The Power of Preservation

Dear Readers,

After reading David Field’s keynote remarks at the 40th anniversary annual meeting of Historic Staunton Foundation, we knew we had to share them with you, our blog readers. David is the Executive Vice President and Chief Preservation Officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and has been around the block when it comes to saving special places. In the speech below, David reflects back on 40 years of hard work by the Historic Staunton Foundation through the lens of the movie “Its a Wonderful Life.”  He talks about the power of singular people to affect change in their communities and the collective power we have when we band together like HSF to make our communities better places.  

His remarks speak volumes about the power of preservation in our communities and its easy to apply them to the preservation movement here in Charleston. Can you imagine what this beautiful place would be like without Historic Charleston Foundation, Drayton Hall, Frances Edmunds or the Preservation Society?……neither can we. Read on for David’s reflections as well as a powerful message about preservation moving forward into the 21st century.

(some paragraphs have been omitted in the interest of space.)

Historic Staunton Foundation 40th Anniversary Celebration

Remarks of David J. Brown

Executive Vice President and Chief Preservation Officer, NTHP

David Brown (center) on a recent visit to Drayton Hall with (L) Director of Preservation and Education Dr. Carter Hudgins, and (R) Executive Director Dr. George McDaniel.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

It is great to return to Staunton and to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of Historic Staunton Foundation. Anniversaries are great times to reflect, celebrate, and resolve. I’d like to do all three with you this afternoon.

Let’s begin with some reflection. I’ve always enjoyed the movie It’s a Wonderful Life – for the dramatic (some might say cheesy) way it showed the impact people have on others and on their community. The movie, for those who don’t know it, is the story of one George Bailey who grew up in Bedford Falls, through no fault of his own has a run on his bank, and ends up contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. Only the intervention of his guardian angel stops him.

And while I’m no Clarence Odbody, the guardian angel who showed Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey the transformation of Bedford Falls to Pottersville as if George had never lived, I would like for all of us to reflect on how Staunton might have developed if HSF were not formed 40 years ago.

Let’s begin down at the Wharf – where generations of visitors initially saw Staunton as they stepped off a train. The first thing you would notice is that there isn’t any Wharf…for the buildings that make up that unique historic district were demolished in the 1970s for a four lane thoroughfare through Staunton.

Yes, the Virginia Department of Transportation thought it was important to allow drivers coming in from the west along Middlebrook Avenue to be able to drive uninterrupted so they could get to…Richmond Avenue and Commerce Road…without having to slow down for a pesky little thing like a town.

   

Staunton, VA

  Of course, you wouldn’t see the farmers market either, because that    highway runs through the landscaped Johnson Street parking area that was   among the first streetscape improvements supported by HSF.

 The reality is that one of the first things a band of volunteers called Historic Staunton Foundation did as an organization was fight the state’s wrong-headed transportation plan….and today the shops, restaurants, coffee and wine stores that make the Wharf such a nice place to linger are ours to enjoy because of the foresight of HSF.

But while we’re pretending to look around the Wharf without the benefit of    the work of HSF, I guess I should mention that the train station is gone as well. If it hadn’t been taken out by the thoroughfare, it faced other threats through the years. You may not remember, but back in the 1980s there was a fire in the baggage room set by some homeless men looking to stay warm. Without HSF, there was no push to keep the beautiful T.J. Collins-designed station and so the city quickly had it demolished so it wouldn’t be a hazard. I bet you really enjoy that small double wide that serves as the Amtrak station today.

 Oh, and does anyone remember that T.J. Collins fellow anyway? He once designed or remodeled over 200 buildings in Staunton, but more than half are now demolished and his archives were thrown in the dump when the office closed.

Of course, the reality is that Historic Staunton worked hard to save the train station after that fire. A decade of work with the city staff paid off, when building inspector Bill Botkin and the city’s fire chief gave preservationists enough time to find a solution without calling for a quick demolition.

