the time, the NHPA and its companion legislation prepared the way for the preservation movement to become an essential component of economic development, educational programs, and community enhancement at all levels. The National Register is a database of historic sites and structures, which is a valuable informative function in itself, but equally important is that being listed on the National Register provides property owners with an avenue of protection for historic properties that might otherwise be endangered by road construction, zoning changes, and rapid development. For instance, the Tennessee Department of Transportation has established a record of redesigning road construction projects to avoid destroying nearby registered historic properties. Various grant programs for preservation projects have helped to fund diverse undertakings as large as Troy, New York's renovation of its civic square and as modest as the rehabilitation of the Rosa True School in Portland, Maine, to create eight low-income housing units.
One of the most important state-level programs coordinated by historic preservation officers is Main Street, an effort credited with rescuing hundreds of American downtowns from the economic doldrums brought on by suburbanization and sprawl. Main Street directors assist local business owners in coordinating activities, overseeing building rehabilitations, encouraging reinvestment, establishing revolving loan funds, and publicizing both the aesthetic and the commercial attributes of historic downtowns. For example, according to a recently completed study by Donovan Rypkema for Kentucky, Main Street programs in the Commonwealth have created 8,092 net new jobs, generated over $175 million in investment, and allowed for the renovation of 760 buildings since 1982. Finally, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation continues to exercise prior review of many federal projects affecting historic properties, keeping the issue of preservation at the forefront through more than a half-dozen diverse presidential administrations.
The proven economic success of historic preservation has assured its consideration in many development and revitalization programs, especially at the state and local levels. My thesis research has focused on case studies in Kentucky, a state simultaneously boasting a wealth of historic resources and facing the imperative to adapt to a globalizing economy. For instance, Bowling Green and Warren County, Kentucky, have received substantial benefits from participation in the Main Street program. A 1988 study found that nineteen rehabilitation projects in the City of Bowling Green, totaling $4 million in investments, had generated twice that amount in gross output. An additional $750,000 in state and local taxes and 232 jobs were also created. Accordingly, Warren County's comprehensive plan, completed in 1989 and currently undergoing revision, included a substantial discussion of preservation issues. Bowling Green adopted a historic preservation ordinance, the use of preservation easements, and participation in the Certified Local Government program (the goal of which is to carry out the programs of the state historic preservation office at the local level) as measures to protect those historic resources that have proven their continuing economic importance to Warren County. A survey of historic sites catalogued 200 sites in the county and 441 in Bowling Green, 232 of which are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Seven National Register districts have been designated, with six located in Bowling Green and one in Smiths Grove. The newly created historic preservation board was subsequently empowered to designate historic districts for local protection as well. Finally, Bowling Green has joined many other Kentucky communities in taking advantage of Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act federal funding and public-private partnerships to advance preservation projects, with a multimillion dollar renovation of its historic L&N Depot. Upon completion, the depot is expected to become a centerpiece among the City's adaptively reused historic buildings. (For further reading on this subject, see West Kentucky Corporation, West Kentucky's 42County Regional Marketing Plan and Guide (Murray, KY, 1996), 41; Richard M. Pfefferkorn, Warren County Comprehensive Plan Technical Report (Bowling Green, KY, 1989), v-vi, 1; Bowling Green, Kentucky, Article 13b: Bowling Green Historic Preservation Board (1989), Zoning Ordinance/Resolution for Warren County. Also see Center for Historic Preservation of Middle Tennessee State University, "Bowling Green's Classic Depot: Preserving the Past, A Gift to the Future," Volume 1, Murfreesboro, Tenn., 1994.)
MEDIATING MEMORY AND HISTORY
However, the empirical economic success of preservation projects should not cloud equally important educational and social issues. Historic sites and artifacts retain a crucial role in educating the public, both about past events and about their continuing influence on contemporary society. Recent high-profile examples of this role include the reenactment of a slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, and the National Air and Space Museum's proposed exhibit on the impact of nuclear weapons, centered around the Enola Gay bomber that delivered the first such weapon to Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. Both of these projects ignited heated controversy over proper interpretations of history and the role of past events in shaping current problems.
