Why Do Old Places Matter? Civic, State, National, and Universal Identity

Posted on: January 22nd, 2014 by Tom Mayes 11 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. Last time Mayes examined the role of old places and individual identity. 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. In this post, Mayes tackles a topic that—in his words—is fraught with potential conflict—how old places embody our civic, state and national identity. 

Independence Hall, Phiadelphia, Pa.,

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pa. | Credit:  Captain Albert E. Theberge, NOAA Corps (ret.) via Flickr

Old places embody our civic, state, and national, and universal identity.

Jamestown. Mount Vernon. Independence Hall. Old South Meetinghouse. Valley Forge. The Missions of California. Fort McHenry. The Alamo.  Sutter’s Mill. Harpers Ferry. Fort Sumter. Gettysburg. Appomattox. Little Bighorn. Pearl Harbor. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The very recitation of these names conjures the long timeline of American history. These places—and countless others—embody the history and principles of the United States. For generations, these places have inspired Americans to learn our uniquely American story.

Just as these places embody an American identity, old places throughout the world embody civic, state, national, and universal identity. Stone cottages with thatched roofs embody Irishness. English country houses and cozy pubs stand as symbols of something particularly English.  Temples and Zen gardens symbolize Japan. The pyramids of Egypt and the Parthenon in Greece are valued throughout the world as symbols of our common humanity. Old places help form, maintain, and transform civic identity—whether it’s a city, county, state, region, country, or even the world.

Americans—and people everywhere—care deeply about the old places that embody their shared identity, whether national, civic or more broadly cultural. They speak forcefully and eloquently about these places when they are threatened. From the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the Virginia countryside where the Battle of the Wilderness took place, people strive to save these places because they matter to our collective sense of who we are. As the Civil War Trust notes on its website: “Can you imagine a fast-food restaurant in the middle of Arlington Cemetery? Can you imagine paving over the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial? Can you imagine destroying the remaining original copies of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution? Of course not. But with each square foot of battlefield land that is consumed, whole chapters of America’s history are being ripped out of the book of our national memory, and an irreplaceable piece of our important heritage is lost forever.”

Giza. Pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure (Chefren and Mykerinus) |Credit: A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library via Flickr.

Giza. Pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure (Chefren and Mykerinus) |Credit: A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library via Flickr.

In America, we’ve had policies to preserve places of national identity for more than 75 years, and patriotism and national identity have been key drivers of movements to save old places.1 But we aren’t as single-minded or as uncritical about our civic or national identity as we may have once been. As I listen to people talk about the reasons that old places matter, I noticed that, although many people mentioned national identity and patriotism as a reason that old places matter, others are reticent to refer to national identity—or patriotism—as a reason for saving old places. This reticence seems to reflect what American academic and literary critic Edward Said described as the “… vexed issue of nationalism and national identity, of how memories of the past are shaped in accordance with a certain notion of what “we” or, for that matter, “they” really are.2

What is this “vexed” issue of national identity, and how do we responsibly talk about places that reflect our national—or other identities? Many of the places we first deemed worthy of preservation were saved to celebrate and promote an idea of a shared American heritage—essentially an American identity. The Daughters of the American Revolution, the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, and many other state or local organizations saved old places to promote American ideals. These places inspired people about American history and American institutions, while also acting to form an American identity. The places we sought to preserve represented what we valued from the past. At the same time they also represented what those who saved these places aspired for America to be.

Countless writers and scholars have criticized the selective choice of what was preserved as part of our national identity, by whom, and for what purpose.3 As someone who has cared about old places for most of my life, I am painfully aware of the exclusive character of many early preservation efforts, and the conscious attempts to use old places to tell only a selective view of American history—essentially to define American identity in a way that left people or issues out. Slavery and enslaved people were not acknowledged at plantation houses. Native Americans were treated as an inhuman enemy at frontier sites. The presence of Irish, German, and Eastern European people was not recognized at a host of places that they built, and where they lived and worked. For many years, mill workers, farmers, mechanics, and shopkeepers were not visible in the old places that were preserved as sites of our national identity.