And while Historic Staunton was fighting with the railroad’s real estate division to try to find a way to acquire the building, Lee Cochran – that force of nature – mentioned that she sat on a board with the chairman of CSX which owned the station. Just like that, we had leapfrogged the bureaucrats in real estate and were working out a deal to keep that gem of the Wharf Historic District.

And T.J. Collins? His legacy is alive and well, and HSF has the archives of his drawings that remain living and breathing documents in the work to shape Staunton’s future. Yes, just like the transformation of Bedford Falls to Pottersville, the Wharf would be a very different place without Historic Staunton Foundation.

1851 Drawing of the Wharf District in Staunton

So, as Clarence Odbody, I want to take you to downtown Staunton to look at Beverley Street over the past 40 years without Historic Staunton. The four blocks between Lewis and Market streets look pretty shabby – just like hundreds of downtowns in small communities throughout the country that decided to forget about people and turn their towns over to cars.

There are only about two-thirds of the buildings left – because shop owners could buy the building next door and tear them down to create parking for their business. There was no organization – or historic district zoning ordinance – to stop them.

And we love our CVS drugstore that sits where the Marquis Building once sat, don’t we? You remember the Marquis Building don’t you: the Romanesque Revival beauty on the corner of Beverley and Augusta where T.J. Collins had his office? In the early 21st century, giant drugstore chains began building suburban-style drugstores – with suburban style parking lots – on the “corner of Main and Main” in towns across America. There was no more prominent corner in Staunton, so CVS purchased the historic building and a few surrounding ones as well, tore them down, and put their drugstore smack in the middle of town.

Without HSF, there is no coherent streetscape design and the building owners continue in their attempts to capture the newest fad in hopes of revitalizing their fading businesses.

I could reflect like this for hours. Staunton’s historic districts wouldn’t be valuable places to live or own property without the work of HSF. The city would have less tax revenue, as seen in a 1996 study that demonstrated that buildings in every one of Staunton’s historic districts appreciated at a faster rate of growth – sometimes very substantially – when compared with similar properties outside the historic districts.

And what was most interesting about that analysis was the breadth of housing stock that was affected, dispelling the myth that historic houses are only mansions for the rich. Staunton’s historic districts – supported by 40 years of work by Historic Staunton Foundation – not only provide quality housing for people of more modest means, but reward them with faster rates of appreciation as well.

But I want to end my reflection by talking about Staunton’s spirit. Without HSF, the community would feel very different. I know – from personal experience – that HSF gave us a place where old and new came together…where natives welcomed and embraced newcomers and their ideas and where new citizens learned about the traditions of the town. HSF provided the context where everyone now thinks about historic buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes as tools for the future of the city.

Staunton without HSF may not be as bad as Bedford Falls’ transformation to Pottersville without George Bailey…but I think Staunton would be much worse than the wonderful community we know and love today.

I think anniversaries are also times to look ahead and resolve to make a brighter future.

It is important to remember that preservation isn’t something that’s “finished.” Staunton is a living, breathing community that faces hundreds of decisions each year that will affect the future.

You can make those decisions in a vacuum – and end up like “Anyplace U.S.A.” Or Staunton can build on the incredible 40-year work of Historic Staunton Foundation and determine to keep your heritage, your buildings, your community unique and at the forefront of plans for the years ahead.

When I spoke with Logan Ward, who wrote the wonderful story about Staunton in the most recent issue of Preservation magazine, I told him that I thought preservation in Staunton succeeded because of three key elements:

First, HSF has had an amazing blend of professional and volunteer leadership that works well together and looks for the good in the community first.

Second, the ethic of preservation has been integrated throughout the community as a whole – and especially in city government. This is a place where a consultant can come to work – like Bill Hamilton did more than 20 years ago – fall in love with the place, and become an integral part of the preservation effort through his post in economic development.

Finally, Staunton recognizes the value that everyone brings to the conversation about preservation. This isn’t some attempt to “keep things as they are” – which is how preservation is perceived in some communities – but rather new ideas and traditions are blended in a way that points to a rich future for all.

These elements have contributed to Staunton’s success, but they aren’t automatic and they can deteriorate unless we nurture them. I want to end with some thoughts about each of these three elements.