For the preservationist, perhaps the greatest challenge therefore is mediating the interaction of memory and history, both in individuals and in the public at large. Each individual interprets the past through a complex amalgam of ideology, classroom history lessons, media reports of current events, and popular culture outlets such as docudramas, movies, and novels; and that perspective is profoundly influenced by class, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, and learned values. The result blends a person's understanding of history on a grand scale with personal identity and sense of place, and it is this individualized, haphazard conception of history that each visitor brings to historic sites, districts, museums, and landmarks. A similar process takes place at the collective level as societies attempt to define their identity and sense of place in the global community. The result is a collective memory that often bears little resemblance to scholarly analysis of historical events.
Public historians who seek to reach their audiences effectively must develop means to negotiate the vast differences in historical outlook that exist from person to person and group to group, to create and illuminate the common ground of shared history while respecting individual interpretation and minimizing technical jargon, and to accomplish these tasks without sacrificing academic integrity or accuracy. The continuing resonation of historical events at all levels of society complicates these tasks. Emotionally volatile examples come quickly to mind - the Battle at the Little Big Horn, the U. S. Civil War, the Holocaust of European Jewry, the 1960s anti-war movement - all of which provoke a range of responses that no single interpretation can address effectively.
Historic preservationists, public historians, and museum professionals have responded to these challenges by establishing dialogues with the communities that they serve. Community advisory groups increasingly provide input into the content and design of proposed exhibits and the uses of historic building stock. The U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum offers an excellent example of a negotiated interpretation of historic events. Over the course of more than a decade, a board composed of scholars, museum professionals, and Holocaust survivors engaged in every aspect of the museum's design, from the artifacts to be displayed, the narrative structure, and the groups to be included as victims to the location, floorplan, and architectural style of the buildings. Ultimately, the inclusion of survivors, many of whom had no particular academic expertise but who possessed irreplaceable experience, became the distinguishing characteristic of a museum that sought to describe one of the darkest periods in human history. Such an approach is vastly different from the traditional role of the historian, preservationist, or academic as an omniscient authority figure who decrees the meaning and content of events.
Community involvement can be found in how historic buildings are used as well. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, rapid commercial redevelopment and growth, brought on by renewed interest in San Francisco's distinctive downtown architecture, prompted residents of the lowincome Tenderloin district to organize and oppose the resulting gentrification and displacement. Diverse nonprofit organizations, including the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, the Bay Area Women's Resource Center, and the Homeless Task Force, became political advocates, agitating for protection for low-income persons through zoning ordinances, affordable-housing programs, and government accountability for development patterns and plans. (See Tony Robinson, "Gentrification and Grassroots Resistance in San Francisco's Tenderloin," Urban Affairs Review 30 [March 1995]: 483-513.) Such a strategy differs markedly from the traditional noncritical support for growth at any cost that prevailed for much of the twentieth century. Rather than permitting the wholesale razing of historic structures to accommodate space for hotels and convention centers, or the gentrification of historic neighborhoods by upper-income homesteaders, the residents of affected districts increasingly band together to demand from the public and private sectors attention to their goals and ideas for patterns of future development. Preservationists assist these neighborhood groups in numerous ways, such as by informing them of innovative financing programs available for renovating historic structures, establishing the significance of an intact historic district to local economic and social viability, and bringing a preservation perspective to urban planning and development efforts.
Historic preservation has therefore been shown to be an essential component in a diverse array of programs, ranging from economic development to education to community advocacy. In all of these, preservationists provide the technical assistance involved in collecting, preserving, and restoring artifacts; identifying and restoring historic buildings; guiding investors and owners through the maze of regulations entailed in procuring tax credits, grants, certified rehabilitations, and National Register nominations; and researching the past to provide the factual basis for programs. Informing the public about the importance of heritage and its uses in education, community cohesiveness, and progressive development is another indispensable element in the preservationist's lengthy job description. Preservationists typically undertake these tasks in a partnership setting with the residents, nonprofit agencies, and businesses that are affected by preservation issues. Thus, the preservation profession bridges the gap between academia and mainstream society primarily through cooperative efforts and brings historical awareness to many aspects of daily life, often in profound and unexpected ways.
Lena Sweeten was a 1995 Phi Kappa Phi Fellowship winner at Western Kentucky University. She currently is working on her master's degree in public history with an emphasis on historic preservation at Middle Tennessee State University.…