Why Do Old Places Matter? Memory

Posted on: December 4th, 2013 by Tom Mayes 9 Comments

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

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.  You can also read more about his project in a recent interview at the American Academy in Rome.

Old places help us remember.

Caffe Reggio Sign | Credit: EdenPictures via Flickr-Creative Commons

Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village | Credit: EdenPictures via Flickr-Creative Commons

Like many people, my earliest memories are of places—a pasture on our old farm where I napped in the warm sun until a cow licked me, and the dining room of my grandfather’s house where we watched President Kennedy’s funeral cortège.  Simply seeing a place again may bring back a flood of memories—whether it’s the Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village, which I frequented in my 20s, or the Davidson College Library where I pored over architectural history books as a teenager. "Old buildings are like memories you can touch," the architect Mary DeNadai tells her granddaughter. It’s a succinct explanation of how old places—our homes, libraries, schools, barns, and parks—seem to hold and embody our memories.

Most people experience this connection between memory and place. The connection was acknowledged by John Ruskin, who wrote in The Lamp of Memory about architecture, "We may live without her, and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her." But how important are places to memory? Does preserving old places—and the memories they represent—matter? Do the individual and collective memories embodied in old places help people have better lives?

"Memory is an essential part of consciousness," says Randall Mason, chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, talking to me about the large and ever-growing topic of memory studies. Philosophers, psychologists, writers, geographers, sociologists, and historians have written, studied, and theorized about memory, from Proust (yes, that famous madeleine that triggered memories of, what else? a place) to Freud to French historian Pierre Nora, who coined the term Lieux de Memoire – "Sites of Memory." Among the thousands of books, studies, and essays on memory and place, many analyze or critique the way memories are shaped or manipulated, including how historic preservationists and others choose what places to preserve and why. Yet, even taking into account the criticism of what we preserve and why, most of these writers seem to support what the geographers Steven Hoelsher and Derek Alderman refer to as the "… inextricable link between memory and place."1 Places embody our memories, even when those memories are contested or controversial. As Hoelsher and Alderman put it, "What … groups share in their efforts to utilize the past is the near universal activity of anchoring their divergent memories in place."

March on Washington | Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

March on Washington,  August 28, 1963. | Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

Places are key triggers for both individual memory, such as those very personal memories I recalled above, and collective memory, the memory shared by the larger society. Diane Barthel, in Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historic Identity, captures the relationship between individual memory and collective memory in a discussion of religious buildings: "Religious structures play a specially significant part in the collective memory as places where moments in personal history become part of the flow of collective history. This collective history transcends individual experiences and lifetimes."2 One need only think about important national sites to see the blending of the two types of memory and how they are tied to place.  How many of us remember something both about ourselves and about us when we see the Lincoln Memorial and its reflecting pool, or images of the World Trade Center?

People writing about memory have described the mechanisms that drive the connection between place and memory. Places serve as mnemonic aids—they remind us of our memories, both individual (coffee at the Caffe Reggio), and collective (marches at the Lincoln Memorial), but they also spur people to investigate broader societal memories they don’t yet fully know. Pierre Nora writes, "Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects.…"3 Environmental psychologist Maria Lewicka refers to studies that discuss “historical traces” and “urban reminders.”  As she states, "Urban reminders, the leftovers from previous inhabitants of a place, may influence memory of places either directly, by conveying historical information, or indirectly—by arousing curiosity and increasing motivation to discover the place’s forgotten past."4 Old places seem both to trigger memories people already have, give specificity to memories, and arouse curiosity about memories people don’t yet know.

And why is this "place memory" important?  In an earlier post, I wrote about continuity—that old places contribute to a sense of continuity that is necessary for people. Memory contributes to the sense of continuity. Memory also gives people identity—both individual identity and a collective identity. As Hoelsher and Alderman put it,  "Whether one refers to 'collective memory,' 'social memory,' 'public memory,' 'historical memory,' 'popular memory,' or 'cultural memory,' most would agree with Edward Said [who stated] that many 'people now look to this refashioned memory, especially in its collective forms, to give themselves a coherent identity, a national narrative, a place in the world.'"5 This sense of identity provided by memory is largely what defines us as individuals and as a society. (Look for a future post on the topic of identity.)

Memories and identities are often contested. We see people argue over the meaning of old places—a restored southern plantation house, which may or may not acknowledge the painful memory of slavery, a battlefield that may or may not present the memory of both the victor and the vanquished. People have different approaches about how places should be remembered. They argue over memorials, from the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial to the World Trade Center. The history of an old place may be viewed differently over time—and interpreted and reinterpreted as our conception of who we are as a people changes.

Antietam Battlefield | Credit: Credit: Dougtone via Flickr-Creative Commons

Antietam Battlefield | Credit: Dougtone via Flickr-Creative Commons

But here’s the key point. The fact that these arguments occur highlights the importance of the place. Regardless of conflicting points of view,the place itself transcends a specific interpretation. The place is the vortex, the common ground, the center-point, and the focus where divergent views about memory can be felt and expressed. The continued existence of the place permits the revision, reevaluation, and re-interpretation of memories over time. As Paul Goldberger, the architecture writer and critic, said to me in an interview in July, the continued existence of the place "…allows new memories to be created." Preservationists often think of historic sites from the viewpoint of significance for architecture or design. Yet architecture critic for The New York Times, Herbert Muschamp, wrote, “The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory. Compared to the place it occupies in social history, a landmark’s artistic qualities are incidental."6

People may ask (and they have), "but won’t the memories survive even if the place is gone?" Yes, memory sometimes outlasts the place. I remember still the smell of the kettle of hot tea on the stove of my grandmother’s house in North Carolina on Christmas Eve, though the house has been gone for many years. Memories can survive if places disappear. But memory—collective or individual—will not prove as durable—nor as flexible—when that vortex of memory, that mnemonic aid, that urban reminder, that historical trace—the old place—is gone.

