Written by David J. Brown
Thanksgiving is a time of year to reflect on the things that matter to us in life, from friends and family to shelter and health. This year, I’m also thankful for the people who work tirelessly to protect, revitalize and enhance places that matter – the heroes of preservation.
These are people like Walter Nold Mathis, who in 1967 saw a chance not only to restore an Italianate mansion to call his home, but also the opportunity to spark the revitalization of an entire San Antonio neighborhood. Although Villa Finale was Mathis’ last personal residence, it wasn’t the last house he owned; he purchased another fourteen houses and invested his own time and money to undertake essential preservation work on them before selling them to individuals who would continue their restoration. Mathis – who passed away in 2005 – is widely recognized as the catalyst for the revitalization of the King William National Historic District. Villa Finale, which I had the honor of helping to open in September as the National Trust’s newest historic site, now shares his story with the public.
Rick Wallace of Lincoln, NE is another preservation hero to celebrate this year. Rick serves on the Board of Directors for the National Trust’s statewide partner, Heritage Nebraska, but his service to preservation doesn’t end there. He recently completed a program for the Nebraska Humanities Council called African Americans of Nebraska: 1854-1945, which focuses on the lives of early African-Americans who settled in Hastings, Nebraska. The program also addresses the circumstances faced by the African-American community and Hastings in 1943, when the Navy announced plans to build a munitions plant outside of the town. The impact of this history can still be felt today in Hastings and is only an introduction to a wonderfully rich story.
It’s not only individuals who are preservation heroes – sometimes entire organizations fit the bill as well. Since 1986, Main Street Iowa, housed in Iowa’s Department of Economic Development, has worked in 64 cities and towns. These communities have seen almost 8,000 buildings rehabbed, 10,000 jobs created, and $904 million invested in historic preservation. This success is a testament to Main Street Iowa’s commitment to relationship-building and advocacy. This commitment has forged strong bonds between Main Street and decision makers at all levels, from the US Congress to the state capitol to the bank manager’s office. These relationships, coupled with Main Street Iowa’s formidable advocacy skills, have resulted in the establishment of funding programs that – among other things – keep small businesses thriving, create upper-floor housing, and encourage sustainability projects that make Main Street greener. A preservation powerhouse and a model for other organizations to follow, Main Street Iowa is making a real difference in the economic health and livability of America’s heartland, and I’m thankful for them.
I’m thankful for Dorothy Lengyel, executive director, and all the staff and friends of the University Heights Community Center in Seattle, WA. The center, housed in a historic school in Seattle’s University District, was awarded a $60,000 Partners in Preservation (or PiP) grant this year. The grant supported the rehabilitation of the 1902 University Heights School’s deteriorated historic wood windows. In all, 351 of 468 window panes were restored. The PiP project has helped assure the long-term preservation of the historic school, the largest building in Seattle’s University Heights commercial district and a major community landmark that receives more than 5,000 visitors each week. The center took advantage of the project to educate visitors about window restoration techniques, setting up a display featuring photos and a partially-restored window. Like the engraving on the walls at the building’s entrance proclaim, “Old Schools still teach.”
Finally, I am very thankful for a person whose contribution to the preservation movement cannot be understated – Frank Gilbert. Frank will be retiring next month after more than 35 years as a dedicated National Trust employee, and more than 45 years of valuable service to the field of historic preservation. In 1965, as a young lawyer, he began working for the newly-minted New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Over the next decade – first as the commission’s secretary and later as its executive director – Frank worked to develop a comprehensive system for designation and preservation of historic districts and individual landmarks in New York. The results of that work became a model for many hundreds of other communities across the country. However, it also became the subject of a critical legal challenge – the battle over the constitutionality of New York City’s regulation of Grand Central Terminal, which really was a battle over the very concept of local landmarks laws. The legal fight over Grand Central – the Penn Central case – was waged for much of the time that Frank worked at the commission.
Frank left the commission while the Grand Central case was still in the courts, but luckily for the National Trust he soon became our expert and our advocate. My colleague and the Trust’s General Counsel Paul Edmondson calls Frank a “preservationist Johnny Appleseed,” as he worked with hundreds of communities in almost every state to help develop strong and effective preservation laws. He is renowned, respected, and held with great affection by preservationists and municipal officials across the country. It is no exaggeration to say that his work has resulted in the protection of many thousands of historic places across the United States. Frank Gilbert is truly a preservation hero.
Who are your preservation heroes? Please share in the comments below – and have a happy Thanksgiving!
David J. Brown is executive vice president and chief preservation officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.