Why I Chose to Be a Heretical Preservationist

My Story and Why I Started Lived Heritage Studies

It’s really not that fun being an iconoclast, but we need more people willing to challenge the status quo.

When I used to teach and advise in a graduate historic preservation program, I would ask my students why they got interested in the field to help guide their career paths. Unfortunately, it’s not a question that gets asked often enough with professionals or academics in the field, because in its absence, we rely on many assumptions, true or not.

In my particular experience, because I often talk and write about people and place, rather than just the immovable, human-made objects in our environment, some people condemn me for not being a “real” preservationist. Other people, usually not in the field, respond with a quizzical glance as if my rhetoric was not consistent with the stereotype of a “preservationist.” What, then, is a real preservationist and why am I apparently not part of the club?

Luckily, diligent researchers in the historic preservation program at the University of Pennsylvania recently conducted a survey on the attitudes of professional preservationists in the field. According to their data, of all of the objective characteristics attributed to the respondents’ object of attention, one of the most important was “the beauty of historic architecture.”

Beauty. Aesthetics. Where have I heard these words before? Ah, yes, in the marketing literature produced by most historic preservation organizations on the planet. To these descriptions, I would also add the words “treasure” and “gem,” which, according to a content analysis that I’ve conducted over the past few years on these organizations, are two of the most frequently employed words in their marketing literature. That these words appear to be such an important characteristic of the field is well known by the public (Zhao et al. 2016), but seem to be an embarrassment when brought to the attention of preservation organizations. Yet, preservation organizations, including governmental entities, continue to use these and similar words. After all, in the twenty-first century, hasn’t the preservation field moved beyond its emphasis on high-style buildings and opulence? Apparently not.

Historic preservation practice is strongly correlated with beauty and aesthetics, not only in the eyes of the public, but in its practitioners, as well.

Don’t believe me? Google the phrase “historic preservation” and the word “beauty.” Make sure to surround the phrase and the word with quotation marks, as this will force the search engine to find the exact phrase and only pages that contain this phrase and word. You should see almost 4 million results. Take off the word “beauty” and repeat the search. You should see about 20 million results. These numbers mean about 20% all of the web pages on the Internet that discuss historic preservation use the word, “beauty.” You can repeat this with “treasure” and “gem,” as well, and you’ll get something around 2 million results, each.

For comparison, repeat the search, and instead of the word “beauty,” use the phases or words (again, in quotes), “African American,” “Asian American,” “Native American,” “Latino,” “Latinx.” The results should be something like 650k, 90k, 900k, 200k, and 34k, respectively. The disparity here should be rather obvious.

Heck, just Google “historic preservation,” and click the tab for “images.” What do you see? The answer is lots and lots of beautiful, high-style buildings developed mostly built by wealthy, White men. (If you see an incongruous image from the Wikipedia page on “historic preservation” from Barry Farms, a public housing development, yours truly put it there.)

These examples, and the aforementioned studies, make it rather difficult to deny that (White) aesthetics are a fundamental value in the historic preservation field. Preservationists may be embarrassed by this characteristic, but it’s impossible to deny. On the positive side, the fact that there are millions of pages that discuss historic preservation in context with people who have minoritized racial and ethnic identities should affirm that the field is moving (slowly) in the right direction, but the historical inertia seems profound, indeed.

In the everyday experiences of people that emotionally bond them with old places, the holistic experience of landscape mattered more than individual buildings. And, again, for the layperson, it was not aesthetics driving this emotional bond, but rather the patina of age.

With this aesthetic frame in mind, let me share my story about how I got into the field, because aesthetics were never a part of my interest. People and their experiences were, instead, consistently what mattered to me. And, as I matured in my career, I increasingly became an activist for racial and ethnic equity to address the social injustice that I discovered was pervasive in the field.

My true preservation love: Ruins. I’ve long been fascinated by how the cultural becomes “natural,” and apparently, I’m not alone.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated with old things – objects, buildings, landscapes (even living parts of landscapes, such as trees). Growing up in the western half of the US, I was lucky to see many ghost towns, including the industrial remnants of brickmaking, lime works, and mining. In this arid landscape, even as a seven-year old, I could feel the age of the past and, in my mind’s eye, I saw the people that used to live in these ruined places. Even now, thinking about this, I get a shiver up my spine. Old places have always been an emotional experience for me. While I wondered about the objective histories of abandoned towns, I was more interested in the everyday lives of people who lived there. What was their experience like? Why did they leave? And, more than anything, how sad it was to see these abandoned, yet magical, places.

