Why Do Old Places Matter? An Introduction

Posted on: November 13th, 2013 by Tom Mayes 11 Comments

The Eternal City—what better place to find answers to the question: Why do old places matter? Tom Mayes, a 2013 Rome Prize winner in Historic Preservation from the American Academy, is in Rome these days and is contributing a series of posts about his experiences and research. Join us for his periodic essays and add your thoughts to the discussion.

Click here for full coverage on the Why Do Old Places Matter? series including the Spring 2015 issue of Forum Journal.

Sula School in Montana | Credit: Carroll Van West

Sula School in Montana | Credit: Carroll Van West

People like old places. They like to live in places like Ghent, in Norfolk, Va., and Logan Circle in Washington, D.C. They like to live in old houses—in white farmhouses in Vermont, brick mansions in Virginia, and in Arts and Crafts bungalows in Los Angeles. People like to visit old cities for vacation. They like Santa Fe, Provincetown, Mendocino, and Saugatuck. They like Rome, New York, Paris, and Kyoto. They like Brooklyn and Charleston and thousands of towns and cities and countrysides across America and throughout the world.

They like ancient troglodytic hotels (Matera, Italy), and Greek Revival houses (Athens, Ga.).  They like adobe houses in New Mexico, farmhouses in Ohio, and townhouses in Philadelphia.

Why? Why do people like old places? And why do old places matter to people? Do old places make people’s lives better, and if so, how?

This series of essays will explore  the reasons that old places are good for people. It begins with what I consider the main reason—that old places are important for people to define who they are through memory, continuity, and identity—that “sense of orientation” referred to in With Heritage So Rich. These fundamental reasons inform all of the other reasons that follow: commemoration, beauty, civic identity, and the reasons that are more pragmatic—preservation as a tool for community revitalization, the stabilization of property values, economic development, and sustainability.

The notion that old places matter is not primarily about the past. It is about why old places matter to people today and for the future. It is about why old places are critical to people’s sense of who they are, to their capacity to find meaning in their lives, and to see a future.

The stone walls and moat of Fort Monroe. | Photo: Patrick McKay

The stone walls and moat of Fort Monroe. | Photo: Patrick McKay

I am an unabashed advocate for keeping, saving, and continuing to use old places. Immense and overwhelming economic and political forces cause the destruction of old places at an astonishing pace every minute of every day.  We see it in the loss of treasured places both large and small.  From the removal of a single, gnarled pear tree that has delighted us with its bloom in the spring and its fruit in the fall to the inexcusable demolition of public buildings such as schools and churches that give our communities their identity, we are steadily losing our old places. The loss is a soul-destroying severing of people from place, identity, and memory.

There are many critics of the idea of saving old places. Some say that saving old places stifles economic growth and that historic preservation has become too strong a force. They say that preservation is out of balance with the need for change.  I see no evidence whatsoever that the forces of preservation in the United States pose a threat to the capacity of the United States to have a vibrant and strong economy. Quite the contrary, old places actually seem to increase creativity and economic growth.

Are there things we should do better? Yes. Are there disagreements among the people who work to save old places? Yes. Are there arguments about what we retain and how we retain it? Yes. There should be. But the fundamental point remains: The history, memory, and continuity provided through old places are necessary for our self worth and are good for people.

The Bernadotte Bridge in Bernadotte, IL | Credit: Kirk Kittell via Flickr

The Bernadotte Bridge in Bernadotte, IL | Credit: Kirk Kittell via Flickr

A point about terminology. I use the term “old places” throughout these brief essays because the term includes not only places that are officially determined to be historic through the National Register of Historic Places or state or local designations, but also the majority of old places in America, most of which are not officially designated. The term also includes places that are not buildings—it captures streets, landscapes, gardens, farms, archaeological sites, cemeteries and the many other old places that people value. I have also consciously avoided using terms that create an emotional distance between people and place, such as the term “historic resource.”

These are initial thoughts about the purposes of historic preservation. I hope that many people will respond in the comment section below and contribute their thoughts to each of these as they roll out—have at it!

About Tom Mayes

Tom Mayes is the deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2013 Mayes was awarded the Rome Prize in Historic Preservation from the American Academy in Rome.

