Thankful for Preservation Heroes

Posted on: November 24th, 2009 by David J. Brown 1 Comment

As Thanksgiving approaches, our thoughts naturally turn to family, good health, friends and the other things we treasure in life.

The Chase, WI, stone barn with its supporters.

Fans of a historic stone barn in Chase, WI, tell the world that "This Place Matters."

This year I’m thankful for the men and women who work to make our cities and towns more livable—who save places that matter all across the country. These are the preservation heroes who’ve brought a house back to life in an inner-city neighborhood; attended a public hearing to speak for the rehabilitation of the historic neighborhood school; invested their life savings in a Main Street business to help spark downtown revitalization.

Heroes like Kristin Kolkowski, who led the effort to purchase a historic stone barn in the small rural town of Chase, Wisconsin. Not just any stone barn, mind you, but a barn listed on the National Register of Historic Places that is a source of pride for the people of Chase. Once fully rehabilitated, it will serve as the town park, museum, and event center for weddings and family gatherings. Kirsten’s constant promotion of the site even led to an appearance—with their This Place Matters sign—on Good Morning America.

I’m thankful for people like Kirsten who speak up for the places that matter, even when it is unpopular. In these difficult financial times, governments often look to cut programs without considering the economic benefits that result from preservation activity. That’s what was happening earlier this year in Florida, as the state legislature threatened the state’s Main Street program with severe budget reductions claiming other programs were higher priorities. Luckily, the Main Street leadership found a powerhouse advocacy partner in the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. Together, the local Main Street leaders and the Florida Trust were able not only to preserve funding for the Florida Main Street program and the State Historic Preservation Office, but even to increase it. That’s a great outcome in face of daunting odds, and those statewide advocates join my list of preservation heroes.

  Charity Hospital Advocacy Group includes Sandra Stokes of Baton Rouge, La., winner of the Peter H. Brink Award for Individual Achievement in Historic Preservation for her work to save New Orleans’ Charity Hospital.

The Charity Hospital Advocacy Group includes Sandra Stokes, who was honored for her work to save New Orleans’ Charity Hospital.

Speaking of fighting against the system, I was fortunate this year to visit with Sandra Stokes—another preservation hero of mine—in her home state of Louisiana. Sandra Stokes doesn’t just talk preservation, she lives it—right out on the front lines.

This year, the National Trust awarded Sandra the very first Peter H. Brink Award for Individual Achievement in Historic Preservation. Here’s how we described her work at the awards ceremony in Nashville last month:

As a board member of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, Sandra has been a leader in the ongoing effort to save and reuse New Orleans’ historic Charity Hospital—a classic preservation struggle that also addresses issues from health care to the role of citizens in determining their city’s future.

She is a film-maker by profession, but in the course of the Charity Hospital battle she has taken on—and excelled at—a number of jobs. She’s become a highly effective fundraiser, for example, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to the cause. She’s an articulate spokesperson, always willing to talk (and talk and talk) with anyone, anywhere, about an issue that really matters to her. She’s an investigative reporter, tenaciously rooting out misinformation and digging for the truth—and a skilled lobbyist, too, talking her way into meetings with decision-makers, winning friends and getting results. She can be the cheerleader who rallies her colleagues when their spirits flag—and the general who inspires them to keep up the fight.

The Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY.

The Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY.

I love meeting people like Sandra in my trips around the country. In fact, one of my favorite things to do when traveling is to find a historic hotel and settle down in a great space to enjoy time with friends. This year I’ve had the chance to do that at some of our best Historic Hotels of America (HHA)—the Algonquin in New York City, Union Station in Nashville, the Fairmont in San Francisco and the Palmer House in Chicago. Many of these places were saved by preservation heroes, with none as important to the preservation story as the Smiley family’s 130-years of stewardship at New York’s Mohonk Mountain House. When this old fashioned resort was less than profitable some years ago, their accountant advised the family to sell off some of their thousands of acres of land for development. Instead, they set up the Mohonk Mountain Preserve and through a bargain sale transferred the land so it will never be developed. The family still runs the hotel with a commitment to authenticity, and Nina Smiley, a stalwart on the HHA board, constantly gives back to the larger preservation community.

I have a preservation hero this year I’ve never met—except through our online version of Preservation magazine. But when I read of Lorraine Minatoishi-Palumbo’s work to save the 70 or so remaining Buddhist temples in Hawaii, I knew she was the type of person who didn’t take no for an answer. She’s been at work for over a decade saving these 19th- and 20th-century structures built by Japanese immigrants for worship and socializing. And she’s making a difference.

Chicago's Michael Reese Hospital (Photo: Grahm Balkany / Gropius in Chicago Coalition)

Chicago's Michael Reese Hospital (Photo: Grahm Balkany / Gropius in Chicago Coalition)

Finally, I am thankful for the work of Grahm Balkany, a local preservation advocate in Chicago whose efforts to raise awareness about and save the Michael Reese hospital campus in Chicago are truly heroic. While preservationists are still fighting to preserve some portion of the campus for future redevelopment, the fact that the campus is still standing at all is due largely to the work of Grahm. Over the past 18 months he has single-handedly conducted a tremendous amount of primary research, compiling thousands of pages of information that document the contributions of Walter Gropius and The Architects Collaborative. Grahm distilled that information into a very impressive presentation, which he delivered at a number of public venues to pretty much anyone who would listen. He also created a fabulous interactive website, founded a “Gropius in Chicago coalition” that has been critical in raising the visibility of the site through events and PR, and been a fixture in the local press advocating for the preservation of the site.

And he did most of this phenomenal work while also finishing his masters degree in architecture last year at IIT. Impressive?  Yes!  Grahm is truly a preservation hero. And through it all, he has remained thoughtful, respectful, and professional, regardless of the numerous setbacks and opposition that he faced “fighting City Hall.”

I’m sure you have your own set of preservation heroes. Take the time this Thanksgiving to tell them how thankful you are for all they’ve done to save the places that matter in your city and town.

Happy Thanksgiving!

David J. Brown is the Executive Vice President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

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One Response

  1. Philip S. Krone

    December 13, 2009

    Mr. Brown write elegantly and compellingly. I immediately want to seek out all these properties and stay at the Hotel in New Paltz. But his last hero, Grahm Balkany, is a person I’ve had an opportunity to get to know personally, and it has been perhaps the most important event of this year for me. I have never met a more self effacing person (with no reason to be). He is articulate, indefatigable, diplomatic, knowledgeable and modest. Just yesterday I learned that he received a double major degree from IIT where he was Valedictorian of the largest class every to graduate from that distinguished school, earning two Summa Cum Laudes. Hopefully his crusade to save the Gropius buildings will be at least partially successful, but regardless, he will have a brilliant future, not only in preserving and adpting the best of the past, but helping to create beautiful and useful buildings and communities for the future. He has a wonderful capacity to balance beauty, design integrity, energy efficiency and economy. I have great faith in our nation’s future when I meet individuals of his caliber