Architectural historian Max Page believes America’s preservation movement has reached a crossroads. His new book, Why Preservation Matters, written to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, critiques where the movement has gone and ponders where it should go. The fundamental problems, according to the author, are that it’s too focused on aesthetics, too inclined to emulate the museum approach to conserving and curating precious objects, and—because of the gentrifi- cation and displacement it can catalyze—“too often used as a tool for enshrining the inequality between rich and poor that is the stamp of our global age.” The book attempts “to look beyond the practices of conservation to the role of preservation as a force in public life.”
This broader view has been taking shape at the national level for a generation, thanks in large part to the leadership of Richard Moe, National Trust for Historic Preservation president from 1993 to 2009. Quoting Moe’s speech praising National Preservation Award winners in 2000, Page writes, “Preservation isn’t just about saving historic buildings. It’s about saving historic neighborhood schools for our children, revitalizing downtowns, making historic homes affordable, and protecting our ethnic heritage.” But Page doesn’t think Moe went far enough, and he takes aim at one of that year’s winners, Mayor Daley of Chicago, for allowing for-profit development too large a role in setting the agenda.
Page wants preservation to move past “squabbling about the appearance of new windows and the color of shingles” and join forces with the fights against climate change and income inequality. He advocates for a greater emphasis on “difficult places,” such as slave markets and massacre sites, with more focus on “memory making, storytelling,” and “community building,” though he’s rather vague on what these terms mean. And he argues that what impedes these worthy goals is an elite obsession with architectural aesthetics and authenticity.
Page builds this argument in the book’s most intellectually ambitious chapter, “Why We Preserve.” We do so, he says, because we are looking for “a soul-deep connection to our world.” The catch is that this quest is underpinned by the concept of authenticity, which he dismisses as “a mirage and a chimera.” To elaborate on this problem, Page alludes to such thinkers as Gaston Bachelard, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Heidegger, John Ruskin, Walter Benjamin, and Lionel Trilling, to mention just a few. He concludes that the value of preservation lies not in its authen- ticity but in its ability to “help us confront a difficult past fully and honestly, to employ historic places in the service of economic justice, to secure a sustainable world, and to reaffirm beauty as a path to justice.”
Well, why not? These are all admirable aims. What’s missing is a viable strategy for achieving them. Much of the book reads like a manifesto for the democratization of an elite enterprise in order to create “economically just communities” while offering little useful guidance on how to do so beyond “taking to the streets.” Page seems a bit aloof from economic realities and is especially scornful of market-driven rehab projects, typically enabled by tax credits and often resulting in gentrification. He seems unwilling to consider that preservation follows the money not for lack of idealism but because it’s an expensive endeavor that requires firm financial footing.
Surprisingly, the author’s assertion that the pursuit of justice and sustainability requires us to “jettison” aesthetics and authenticity proves to be more rhetorical than strategic. In the final chapter, he suggests that merely expanding our definition of beauty might suffice.