Bamiyan Buddha destroyed in 2001. | Credit: UNESCO

The process of redefining who “we” are is continuous, and today our old places increasingly reflect a more diverse history. Lowell, a textile mill town in Massachusetts, has been a National Park since 1978. Steel mills are preserved in Pittsburgh. The reality of slavery is acknowledged at plantations. In my view, it is critically important for people who care about old places to acknowledge the sometime exclusive history of the preservation movement, and to continue to push to have all the stories included in the places that define who we are as Americans. Americans argue vociferously about what our country is, who it is for, and what it means. These debates help reshape and re-form and—hopefully—deepen our understanding of history and identity. The old places that embody our identity are the perfect venues for those discussions and debates.

Edward Relph, a geographer who pioneered theories about place, noted when he reflected back on his early work, “I realize that place and sense of place, which I then represented as mostly positive, have some very ugly aspects. They can, for instance, be the basis for exclusionary practices, for parochialism, and for xenophobia. There is ample evidence of this in such things as NIMBY attitudes, gated communities, and, more dramatically, the political fragmentation and ethnic cleansing that beset parts of Europe and Africa and that are sometimes justified by appeals to place identity.”4

Bitter disputes over old places are a testament to how much these places matter. They matter. Sometimes they matter so much that their meaning may lead to war and to the destruction, as in times of conflict, of sites that symbolize a specific identity. A famous example is the destruction of Old Town Warsaw during World War II, or more recently, sites in the Bosnian war, when “…factions attacked the cultural heritage of other groups, acts that both violated the laws and customs of war and served to destroy these groups' collective memory, both internally and to the outside world.”5

Map of Africa GIL Building

Casa della Gioventu, by Luigi Moretti. Map of Fascist victories in Africa uncovered during rehabilitation and left uncovered. | Credit: Thompson Mayes

Nationalism and national identity have a dark history. One of the surprises of Rome for me is the prominent presence of buildings from the Fascist era. Mussolini made dramatic changes to the city plan and built hundreds of buildings, many of which consciously sought to tie the Fascist regime with the image of Imperial Rome. The buildings are often monumental, stripped-down versions of Classical buildings—a distinctive style developed to create a new national identity, just as Americans built Greek and Roman style buildings to tie our nation to the republican and democratic ideals of the classical world. The Fascist identity Mussolini sought to create was utterly discredited with the defeat of the Axis in World War II. But the buildings remain and are actively used today. People differ about  whether and how the meaning and history of these buildings should be acknowledged and recognized.

Reynold Reynolds, a filmmaker and a Fellow here at the American Academy, shared with me a film he made about the demolition of the Palace of the Republic in Berlin, the former home of the People’s Assembly of East Germany. The Palace was originally built in 1973-74 on the site of the Berliner Schloss, (which was heavily damaged by bombs in WWII and destroyed by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1950), perhaps the most symbolically powerful site in Berlin. As a representation of the ideals of the GDR, the Palace was without question a symbol of a national identity. But it was a national identity that was no longer valued when Germany was reunited in 1990. Despite the fact that the building represented a discredited regime, Reynolds’ project shows that many Berliners viewed the demolition as the erasure of their history, and the loss of the opportunity for that history to be acknowledged and transformed. As Reynolds said, “… thousands of citizens demonstrated against the planned demolition and hoped the building would be protected against historical censorship, but alas, one day, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the Palace completely disappeared.”6

Square Coliseum

Palazzo della Civita del Lavoro, the "Square Coliseum" EUR, Rome, Italy. | Credit: Thompson Mayes

The continued presence of old places permits the acknowledgement of history—and former identities—and the transformation of identity over time—the necessary and continuous critical revision of identity, informed by the past.  Monticello now doesn’t hide the reality of Jefferson’s life with the enslaved people he owned, although that was not always the case. The enslaved people and their descendants—both literal and metaphorical—are now visible and present at the site. Monticello is the venue for understanding this history, which leads to a deeper understanding of our national identity.

I have heard people say that identity is different in America than in European countries, which have a more homogenous culture. As French historian Pierre Nora stated, “In the United States, for example, a country of plural memories and diverse traditions, historiography is more pragmatic. Different interpretations of the Revolution and the Civil War do not threaten the American tradition because, in some sense, no such thing exists….”7Although I don’t necessarily agree with Nora’s statement, as I think about old places that represent an American national identity, it seems to me to be very American to voice critiques about that identity and to express diverse viewpoints about what the place means. Our old places of national identity can be the forum for this very American expression of views.  What could be more patriotic than that?