Professionals are important to the growth of historic preservation, but all of us in the preservation movement can find even more success with greater engagement of a broader set of volunteers.

We just completed market research at the National Trust that I find both astounding and encouraging. The Trust has just under 150,000 members, but our market research found there are 15 million Americans who share our values as preservationists. That’s 7% of the population of America – an astounding number if preservation organizations today can begin to reach those individuals.

We call these individuals “Local Preservationists” because they are already taking actions that you and I would describe as preservation-based. Our research shows they aren’t members of the National Trust…and chances are that most of them here in Staunton aren’t members of Historic Staunton Foundation either. Who are these people? Their…

. Average age is 35
. 61% are male
. 33% are non-white
. 60% have < 4-year degree
. 19% make > $100,000/yr
. They are likely to volunteer and fundraise, and
. They are active in social media

Preservation may not be their number 1 cause…in fact, it is likely to be their #4 or #5 cause. But we have the opportunity to reach them, give them meaningful work to do in saving historic places, and move preservation up to their top cause. If we do, we can become a mighty force for the future of this country.

Next, how do we continue to engage the city, county, and state governments in protecting Staunton’s future? Government officials, commentators, planners, architects, and others are focused more than ever on how we build and maintain cities and towns that provide jobs and opportunities for our citizens, safe schools for our children, places to meet together in community, while lessening our impact on the environment. In other words – economically and environmentally sustainable communities.

Often, when politicians talk about economic sustainability, they focus on big-ticket items or on new, out-of-state investments. But we have found here in Staunton that it is the incremental work that brings more sustained growth – and that’s where preservation can play such an important role.

The Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University released the first independent study of the economic impacts of preservation, and they found that investment in historic rehabilitation produces significantly better economic impact in terms of jobs, income, and state-and-local taxes than a similar amount of investment in new construction, building highways, machinery manufacturing, or agriculture.

That’s an amazing fact. Rehabbing old buildings has more impact on the economy than the same size investment in the construction of new buildings. There’s more “bang for the buck” in rehabilitation than in laying miles of asphalt for new highways.

Rutgers found that historic rehabilitation creates tens of thousands of local, high-paying, high-skilled jobs every year all across the country. As an added benefit, the vast majority of the investment stays in the local community.

And to wrap up the argument for preservation as sustainability, the National Trust is releasing an independent study on Tuesday that will show it can take up to 80 years for a new energy-efficient building to overcome, through efficient operations, the climate change impacts created by its construction. In other words, keeping and rehabbing what we have is more environmentally sustainable.

Historic Staunton’s job is to keep making the case – year in and year out – for preservation as the sustainable future for the people of this community.

Finally, Staunton has done a better job than most in bringing together different groups to consider the future of the community. But we can always do better. In a very real way, the preservation movement is keeping the American story alive, in all its richness and diversity. We all share a piece of that story. Yet too many people don’t know or understand what it means to protect it. They see preservation as something removed from their daily lives or not reflective of their cultural heritage. Or they get shut out by the sometimes complicated and expensive process of securing protection for a historic building or landscape.

Preservation is often seen as “the movement of no” — what you can’t do. We need to make preservation more accessible — or a “movement of yes” — if we want to continue to grow and succeed. Historic Staunton Foundation has so much of

President Woodrow Wilson's 1846 Greek Revival birthplace in Staunton.

which to be proud over the past 40 years. That’s a testament to the work that all of you, and people like you, have done to get us to the point where we are today.

Our challenge is to continue to grow the preservation ethic here in Staunton. Let’s ensure that all elements of the community are engaged in our work. One of my great joys in life was the 15 years that Candice and I lived in this wonderful community. Our children were born while we lived in Staunton, and we have many lifelong friends that we cherish deeply.

At a key point in It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence says to George Bailey, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Staunton would have an awful hole without the 40-year life of Historic Staunton Foundation. Thanks for what you have done – and what you will do in the future – to make Staunton a better place in which to live. Good night.

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