The National Preservation Conference is this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Staff members from around the National Trust for Historic Preservation will be blogging from the conference and sharing their experiences. Today, Max van Balgooy, director of interpretation and education for National Trust Historic Sites, reports on the official opening of the conference -- last night's plenary session and the party that followed.
Wednesday’s plenary session officially opened the National Preservation Conference in the magnificent Art Deco setting of the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, recently recognized as a National Historic Landmark. Its soaring tower with narrow stained glass windows is more reminiscent of a skyscraper than a church. Inside, preservationists packed the main floor and balcony while listening to the Cherokee Youth Choir sing from the risers on stage. Cliff Hudson, Chairman of the Board, moderated the plenary session and we were welcomed by Mayor Taylor of Tulsa. Commissioner Winstead of the US General Services Administration described the recent successes in preserving federal buildings and their continuing efforts to find new uses for the obsolete federal buildings, either through commercial leases or transfer to government agencies, citing the example of the rehabilitation of the U. S. Post Office in Washington, DC as the Hotel Monaco.
In his report, Richard Moe, who now celebrates his fifteenth years as president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, noted that preservation is always a work in progress and always facing new opportunities and challenges, thus the work of the National Trust will never be done. The current economic downturn is a major speed bump and the National Trust has already taken steps in response, but he acknowledged that it will cause all of us to rethink the way we are operating. He reminded us that the current situation is temporary but the loss of historic places is permanent and encouraged all of us to seek partnerships to help overcome the current challenges.
A highlight for me were the brief comments of Robert Wilson, who has long been a major supporter of preservation, most recently providing challenge grants to statewide and local preservation organizations to build a sustainability. In his tour of Tulsa, he found that he was struck both by the beauty of the architecture but also by the desolation in parts of the city, the tragic result of demolition caused by the citizens themselves. Philanthropists have many ways to give away money, including health and homeless, but he’s pursued historic preservation because of the ability of great architecture to enhance the lives of many people, both today and into the future. Pennsylvania Station in New York City was a tremendous loss, especially since it was replaced by a “grubby subterranean space” and as a result, everyone’s life has been diminished.
The plenary session closed with Wilma Mankiller, the former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, who shared her insights into tribal culture from her own experience. She opened by describing various places in Tulsa that were associated with the Osage, Creek, Cherokee, and other native peoples but have been replaced or changed over time. Although indigenous peoples face daunting challenges today, including the loss of land or human rights, of greatest importance is the preservation and maintenance of their traditional knowledge, such as language, medicine, and values, which comes from living in the same place for a long time. Among the most valued cultural assets are sharing, generosity, and interdependence, thus they have much greater respect for those that help other people, rather than the wealthiest or most powerful. Indeed, they judge others not by what they own, but rather by what they give away. She is optimistic for the future of indigenous people because they have survived despite the loss of land, culture, rights, and traditions and has seen that tribes that have taken more control over their lives by creating their own hospitals, schools, or police, have done much better. Mankiller closed by listing the many ways that indigenous people can live in the 21st century but it requires that we stretch our own thinking, including the stereotype of what a chief (like her) looks like.
Afterwards, a long line of buses took us to the Philbrook Museum of Art, a grand 1920s Mediterranean revival mansion. We strolled the grand formal Italian and rustic English gardens, explored exhibits of art from around the world, and most importantly, chatted with old and new friends while sipping wine or snacking on fried ravioli. It’s one of the best times for me to see people, so I was able to catch up with Anthea Hartig (director of the Western Regional Office), Jay Vogt (State Historic Preservation Officer for South Dakota), Ken Turino (Historic New England), Bill Dupont (University of Texas, Austin), Adrian Fine (director of the Northeast Field Office), Jeanne Lambin (Savannah College of Art and Design), Arnold Berke (Preservation magazine), Don Linebaugh (University of Maryland), and Kathy Smith (Advisor from DC). It seemed everyone was having a great time and although I was tired from a full day and left at 9 p.m., the rest of the party was still going strong.
-- Max van Balgooy