It wasn’t until I did my doctoral research that I discovered that my experience, which I named a “spontaneous fantasy” via a process of phenomenological reduction, was, in fact, shared by many people and was a fundamental reason people bonded, emotionally, with older places. The aesthetics of these places were not the reason people were emotionally attached to them; rather, the appearance of age (e.g., patina) on the surfaces of building materials was critical in catalyzing emotional attachment. Most intriguingly, however, it was the holistic experience of the landscape, in which live plants participated (especially old trees), that influenced people’s emotional experience: the buildings were secondary. Let me repeat this: in the everyday experiences of people that emotionally bond them with old places, the holistic experience of landscape mattered more than individual buildings. And, again, for the layperson, it was not aesthetics driving this emotional bond, but rather the patina of age.

Thus, aesthetics figured little in my early interest in old places; instead, I was deeply interested in how I, and other people, emotional bonded with place.

As an undergraduate student in an historic preservation degree program, I spent much of my time volunteering to create historical walking tours for downtowns. I very much enjoyed the local history and archival research that was critical to this process as I tried to piece together the remnants of the past into a cohesive story. But, I quickly became aware of the fact that while it was very easy to access historical facts associated with wealthy, White, men, such facts were much harder, if not impossible, to find in relation to women and especially people with nondominant racial and ethnic identities. I distinctly remember, as I was researching the history of downtown Cape Girardeau, Missouri, that surely African American people were present in the day-to-day activities of the past and also helped build the town. But, could I find any historical documents that would help me understand their story? No, nothing, nada. I was able to locate records of enslaved people—raw numbers and sometimes a name—but nothing that would help me tell a fuller story.

From my undergraduate and graduate studies through my professional practice, and later as an academic, I volunteered in more than a dozen local historical societies, Main Street programs, and historic preservation commissions. Through these experiences, as a White/non-Latinx man, I quickly grew accustomed to only seeing people who looked a lot like me and often had more time and money than I did. Not once, in any of my volunteer work, did I encounter another volunteer with a different racial and ethnic identity than mine. Indeed, in my professional work, as an architectural materials conservator, museum curator, Main Street manager, and historic preservation lead for a city, all of my colleagues and volunteers shared my same racial and ethnic identity. In retrospect, I’m not sure if many of my former colleagues thought much about this discrepancy, but I sure did, and it made me increasingly uncomfortable as time progressed. To be sure, the only time I worked with people who had a minoritized racial or ethnic identity was when I encountered them as applicants in the design review process for an historic preservation commission. And, I can say, with complete confidence, that the goal of the city in relation to preserving the historical integrity of these individuals’ properties was not shared by the property owners who were more concerned over costs.

Prior to becoming an academic, many of the professional conversations that I had with colleagues and fellow volunteers about the importance of historic preservation typically involved some aspect of aesthetics. This might manifest as how the beauty of a well-preserved downtown translated into increased tourism or how the historical integrity of an historic district is retained by avoiding “cheap” and “ugly” vinyl siding and replacement windows. The visual component of practice had absolute primacy. On the other hand, there was almost never any discussions about how these “preservation” activities impacted nondominant communities or people lower down on the socioeconomic ladder.

Historic preservation culture has long been associated with the tastes of the dominant racial and ethnic group. The work of preservationists needs to be far more inclusive, culturally, than it has been in the past, including embracing and celebrating intangible heritage. (Photo of DJ Mustafa Mearaji by Morteza DJ; used by permission via CC BY-SA 4.0 license from Wikimedia commons.)

