Preservation in Place: This is the House that Jack Built

Posted on: January 11th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 2 Comments

I woke up this morning with this poem in my head. I haven’t thought about it years, and am not entirely sure what prompted my mind to dredge it up from my childhood. But, as always, Mother Goose has a lesson in mind.

This is the house that Jack built...

This is the farmer sowing his corn,
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn,
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt,
That lay in the house that Jack built.

The poem starts with a single idea: this is the house that Jack built. A rational expectation is that we’ll learn about Jack’s home - the timbers, the frame, the windows. Instead we are treated to a narrative of how the house is interlinked with individuals and events outside of the four walls.

This Is the House That Jack Built - illustrated book cover from 1878.

Those of us that love history know that preservation is about the broader context, both historically speaking but also in terms of present impact. How can preserving one building be an economic and worthwhile benefit to its neighborhood, town, city, state, and so on? Turns out there's a ripple effect. Like in the poem, each building has a ripple effect, encouraging growth, diversity, and investment.

The poem is simple, but somehow articulating this message to non-preservationists (or those who aren't sure where they stand) is often the greater challenge.

Over the holiday I had a conversation with an acquaintance about my job and why I love writing about history and the past. I was asked the inevitable question: what does any of this have to do with today? So I talked to him about neighborhood initiatives, local entrepreneurship, and community character, and wasn’t at all surprised when he said that he never thought of preservation from that angle.

It is not that the history “within these walls” is not important. It is not that significance and meaning don't play a key role in why we preserve. Rather, these are just the jumping off point to having these places continue to play an active and meaningful role in the community.

This is the man who trained in trade,
Who built the windows that were remade,
That brought the visitors to the block,
And the stores in which people could shop,
Creating a community strong as rock,
Beyond four walls that no one forgot,
Amidst the people whose lives it wrought,
This is the house that preservation built.

Is there a place in your community that had this ripple effect? Have you successfully changed minds about the importance and role that preservation can play in economic sustainability and neighborhood vitality?

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.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

General, Reflections

2 Responses

  1. Kara Evans Douglas

    January 11, 2012

    I read this blog entry and am hoping that the B&B I am working to restore has this effect on our neighborhood. LIKE us for updates on our restoration –


  2. Carol Rea

    January 11, 2012

    I love this and timing couldn’t be better as Historic Preservation just noted a nice win in our town! Thank you for adding icing to today’s cake!