Tom Mayes

Why Do Old Places Matter? Sacred

Posted on: July 18th, 2014 by Tom Mayes 1 Comment

 

Tom Mayes, a 2013 Rome Prize winner in Historic Preservation from the American Academy in Rome is back in Washington, D.C., these days. But he hasn't stopped thinking and writing about why old places matter. His series of essays about his experiences and research continues here.

The pilgrimage site Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico. | Credit: Thompson Mayes

The pilgrimage site Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico. | Credit: Thompson Mayes

Throughout the world, people revere old places as sacred.

On my first visit to the Catholic pilgrimage site Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico, like many people of many faiths (or no faith at all), I was stunned into reverent silence by the palpable sense of sacredness at that old place. I don’t know if it was the altitude, the impact of coming into the dim, dusty chapel from the brilliantly sunlit skies of New Mexico, the lingering smell of incense and burning candles, the rhythmic voices of the pilgrims in prayer, the old paintings of Santos, or the sight of aluminum crutches lining the walls of the side chapel, left behind by those who believed themselves healed, but something touched me. I felt that I had come in contact with the sacred, even though I’m from a different faith.

People all over the world find old places like the Santuario moving, and actively seek to experience the feelings I had at that remarkable place. From the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem, the Ka’aba at Mecca, St. Peter’s Basilica, Santiago de Compostela, to the Shrine at Ise in Japan, Varanasi in India, and Mount Taylor in New Mexico, sacred places have been revered for thousands of years by many different cultures. The age-old experience of visiting a sacred place remains so meaningful today that millions of people continue the tradition of pilgrimage, travelling to sacred places that have also become tourist destinations.1

Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, explained to me that the word sacred is often interpreted as meaning set apart, separate, different, like a sanctuary. As Jaeger says, “these are places that are viewed as different, as set apart by the community—and there is something awesome in these places, something that lifts you up and takes you out of your normal life.” Martin Gray, a photographer for National Geographic and author of Sacred Earth, listed different factors that he thinks cause people to perceive sacredness in places—visual beauty, geophysical characteristics, building materials, light and color, sound and music, aromatic substances, the awareness of centuries of ceremonial activity, collective belief, the power of ceremonial objects or relics, and others. Gray writes, “I believe that the nature of a person's experience of a sacred site may be influenced by them having what Devereux [author of a book titled Sacred Geography] calls a "multi-mode" approach to the sites, that is, by experiencing the sites from the vantage points of both knowing and feeling, both mind and heart.2 Reading this, I was struck by how similar this explanation seems to be to my own experience at the Santuario de Chimayo—and at many other old places.3... Read More →

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.

Why Do Old Places Matter? Architecture

Posted on: May 23rd, 2014 by Tom Mayes 4 Comments

 

Farnsworth House | Courtesy of Carol Highsmith

Farnsworth House | Courtesy of Carol Highsmith

Tom Mayes, a 2013 Rome Prize winner is Historic Preservation from the American Academy in Rome is back in Washington, D.C., these days. But he hasn't stopped thinking and writing about why old places matter. His series of essays about his experiences and research continues here.

People love and revere old buildings for their art and craftsmanship—and for the way they make us feel. As a boy, I was fascinated by an old house that my father’s friend, Jim Withers, used as a barn. From the outside, it looked like a relatively modest, two-story house. It was dilapidated, to say the least—the glass was missing from almost all of the windows, and the shutters sagged from their hinges. But inside, there were all the marks of an architect or master builder. The high-ceilinged rooms had hand-carved woodwork, and the wide mantelpieces were supported by intricate molding. Decorative brackets unwound in a spiral on the edges of the steps of the curving stair. The woodwork, the relationship of the woodwork to the tall plaster walls, the size and height of the rooms, all felt like part of something whole. I didn’t know then why the house made me feel the way it did, but I later learned that I was probably experiencing—despite the bales of hay stacked in the rooms—the concepts of proportion, balance and harmony, as well as the marks of time.

I was experiencing Architecture – Architecture with a big “A.”... Read More →

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.

Why Do Old Places Matter? History

Posted on: February 21st, 2014 by Tom Mayes 4 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.  You can also read more about his project in an interview at the American Academy in Rome.

Old places give us an understanding of history that no other documents or evidence possibly can. As the National Park Service website for “Teaching with Historic Places” states, “Places make connections across time that give them a special ability to create an empathetic understanding of what happened and why.” Marta De la Torre and Randy Mason, in their report on heritage values, summarized the idea this way: “Historical values are at the root of the very notion of heritage. The capacity of a site to convey, embody, or stimulate a relation or reaction to the past is part of the fundamental nature and meaning of heritage objects.”1

Simply put, old places tell us about the past.

But what is it about old places that give them this unique capacity to “convey, embody, or stimulate a relation or reaction” to history? Old places are tangible for one. Many people feel the excitement of experiencing the place where something actually happened, from the shimmering watery fortress of Fort Sumter where the Civil War started, to the quiet rooms of Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Mass.... Read More →

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.