As my discomfort over the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the preservation field grew, I began to take a more active role in upending the status quo. One of my first efforts involved my work on the board of a preservation advocacy organization in Allentown, Pennsylvania. This non-profit regularly held a downtown summer festival to celebrate the local historic districts and its work in reviving the area; while the majority of people who lived in the neighborhood identified as Latinx (e.g., Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican), nearly all of the people who moved into the historic district and rehabbed a rowhouse were White/non-Latinx. As a result, for decades, the festival did not attract, nor hold any particular interest for, the dominant population. I was able to successfully push the organization to hire a Latina consultant to work with the board in developing a more inclusive festival. The end result was a fabulous success, with most of the people who came to the festival representing the broader Latinx population for the first time in the history of the event. Most of the board members were very happy, but a minority of board members complained about the “loud” reggaeton music and even openly questioned how “these people” are relevant to the work of the organization. This was my first wake-up call that systemic racism is often just under the polite surface of many preservation organizations; unless you challenge the status quo, you’ll never discover that it does, indeed, exist.

After I earned my doctoral degree, and began to write and publish in academic journals and books, I encountered similar issues with the peer review process. When I wrote about how the founding fathers of historic preservation doctrine were “elite, White, men with high levels of education,” I was criticized for using the word “white.” Indeed, one peer reviewer said that, in these contexts, the use of the word seemed “pejorative” and thus, should not be used; this reviewer (and others) apparently felt that the White, dominant group shall not be challenged in writing, even if it was factually correct. In other cases, when describing the ontological basis of historic preservation practice, I emphasized Tainter’s and Lucas’s (1983) characterization of the field as being based on an “empiricist-positivist” paradigm, in which the visual (i.e., aesthetic) characteristics of historic objects had near absolute prominence; in response, peer reviewers would lament how I was “denigrating” the field, as if all scholarly historic preservation papers must not engage in a critique of the field, no matter how accurate such an assessment should be.

I even received a snail-mail letter a few years ago—quite remarkable in an email dominated world—in which a well-known historic preservation professor criticized my advocacy for a “human-centered” approach to the field. He went on to write that he thought the field should be “returned to the way it was many decades ago when our primary focus was just buildings.” In the letter, this professor belittled the need for “cultural competency” and lamented how students learning about the social sciences was a “waste of time.” In sum, this professor went beyond simply upholding the status quo to advocating for a return to historic preservation’s origins when it did, indeed, only focus on the buildings of wealthy, White, men.

But, what eventually made me leave higher education, and essentially the traditional field, was my experience in directing a graduate historic preservation degree program. In the two decades since the program’s founding, there were no significant curriculum changes. Any content related to diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice was to be found in one token class. As long as it had existed, the instructors were nearly all male and White/non-Latinx and the students were nearly all White/non-Latinx. [Ed. the original phrasing was “the instructors and the students were nearly all male and White/non-Latinx,” which was not accurate.] In this environment, I could not gain traction with my colleagues in discussing needed changes to the program. I was especially troubled by how faculty gave lip service to the university’s and the school’s strategic plan that discussed the need to decolonize curricula and center the voices of people with non-dominant identities. One colleague, in particular, told me that he felt that “white material culture” was “threatened” by this directive and thus, blocked every effort to even begin to engage in curriculum change discussions or in increasing the diversity of instructors. Spurred by the impossible nature of this environment, I made what seemed like, at the time, a radical decision to leave my tenured position as an associate professor and start my own consultancy.

In sum, there are many well-meaning people working in the historic preservation field who need a gentle wake-up call about how the field sustains systemic racism, especially in how it centers a White aesthetic and material focus. The field and its practitioners and educators also need to recognize and celebrate how people—of all identities—emotionally bond with place and how this drives resulting values and motivations. But, more critically, we need more preservation professionals and academics to start thinking about how their work may sustain social injustice through this ontological and epistemological myopia; only then can we begin to have a discipline-wide discussion about what a future preservation practice can be that is reparative and more relevant to more people. This is an argument for an increased degree of self-reflection and self-reflexivity. In other words, we need less of what this poor, misguided fellow represents in the photo, below.

The image of the preservationist needs to change as much as does the field’s practice.

This is a well-known preservationist, whose identity I have protected, who posted this image as his profile picture to a social media service during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. For additional context, the building in which he is pictured was built with the labor of enslaved people. While we may all like, to some degree, the opulence of older, high-style buildings, a preservation practitioner using this photo in a public forum sends the wrong message in terms of priorities; more troubling is that the photo likely exposes the internal motivations and values that this person has for his practice-based decisions. As a field of practice that is in the public benefit, and whose work is paid, in part, by public tax-payer dollars, preservationists must all strive to be more inclusive in their work and be more open as to the broader values of historic preservation, especially to socially and economically marginalized groups and people with minoritized identities. A focus on opulence and aesthetics is likely appropriate for some interior design and fashion contexts; it should not be a primary focus of historic preservation. I realize that by bringing this sensitive topic in the open, that I will readily be branded a preservation heretic. So be it. We need more heretics for the field to address its propensity toward supporting social injustice. Will you join me?

