Written by Priya Chhaya
For the last few years members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation have reminded us that "This Place Matters" is a means to draw attention to individual, local, state, and national places of significance. Those three words emphasize the power of place, the power of structure, and the power of the past, whether it is recent or from the early days of North America.
These places tell us about the people that make up the American past; they tell individual stories, individual struggles, and individual acts of awe-inspiring actions. I remember when I first visited the "Within These Walls" exhibition at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. The exhibit told the story of a house that stood for 200 years in Ipswich, Mass.,—a house that spoke of the five families that inhabited it and how they shaped and were shaped by American history. Peeling back the layers on this house you learn not only why this place mattered, but also about what a structure or an object can tell you about the past.
The same goes for an amazing event in the Cambridgeport neighborhood of Cambridge, Mass., and its "If This House Could Talk…" program where for “nine days residents and businesses post handmade signs telling interesting tidbits relating to their buildings’ history.” In October 2010, for the second year in a row, the community came together to tell the stories about their buildings and their town, and learned about their neighbors in return. In a recent Forum article, Cathie Zusy describes how the program has grown in the last year and how it has expanded to include places of worship and local businesses. Zusy encourages others to co-opt the format (you can see the signs and get more information at www.cambridgehistory.org) to tell their neighborhood story.
This program reveals a natural progression from the "This Place Matters" campaign and the "Within These Walls" exhibition. In the first we identify the places that matter to us, while the second takes that place and reveals how everyone can find their own stories. "If This House Could Talk…" takes that knowledge and shares the historical past with the neighborhood as a means of invoking pride of place and a feeling of community. It gives the homes, houses of worship, and businesses a voice, and emphasizes once again just how important our past is. So tell me about your house, your place of work, or your neighborhood. If your house could talk--what would it say?
Priya Chhaya is a program associate in the Center for Preservation Leadership at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She can be found on Twitter @PC_PresNation.