Historic Sites

11 Responses

  1. Sr. Maureen

    November 13, 2013

    Restoration of old and significant places is a service to the human spirit and to the journey through struggle and also triumph.

    I live and work at the old A J Davis Belmead Mansion on the James in Powhatan. From enslavement through empowerment and now on to environment it just has gotten a brand new recycled and new slate roof. What is always amazing to me as hundreds of people are so grateful that this place is rising from the ashes and standing strong again…at least the roof is strong!
    What never ceases to amaze me is the almost universal response from visitors, students, workers.. is that wonder and even awe that the work done by enslaved people, brick by brick and window by window endures today. A reminder of hard times for both the owner and the owned. A place of obvious beauty and care that endured deep struggle, and then empowered 15,000. Old buildings are more than stones and creaky floors, they hold deep human memory, both painful and exultant. We all love success especially success that endures. The old buildings do indeed endure and rise up to a new generation… even “unto the 7th Generation.. the 7G technocrats.
    Resurrection and endurance is powerful. FrancisEmma.org
    Sr. Maureen

    • Tom Mayes

      November 16, 2013

      Thank you for this very thoughtful response, which beautifully captures a number of reasons old places matter. I plan to issue future posts dealing with acknowledgement and reconciliation, and also memory. Please add your thoughts as these roll out — and any other thoughts you have.

  2. Aubrie Eisenhart

    November 14, 2013

    Thanks Tom for the thought-provoking post. I’m looking forward to reading more of them in the future. One thing I’ve been grappling with is why should old places matter to millennials and how can we make it relevant to them. I’m a millennial myself and have been giving a lot of thought to this matter.

    • Tom Mayes

      November 16, 2013

      I would love to hear your thoughts about why old places may resonate differently with millennials — please share if you would like —

  3. Teresa Rogers

    November 14, 2013

    It is a great question. You are correct, I think, in pointing out the sense of continuity that old buildings bring us. When we preserve and reuse them, they allow us to better appreciate the qualities of life that previous generations valued, that have been passed down to us not only in their words our memories, but also through these old buildings. Ignoring the lessons and values of the past is a high form of selfishness, arrogance and pride. To best understand our place in the nature of society, we need old buildings.

    I tried to address this question in a blog post about revisiting a house my grandmother once owned.

    While writing this story, I found some observations about old buildings from a couple of English authors:

    “[The house] was full of memories for me. [The previous owners and visitors] seemed to have left something intangible behind: a sense of happiness, simplicity, courage and order….” — Dora Jessie Saint (Miss Read)

    “…This house had a personality of its own, some sort of great angel who grew with the growth of the house and was enriched, or otherwise, by those who lived here…. It was a genial sort of angel, and remarkably patient.” — Elizabeth Goudge, Pilgrim’s Inn


  4. Tom Mayes

    November 16, 2013

    Thank you for responding, and for these quotes — I’ve been collecting quotes on old places and haven’t seen these — post more if you have them!

  5. Sr. Maureen

    November 19, 2013

    What about the green restoration of historic places. So many were built “Green” and can be restored “greener.” Who will lead and fund the green restoration trend? How about the hi-tech millenials. Restoration is more than memories,it is about using knowledge and advancing technology for global sustainability>

    • Tom Mayes

      November 20, 2013

      I couldn’t agree more — and will hopefully feature some of the great work that is being done about sustainability and old places in future posts. The phrase people say is: the greenest building is the one that is already built —

  6. Greg Jackson

    November 20, 2013

    While green restoration is an admirable goal, just the reuse or repurposing of an already constructed building is, in itself, a great way to practice sustainability.

  7. Why Do Old Places Matter? An Introduction | Fort Monroe Authority

    November 20, 2013

    […] To view original article on the National Trust for Historic Preservation website click here: http://blog.preservationleadershipforum.org/2013/11/13/old-places-introduction/ […]

  8. James D. smith

    November 26, 2013

    Nicely put article supporting preservation, as are the attached responses and observations.

    My observation along this line – as a long time resident of Crown Point Indiana, the beautiful 135 year old former courthouse in the city square inspired me to move to the city. It was planned for demolition 40 years ago to make a parking lot. The city would have lost its character as well as an awesome attraction that brings businesses and new residents to the city.