Today, my company, Lived Heritage Studies, is founded on the principle of righting the social injustice that I witnessed in historic preservation practice and in higher education. There is a great need for reparative solutions in historic preservation practice and education, but the challenge is in helping people in the field more widely recognize that change is needed, especially in moving from a mostly aesthetic/material focus to one balanced on the needs of the public, and especially the needs of nondominant groups. In addition to myself, I have assembled some of the most qualified partners, in the country, who are available as sub-contractors to work on marketing and education for heritage places, design and heritage placemaking, and equitable preservation policy reform. I would be very interested in hearing from like-minded people with suggestions and ideas about how we can all work together to make a better future for historic preservation.

Works cited:
Zhao, S.N., Nyaupane, G.P., Timothy, D.J. (2016). Residents’ preferences for historic preservation criteria and their determinants: an American example. Journal of Heritage Tourism, 11(4), 395-410.

Tainter, J. A., & Lucas, G. J. (1983). Epistemology of the significance concept. American Antiquity, 48(4), 707-719.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Dennis Pogue

    This is to correct blatant misrepresentations in this post. Between 2014 and spring 2021, the UMD Historic Preservation Program graduated 52 masters degree students: 41 women and 11 men — 9 grads self identified as BIPOC. The author must have known that his post was inaccurate, as the gender breakdown above is taken from a document that he compiled (with one curious omission). It is true that most of the courses taught during those years were by white males, but 7 women instructors taught at least one course.

    1. Jeremy Wells

      Dear Dennis,

      Thank you for the opportunity to expand on my post and provide more statistics on UMD’s historic preservation program. To be sure, UMD’s preservation program is not unique for its lack of racial and ethnic diversity, as it is similar to all such programs, across the country, according to data from the US Dept. of Education.

      Here are the stats from UMD’s office of Institutional Research, Planing and Assessment for the racial and ethnic demographics of students from the graduate program in Historic Preservation:

        % since 2001 / % 2011 to 2020

      0.0% / 0.0% American Indian or Alaska Native
      2.4% / 4.9% Asian
      3.7% / 6.1% Black or African American
      4.3% / 2.4% Foreign
      2.4% / 2.4% Hispanic
      1.2% / 2.4% Two or More
      4.9% / 3.7% Student declined to report
      81.1% / 78.0% White (US citizen or legal resident)

      In comparison, the racial and ethnic demographics of all of the students in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at UMD (the school in which the historic preservation program is located) is as follows from 2011 to 2020:

      0.3% American Indian or Alaska Native
      6.7% Asian
      11.7% Black or African American
      12.0% Foreign
      7.0% Hispanic
      3.2% Two or More
      4.0% Student declined to report
      54.9% White

      For reference, according to the US Census, here’s how race and demographics break down across the US population:

      White alone, not Hispanic or Latino: 59.3%
      Black or African American alone: 13.6%
      American Indian and Alaska Native alone: 1.3%
      Asian alone: 6.1%
      Two or More Races: 2.9%
      Hispanic or Latino: 18.9%

      The historic preservation program is noteworthy as being the least diverse, in terms of race and ethnicity, of all the graduate and undergraduate programs in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. It’s one of the least diverse (in terms of race and ethnicity) of any program, on campus.

      Unfortunately, you’re not very specific as to the claim you object to in my post, but I’m assuming it’s my comment that “the instructors and the students were nearly all male and White/non-Latinx.” As to whether or not these data quantitatively substantiate my race and ethnicity claim seems rather nit-picky, but the issue is that there’s a pretty serious lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the historic preservation program. I’ll grant you that my wording does inaccurately imply the students are mostly male, which, yes, is not accurate. (As you’ve helped substantiate, most of the instructors have been male in the program.) I have updated the post to make this gender differential between students and faculty clear. Again, thank you for allowing me to clarify.

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