Do you have to be a "preservationist" to appreciate historic preservation?

Posted on: March 20th, 2012 by Guest Writer 2 Comments

This is a re-post of "You Do Not Have to be a Historic Preservationist," written by Kaitlin O'Shea on her blog, Preservation in PinkIt's interesting to hear different opinions about the words associated with our movement. Although we typically write from the angle that people who care about handmade and human-scale places and physical memory are preservationists whether they know it or not, this is a different take with a similar conclusion. What do you think?

Lately, I have been thinking about historic preservation and how it is viewed by non-preservationists. Non-preservationists can be those who may be interested in but do not define themselves as preservationists, those who are generally uninterested in the field or those who are unaware of what preservation is. To the latter two categories, the term "historic preservation" may sound unfriendly, scarred by stereotypes and preconceived notions or affiliated too much with gentrification.


The author in 2005 with Long Island's Big Duck. (Photo: Kaitlin O'Shea)

Those of us familiar with the field of historic preservation know that it is anything but elitist. The days of focusing solely on house museums and famous figures only have long passed. Now historic preservation includes all ethnicities, all races, all classes, all architectural styles, all communities and reaches beyond history to intertwine itself with economic revitalization, sustainability and quality of life. It is quite the challenge to be effectively succinct about preservation.

You do not have to be a historic preservationist in order to appreciate historic preservation.

Has anyone ever told you that? Does that sound strange? Or obvious? In other words, as I write and talk about historic preservation, I am not hoping to transform you into preservationists. My motivation is not to make every other field sound less important. Rather, the goal is to gain your respect for preservation while providing education about the field. 


The inside an abandoned schoolhouse that the author explored in 2006. (Photo: Kaitlin O'Shea)

For reference, I consider my family members who are not trained in preservation, nor would they define themselves as preservationists. Yet, there are traces of preservation throughout our childhoods. We all grew up loving The Big Duck on Long Island (and we had ducks for pets; Mom still does).  We were and remain incredibly attached to the town of and our memories in Point Lookout. My mom could explain the history of most places we’d pass on our drives to eastern Long Island. My sister Sarah loved road-tripping with my mom and me where we saw more roadside architecture, an abandoned schoolhouse, state and national parks and memorials and small towns in the middle of nowhere.

My youngest sister Erin understands how quality of life and sense of place are improved through supporting small businesses and getting behind the development of bicycle trails. Both girls loved the first time I brought them to a drive-in movie theater.  My sister Annie holds our family traditions dear, yearns to take a cross-country road trip together, and explains to me that I’d love Austria because of the narrow, winding streets and little stores and the architecture. My dad tells me the history of Forest Hills and his parents, his visits to the 1964 World’s Fair and his love for train travel.


Dashboard perspective near Centenary, South Carolina. (Photo: Kaitlin O'Shea)

My husband and I have taken many road trips (Route 66South CarolinaSouth DakotaGreat Lakes) on which we have stayed in little motels, seen roadside America galore, driven through small towns and big cities and of course, seen flamingos along the way and/or had a flamingo in tow. And we always drink a lot of coffee.

You see, it is easy to identify many elements of and connections to preservation running through my family members and our conversations, even if they don’t completely (or didn’t always) realize it. Aside from my mom, I would be surprised if any of my family members included “historic preservationist” in their “about me” descriptions.


The author with her family at the playground in front of an old Colchester, Vermont, drive-in theater. (Photo: Kaitlin O'Shea)

Yet, they understand why it is important and appreciate the benefits of historic preservation. And that is what matters most. While they may not want to do what I do for a living, they are glad that I want to do it. (Don’t be fooled; families are not perfect. We avoid discussions about big box stores.)

The same can be said for every field, probably. Sarah works in the wildlife conservation & environmentalism fields, which is another incredibly vital role in the health of our world. Wildlife conservation is not something I can see myself doing as a career/lifestyle, but I understand its importance. The same can be said environmentalism. Not everyone is going to keep up with the latest scientific findings and reports, but many will do his/her part to improve efficient use of resources in order to help save the planet, habitats and environment.


The author and her sister, Sarah, in 2006. (Photo: Kaitlin O'Shea)

This is a non-succinct story to explain that just because you understand (or sort of understand) all of the historic preservation chatter and theories, does not mean that you have to define yourself as a preservationist. (This is not to discourage you from defining yourself as one if you’d like.) In fact, you don’t have to understand it all. The needed part, by all, is to respect historic preservation and those of us who believe strongly in the power (for good) of the wide-reaching field. You do not have to do the preservation work, but if you can come to terms with even one aspect of preservation (e.g. local shopping, rehabilitation of historic buildings, land use planning, heritage tourism), then you are enabling us preservationists to keep at what we love – and more importantly, to work at ways in improving quality of life and sense of place for person and every community.

So, what do you think? Does knowing that, as a preservationist, I am not attempting to “convert” you or others to a new field make you less apprehensive to historic preservation?  And if you are a preservationist, how do you feel about this?

Kaitlin O'Shea is a self-described preservationist. The primary purpose of her blog, Preservation in Pink, is to "encourage communication between preservationists, whether on serious issues or tangential topics."

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2 Responses

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