The kids are all right … but they’re not becoming preservationists.
Wayne Donaldson, the new chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and current California State Historic Preservation Officer, was kind enough to spend some time on the phone with me after his appointment in May to discuss one of his stated goals – attracting young people to preservation.
My ears perked up, so to speak, on reading this in his announcement since one of the Modernism and Recent Past program’s areas of emphasis is also to engage this group. The Trust’s membership remains largely comprised of those over age 40 and the M + RP initiative aims to reach those under.
As the owner of a rare 1960s Futuro home, Donaldson is a friend of our program. So I wanted to know his thoughts on how M + RP resources are particularly suited to appeal to a new generation of preservationists, and what specific messages and practices we should rethink to attract the younger set.
Donaldson said the connection between modern and recent past buildings and young people dawned on him during the National Register nomination process in 2005 for two Eichler neighborhoods – Green Gables and Greenmeadow in Palo Alto. Constructed in the early 1950s, they were the first of the now well-known California mid-century homes to be listed as historic districts on the National Register.
The residents who came to speak at public meetings were in their 30s, and they were passionate about owning a piece of designed architecture. They were in these homes in part because the properties were affordable to young buyers at the time, and in part -- as Donaldson believes -- it’s a return to an identity.
Kids born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up in a “shopping mall culture” where places are indistinguishable and quality architecture for the everyday does not exist. In contrast, Donaldson describes M + RP resources as design – not a style, not a movement – and we, the hip younger set, can get into design.
So how to make the connection between historic preservation and the shopping mall generations? I admit it’s difficult to distract us from our iPhones and coffee. Historic preservation at its core is about possessing the emotional capacity to care about a place. Young people, as a whole, are not interested in preservation because we are mostly numb to the places in which we live. We move all the time, we do all our business online, and we depend on networks that stretch far beyond our immediate neighborhoods. Historic preservation won’t cross most of our minds until we think about “settling down.”
And when we do that, a ranch home in the Midwest (I can see my friends cringing now) may be all we can afford to buy. If we’re lucky, a helpful real estate agent might point out that this neighborhood is one of the state’s best examples of mid-century modernism and that we shouldn’t rip out the pink tile.
Before long, we’re casing flea markets for the right furniture and going to neighborhood association meetings. Now WE are now those people Donaldson noticed at the public hearings. We care because we have a sense of ownership -- and by accident, we’ve become preservationists. Who knows, we may even rally to save that old stadium and the city hall nobody seems to like either.
As Donaldson points out, modern and recent past architecture is the last era of good design to which we can attach emotion and form an identity around. It remains representative of an American lifestyle before everything looked the same.
Many of these buildings are also the backdrop for our childhoods – schools, banks, libraries, even the visitor center in the summer vacation photos at Yosemite. We already have memories of these; therefore we should care. And once we care, we’ll preserve.
Emily Koller is a Community and Regional Planning and Historic Preservation graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. She is interning as the M + RP’s summer program assistant in the Western Office.