I would love to hear about the places that you think embody individual or collective memory, or those that are particularly prone to competing interpretations.

Read the full series here.


1. Hoelsher, "Memory and place: geographies of a critical relationship," Social & Cultural Geography, 5, 348. (2004).

2. Barthel, Diane, Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historic Identity, Kindle Locations 1199-1200.

3. Nora, Pierre, Between Memory and History, Les Lieux de Memoire.

4. Lewicka, Maria, “Place Attachment, place identity, and place memory: Restoring the forgotten city past,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 28, 211, 214 (2008).

5. Hoelsher, 348-349.

6. The New York Times, January 8, 2006.

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

9 Responses

  1. 1785 Forever | ...this is what comes next

    December 4, 2013

    […] Does preserving old places–and the memories they represent–matter? Do the individual and collective memories embodied in old places help people have better lives? Tom Mayes, a colleague of mine who is spending six months in Rome as a recipient of the 2013 Rome Prize, asks these questions in his latest post investigating “Why Old Places Matter.” […]

  2. Patricia Malcolm

    December 10, 2013

    Your article was very timely. Two weeks ago, we lost the last remaining wall of the Daisy Air Rifle Factory, here in Plymouth, Michigan. “The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory”. That factory was really the only thing that has put our city on the map, but the city didn’t see it that way. Your article helped me to understand why I’ve “over reacted” to losing the wall. Thank you…Patty Malcolm

    • Tom Mayes

      December 12, 2013


      Thank you for this heartfelt comment, and for your efforts to save a vestige of your city’s memory. People all over the United States remember Daisy Air Rifles.

  3. Jenny

    December 12, 2013

    The feelings in relation to loss of place have been named solastalgia

    • Tom Mayes

      December 12, 2013

      Thank you for introducing me to a new word, which I had to look up. Solastalgia seems to describe the sense of loss people feel when environmental change happens to a place they care about, and, although it seems to have developed in a more environmental setting (the impact of open cut coal mining among others), it also seems directly relevant to the loss of old places. Here’s a nice summary from an article by Seamus MacSuibhne, referencing Glenn Albrecht, who developed the word:

      “Their sense of place, their identity, physical and mental health and general wellbeing were all challenged by unwelcome change. Moreover, they felt powerless to influence the outcome of the change process. From the transcript material generated from the interviews the following responses clearly resonate with the dominant components of solastalgia _ the loss of ecosystem health and corresponding sense of place, threats to personal health and wellbeing and a sense of injustice and/or powerlessness. (Albrecht et al, 2007, S96)”

  4. John A Royce

    December 14, 2013

    Without our individual and collective memories there is no history to be told, to connect with, evolve or learn from. That those memories and their circumstances occur in the context of the place that surrounded their formation drives home the crucial connections to the physical environment that embodies their existence and the emotional bonds that glue them to our souls.

    During our neighborhood association’s campaign to amass historic photos to augment and secure our community’s public record and sense of history, we’ve begun to embark on furthering that effort by meeting with and recording thoughts and recollections from our older residents before they are lost forever. If memories are gifts from time, they also represent fleeting opportunities to secure the vital connections necessary to ensure that our sense of history and place endures to preserve the intrinsic value we understand when places connect to the souls that inhabit them, past, present and future.

    While I often contemplate the complexities of preservation and the ongoing efforts by so many to encourage more citizens to understand their individual roles as stewards of history, your blog title “Why do old places matter?” triggered a flood of personal thoughts and responses. Interesting how such a simple phrase can lead one to frame up years of contemplations and inspire us to respond. That simple phrase will remain at the forefront of my future thoughts and communications.

    As a result, I connected the title to my own president’s message in our neighborhood’s newsletter for December.

    Thank you.

    • Tom Mayes

      December 18, 2013

      Thank you for posting this very thoughtful response. I love the idea of collecting people’s stories of place before they are lost. Ned Kaufman, in NY, has been advocating for “Story Sites” to capture the old places that people care about — take a look at http://placematters.net. Your post also has many beautiful phrases about place and memory: “the crucial connections to the physical environment” “the emotional bonds that glue them to our souls” “memories are gifts from time” “when places connect to the souls that inhabit them, past, present and future” Please continue to share!

  5. Terry Profilet Constable

    December 14, 2013

    Hi, Tom – Not sure if you remember me but I worked at the NT from July 1972 until July 1992 when we moved to Portland on the left coast.
    Reading through your piece about old places, I recall the times when my family would drive around DC in the early morn hours (6 am) on Sundays (no traffic) to see the buildings in Georgetown, the embassies, etc. This was my awakening to the beauty of architecture and buildings.
    My husband and I recently spent a couple years in Prague and often compared living in america’s youthful architecture to living among places that are 600-700 years old. We were continuously astounded by how much the castles, farm houses, city buildings added to the full cultural lives of humans.
    So much of the fabric and characteristics of old buildings are just splendid and long lasting — terra cotta, limestone, granite, marble, iron, stone, and on and on.
    Anyway, my memories of the Nasty Turst are vivid (mostly!) and I’ll cherish them forever. I may be in DC shortly and certainly plan to go by…and maybe even go by the Watergate building.
    Kindest regards,

    • Tom Mayes

      December 18, 2013

      Hi Terry —

      Yes, I remember you very well! I love the two concepts you’ve noted here — the early childhood memory of driving around with your parents in DC in the early morning (I could see the empty streets and the buildings), and the idea about Prague adding to the “full cultural lives of humans.” It seems to me that the memory embedded in place contributes to a person’s ability to lead a life full of meaning– to enlarge our humanity. Thank you for responding!