Recently, I spoke with Jukka Jokilehto, who has been developing ideas about universal cultural value for the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), about the fraught nature of identity. Jokilehto shared a critically important idea during our conversation. Places that reflect universal human values also reflect the diversity of cultural identities. In other words, places that are important to all of us arise from places that are important to some of us.  When I spoke with Sofia Bosco, the Rome director of Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), an Italian preservation organization, about old places in Italy, she clearly didn’t think about old places in Italy only as Italian. The FAI website features people all over the world talking about why places in Italy are important to them. As she told me: “Italy is a public museum of the history of everyone...the physical identity of a country is more than a library or a warehouse. It’s there for you, for everyone.”

Old places embody our ever-changing shared identities and serve as tangible sites for transforming identity. While we should guard against the dangers of nationalism, these old places, through the diversity of identities, reflect our universal humanity.

I’d love to hear what you think about the “vexed issues” of shared identity, national identity, and old places.


1. The Historic Sites Act of 1935 expressly declared a national policy “to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States.” 16 U.S.C.  461.

2. Said, Edward W., “Invention, Memory, and Place,” Critical Inquiry, 26:2, 177 (2000).

3. See, e.g., Barthel, Diane, Historic Preservation Collective Memory and Historical Identity, New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 1996; Page, Max and Randall Mason, Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States, New York and London: Routlege 2004.

4. Relph, Edward C.  “Reflections on Place and Placelessness," Enviroment & Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, (1996).

5. Supple, Shannon, “Memory Slain: Recovering Cultural Heritage in Post-war Bosnia” InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 1(2) (2005).

6. Falkner, Gerhard and Reynold Reynolds, The Last Day of the Republic, Nurnberg: Starfruit Publications, 2011] http://artstudioreynolds.com/artworks/city-films/.  See also, Ladd, Brian, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

7. Nora, Pierre, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire.”  Representations 26, 10 (1989).

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

    January 22, 2014

    Thanx. How true. Yet the difficulty still remains that we as American prefer for the most part to invest in the “big” places. The smaller, less known places lie hidden.. hopefully lie fallow waiting for restoration. Belmead on the James is one. It is not small.. it is 2250 acres of historic land with historic buildins that is lying fallow.. and stirring now for recogition and significant assistance. Educating 15,000 AfricanAmerican students 30 years after the close of the civil war, the Morrell/Drexel families were an amazing philanthropic family whose legacy exceeds the more famous Rosenwald. See FrancisEmma.org.

    The story lived out by the less dramatic stories of the devastation and courage of war heros on both sides of every battle, captures America’s imagination and funding. The quiet and powerful story of education of AfricanAmerican children goes largely unnoticed unless somehow university status comes to the fore.
    Powhatan County has a unique story. The AfricanAmerican story is integral to the American story; Enslavement Empowerment and now ecojustice of the Environment.

    New growth is happening. Public tax credits are critically important to saving places that matter… Gathering philanthropic support is critical for smaller communities who treasure their story.. and do not have the connection with the “big” established causes.

    Thanks to all who have helped Belmead Mansion complete a new slate roof on the antebellum Mansion.. just one small step in a very long journey to adaptive and green restoration.

    Sr. Maureen T. Carroll, FrancisEmma, Inc.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 30, 2014

      Maureen — please post a photo of Belmead if you would like — I think people would like to see it. Belmead is important for many reasons, and one of the things I think old places have the capacity to do is to reveal the many meanings and stories over time — including the important stories you noted.

