Written by Tatum Taylor
My first Preservation Conference ended as breathlessly as it began -- but it isn’t over. I now have a chance to pause and reflect, and I know I will continue to do so in the coming days. The conference was truly a preservation whirlwind, and given all of the educational sessions, field sessions, plenaries, and tours filling over 50 pages of program listings, it is likely that no two preservationists took identical paths through the conference. This array of options allowed us to pursue the individual interests that make up our incredibly multidisciplinary field. Based on my own conference path, here is my conclusion about some of the affinities that we ultimately have in common.
Buildings: Okay, this one is self-evident; let’s admit that we are all possessed with an affection for the built environment that might seem borderline-obsessive to people from outside the field. And this year's Preservation Conference location made our ardor even more apparent: Buffalo has a giant wooly mammal’s share of lovable buildings. More than aesthetic admiration alone, we share a calling to instill new life in buildings, from the Guaranty’s double rehabilitations, which the restoration architect called “making a silk purse out of a silk purse,” to the historic properties of “Sacred Sites Renewed,” which have escaped threat by adapting to new uses like event venues and apartments while retaining religious services.
Stories: At the heart of much of the preservation work discussed at the conference was storytelling. The new interpretation plan at Buffalo’s Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site was based on the premise of visitors’ path through the house following a narrative storyline, with historic figures viewed as characters. The “Beyond Stonewall” panelists pointed out that hundreds of sites already on the National Register could and should be reinterpreted to reflect connected stories of the LGBT community. Sites related to the Underground Railroad in Ontario brought to light the stories of another previously underrepresented group. And all of the educational sessions centered on preservationists’ stories of their experiences in the field.
Food: My sense of the extent of preservationists’ love of food began as I followed #presconf on Twitter while awaiting my delayed flight to Buffalo and saw references to the scent of cinnamon buns floating through the Opening Plenary. I soon discovered the practical applications of our culinary addictions. At the TR Inaugural Site, sound effects of clinking china and coffee smell generators make the dining room come alive for visitors. Another session showed how house museums can be reimagined as sustainable sites, and food is the key. The Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, for example, promotes the local food movement through agricultural production at the historic Woodlawn property.
Change: This one might seem contradictory to a certain view of preservation as resisting the effects of time, but that view vastly oversimplifies the goals of our field. Every one of the sessions I attended focused on change as a necessary tool. The TR Site, aiming to create a “transformative experience” for visitors, first enacted transformation in its own interpretation. “Beyond Stonewall” called for change in the degree to which LGBT historic sites are officially recognized. And the sacred sites and sustainable house museums changed the way in which their spaces were used in order to maximize their relevance and contributions to their communities.
One another: I’ve heard it said that preservation is a field full of labors of love. As I interacted with thousands of preservationists this week, I witnessed their undeniable willingness to collaborate and swap ideas out of genuine interest, respect, and perhaps the security of a mutual appreciation for why signage or section drawings or shingles can be so awfully exciting. The Preservation Conference was like a family reunion where you find yourself mingling with the aunts and uncles and third-cousins-once-removed that you didn’t quite realize you had, but you are immediately aware that something at the level of your blood unites you. While I was sorry to see the conference end, I left feeling energized to share the preservation fervor of the conference with the rest of the world, knowing that a slew of amazing comrades, colleagues, and friends are on my side.
Tatum Taylor is a second-year student in the Historic Preservation graduate program at Columbia University. She tweets as @heritagewriter and blogs about preservation and place-based heritage at storybuilding.