Written by Priya Chhaya and Will O'Keefe
Priya: As many of you know, I love history and preservation, and also watch a lot of television—so imagine my surprise when "How I Met Your Mother" embarked on a storyline that put the preservation of an old hotel front and center to the narrative.
The thirty second plot summary? The show follows Ted Mosby, an architect, through the process of telling his kids how he met their mother. This season he focuses on a girl named Zoey, who is in love with the Arcadian, a hotel standing in the way of Ted's first major project in New York City, a skyscraper for the Goliath National Bank.
Yes, this is a work of fiction, but Will & I wanted to look at the story arc over the course of the year as an example of how preservation is portrayed in pop culture.
Will: Ted and Zoey met while staring up at the Arcadian. After connecting through the former glory of the building, Ted decides that he can design a new building without destroying the facade. However, by the end of the episode it has become clear to the viewer that Zoey is more than a little crazy. Unfortunately, this is all too often the popular image of what it means to be a historic preservationist, just another crazy cause, more often than not against common sense. It’s portrayals like this that sometimes cause people in our field to want to be called something other than “preservationist.”
Priya: I'm with you, Will! When Ted came out with his new design I thought to myself, “All right - they understand what we’re talking about, there are alternatives to demolition. Creative thinking can bring together two parties that might disagree.” Of course, that lasted about a minute in television-time when Ted discovers that Zoey is married. So that design goes out the window.
The funny thing about this storyline is that Ted is in the position of being an anti-preservationist, something that appears antithetical to his character. He often brings up the beauty of architecture and what it tells about the space and the designer. And at one point, he seems to get it, when he discovers the Arcadian tells Zoey's story. It's where she lived with her parents when they first came to New York, and her narrative appears, for another brief moment, to connect with Ted. After all - isn't this the same reason he loves architecture? It is a building that has its own voice and its own narrative.
Will: The fate of the building goes to the New York Landmarks Commission, which in the world of television is willing to make a decision based solely on the word of the architect proposing to demolish it. Only because Zoey recorded Ted saying that the building should be landmarked did the Arcadian seem safe. After the meeting one of the other characters hatches a plan to deface the building by removing an important sculpture. The viewer is brought back to the Landmarks Commission, which explains that they were prepared to declare the Arcadian Hotel a landmark, but now that the lion’s head has disappeared they have no choice but to declare that it is not worth saving.
So what's the moral all of this? What does this say about historic preservation? Where did this go so wrong?
Priya: In the end, the writers served the story rather than looking to reality as a guide - -and I get that, but in doing so, they emphasized some common myths about preservationists. Also, by characterizing Zoey in the way that they did, they made her belief in the power of place seem ridiculous. As preservationists we know that people look to their neighborhoods and communities for meaning, and by stereotyping, this storyline invalidated anyone out there who stood up and held a sign stating that "This Place Matters."
Advocating wholesale destruction of a building because of the loss of a sculpture is akin to rationalizing looting – and for me, removal of that one feature like thieves in the night was the last straw. I need the summer break to rehabilitate my opinion of these characters.
Will: I agree. It’s frustrating to see another example of the lowest common denominator winning out. While this building may not be a beautiful landmark, the show went so far to make it clear that the only thing worth saving was the lion head sculpture. Not every historic building is beautiful, or in pristine condition; redevelopment and restoration is part of what makes historic preservation such a positive tool for economic development.
Priya: This story emphasized a lot of negatives about preservationists:
- That we are “no” people, not “yes” people. FALSE
- That preservation is not economically viable. FALSE.
- That we are individuals who lack rational arguments, and fight for emotion over reality. FALSE.
- That commissions are in place to stand against progress rather than to strive to maintain community character and usher in economic growth and neighborhood development. FALSE
Preservationists are architects, planners, designers, historians, grassroots advocates, genealogists, engineers...and we all look to saving places that matter, because our pasts - as individuals, cities, neighborhoods, states and as a country - make where we live an important piece of how we live. And, normally, this show is an example of that, because Ted, Robin, Barney, Lily and Marshall are individuals defined by New York City.
Priya Chhaya is a program associate in the Partnerships Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She readily admits that despite the preservation heartbreak that "How I Met Your Mother" caused her this season, she’ll be rooting for redemption in September.
Will O'Keefe is on staff at the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and previously worked at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He loves television, probably a little too much. Okay, definitely too much.