  2. Emily Mayer

    January 23, 2014

    The old places that matter to me are found throughout my home county, but the really special ones are my two historic homes that sit side by side. They are estimated to be the oldest in the Havre, Montana, Residential Historic District. I originally bought both homes with my husband, who said I could do what I had wanted to do since I was 13-have a house museum for my hometown. However, after over 10 years, I found he was just yanking my chain and if I wanted that house museum, he would have to go. The marriage had been done for years, anyway, so I got both homes and all of the antiques in the divorce settlement that were meant for said house museum. I decided to open my private home as the house museum in 2012, and proceeds from tours, tea parties, etc. go towards the rehabilitation of the house next door, where the house museum will be moved and a bed and breakfast offered. This is what I would really love to be doing, not sitting at a desk dealing with HR junk. I got my inspiration for the house museum from the Conrad Mansion in Kalispell and the house museum/bed and breakfast combination from the Copper King Mansion in Butte. I also decided to pursue this goal as a private business, thus eliminating cogs in the wheel, indecision and petty local politics and while not exactly where I want to be, I will get there someday. And, someday, someone is going to carry me out of one of these historic homes I love so much-feet first. I’ll never leave them; they mean too much to me.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 30, 2014

      Hi Emily — most old places are saved through the efforts of individuals like you — keep it up!

  3. John Mccann

    January 28, 2014

    Great post, Tom, and to re-introduce myself, I am John McCann, a friend of Steed Taylor and Kelly Pickering. I am currently working at two of New York’s most historic churches, in Lower Manhattan, Trinity Wall Street, built by Richard Upjohn in 1843 as early example of the Gothic Revival Style, the other church in our parish,was built in 1700, survived the fire of New York in 1776, George Washington worshiped there after his inauguration, and it is a block away from the site of the World Trade Center, and is a miracle it stood. It was fashioned after St. Martins in the Fields, and has been without airconditioning. The church is in constant use, as a -place of pilgrimage (2 million a year), and a center for Sunday worship, concerts by Trinitys Grammy winning Baroque Orchestra and Choir, poetry readings, community events. I am involved as a host and public tour guide, also involved in our archival collection of maps, and documents from some of early New Yorks most prominent citizens, including Alexander Hamilton. My museum background, and graduate studies in Asian art and archeology, and now theology, is leading me to undertake a study of early Christianity from the 5th through the Tang dynasty in Central Asia and China, it will be a major long term committment, as I will need to study syriac, and Coptic, in addition to Greek and Latin. As I am close with the principals of World Monuments Fund, I am starting a group called “Rescuing Sacred Sites” focusing on churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques. First project in the pipleline is to help St, John the Baptist Anglican Church in Chester, England, restore their fine example of late Romanesque and early Gothic in need of repair. I selected them because of the church’s importance in English history, and the level of enthusiam and involvement its rector David Chesters, has been able to garner, Congratulations on you Prix de Rome! I heard Kelly at Thanksgiving mention she wanted to go to Rome for the “ceremony”. I hope you will keep in touch with me through e-mail, or I have a presence on both Facebook and LinkedIn. Best wishes, John McCann jhmacjr@aol.com

    • Tom Mayes

      January 30, 2014

      John — great to hear from you and thank you for sharing the work about Trinity and the World Monuments Fund. I’m planning a future post on sacredness as a reason Old Places matter and would love to pick your brain about the notion of sacredness — will contact you by email.

  4. Rachel Condo

    January 28, 2014

    Thanks so much for this wonderful article. I appreciate the history of the little old town I live in, Alloway New Jersey.

    Thanks again, and keep up the great work.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 30, 2014

      Thank you Rachael — I googled Alloway, NJ, and saw some great old places!

  5. Kennard Balme

    January 29, 2014

    Hi Tom…

    I’m president of the Daphne Museum in Daphne, AL. Official name is The Old Methodist Church Museum of Daphne, Inc. Started in 2001. Church building built in 1858. I have a request. I’d like to put images (slides as we used to say) to most of your piece, narrate it and show it in our City Hall and museum and probably our library. You would be credited of course. I ‘d be happy to supply you with any info you may need. My fiancee is a co-author of Images of America: Daphne, so we have lots of historic local images. Let me know what you think and thanks for your consideration. Ken…

    • Tom Mayes

      January 30, 2014

      Ken, I think it’s great to share this work with others — please go ahead, and let me know what response you get. The whole idea of this project is to get a conversation going about why these places matter! Go for it!

  6. David Schon

    February 1, 2014

    Interpretations may change over time or differ among people but the places themselves are crucial to any understanding of identity, however it is defined. Perhaps it goes without saying that we are limited in our ability to conceive our identity or that our conception is poorer when it lacks a physical connection to our past. How many people are denied an understanding of their ancestry because the places they came from no longer exist?