Why Preserve? Reflections From Arizonans
May is Preservation Month. The theme this year is “People Saving Places.” I reached out to community members to ask why historic preservation matters to them and compiled their answers into this blog post. Although everyone has different backgrounds, they are all united by their passion for historic preservation.
Donna: Historic preservation matters to me because I love history and things that preservationists attempt to save, restore, and preserve are part of our diverse past. If these sites no longer exist, all we may have are pictures of what once was there. And it is very difficult to tell the full story of its importance from a mere picture. Historic preservation also matters to me because it helps people connect to the past, hopefully explain some of the past, and exist for future generations to appreciate.
Kim: Being a 3rd generation native of Phoenix, it’s my link to the past. It’s my history.
Kathryn: In historic preservation, I found a job that is so much a part of my belief system, I often forget that it's a job! I come from a family that has always underscored the importance of history and growing up in New York, much of what we considered "fun" involved visiting historical sites, cemeteries and the downtowns of smaller towns and cities in the Hudson Valley. You could say, historic preservation is in my blood, as several of my cousins- who are still in Upstate New York- also work in preservation/ heritage tourism. Although my initial career ambitions were to be a field archaeologist, I found that work in historic preservation allowed me to marry training and interests into a job that allows me to work with government at all levels to develop and implement policies that engage communities in a dialogue about the places that are important to them. Even when the outcome is not preservation, I have found that the very act of identifying what is important, and for some- even sacred- to be an essential component of the work that we do. The National Historic Preservation Act was established to provide a "sense of orientation" to the American people. As SHPO, I get to work everyday to bring Arizonans from a wide variety of backgrounds and roles together to make decisions on the places that should be carried forward into our state's future. It's exciting and sometimes frustrating. It's challenging, but always fulfilling. It's the best job I'll ever have!
Eric: Historic preservation can be a powerful economic driver, as historic areas have more locally owned businesses and often more new businesses. Preservation allows us to retain tangible connections to the past and pass them on to future generations. Done correctly, preservation honors the contributions of past generations and acknowledges the diversity of our collective history. By preserving historic sites and structures, we can gain a greater understanding of the complexities of our shared past and use that knowledge to inform our decisions for the future.
Anonymous: I think, as humans, we are innately drawn to places that are able to convey their history. I think of heritage tourism as being a prime example. People like to connect with the past in a visual/visceral way. Phoenix is a young city, relative to many parts of the country. Although our neighboring tribal communities have had a presence in the Phoenix area for longer than Euro-Americans have been in America, but I digress. We don’t really have vestiges of our city’s late nineteenth century beginnings. For many of the people who relocate here we are the sprawling post-war metropolis known “historically” for Mid-century architecture (that’s not a knock as there is really cool Mid-century architecture here) but it downright saddens me that we don’t have the buildings downtown that tell our origin story. I will always remember going to my first Arizona Preservation Conference and a presenter saying that if we don’t save the things we have now we won’t have the resources that tell their story a hundred years from now. I’ve changed over time, become more aware of the challenges we face in carrying out preservation efforts in Arizona and become more pragmatic, but I think there is more opportunity out there. Classic Historic Preservation is one avenue, and a very important one, but I think there is room to expand to historic-age preservation. Places that may not have classic historical significance, but have integrity and still contribute to the story and sense of place of Phoenix. That of course requires more innovation, but that is something that intrigues and motivates me.
J.J.: Historic preservation involves much more than just preserving the physical structures of historic sites. It is about building relationships: relationships formed while working together, relationships between historic buildings, sites, and their landscapes, and the stories that connect them. It is also about recognizing the cultural and historical significance of these sites, and their ability to provide a tangible link to the past. Preserving historic buildings can also be an environmentally sustainable practice that supports local economic development and creates jobs. Additionally, historic sites and buildings can serve as valuable educational resources and research sites for scholars and students alike. By prioritizing historic preservation, we can not only protect our shared heritage but also foster stronger communities, promote sustainable practices, and create new opportunities for learning and discovery.
Tailer: Preservation is important to me because it is the most overlooked way to be sustainable in a valley getting gobbled up by new developments. I am tired of seeing old buildings go to the landfill when they are still full of usable materials.
Vic: Historic preservation matters because it shows an ultimate appreciation and respect for what has come before. In a rapidly changing world, preserving elements of our past provides for future generations a window into where we have been – reminders of significant events and moments in history. Beyond its valuable cultural impacts, preservation promotes an overall economic benefit, is a positive contributor to sustainability by reusing existing structures, and is a direct educational tool. Overall, historic preservation is important because it allows us to protect and celebrate our shared cultural heritage, support economic development, promote environmental sustainability, and foster social equity and justice.
Steve: Historic Preservation matters to me in a couple ways. One, a very selfish reason is that I get energized about history when I am able to physically be in a space where I know meaningful history occurred. Without historic preservation that does not happen. The second reason it matters is it provides the opportunity for our children to experience what their community was like in previous generations. When they have a good awareness and understanding of that past, they will likely become good stewards of that history, as adults.
Gera: After I pondered this question for a bit, I have to say that it’s because I grew up with historical buildings and thought that was typical of everyone. My parents and siblings still live in the small town in Kentucky that my family has been centered around for nearly 225 years.
One set of grandparents lived in a 1790 log house which my sister now owns. My other grandparents lived in an 1810 Federal styled home that my aunt owns now. One sister lives in a former girls’ school which our one grandmother, ironically, was born in. My great-grandmother was in labor and her father-in-law, the local doctor, said to go to the girls’ school during labor while he tended to a patient. My brother lives in a craftsman styled house next door to my parents’ craftsman styled home which they bought in the early 1960s. I live in a 1970s ranch style home but have always coveted a historic property, even if just on paper.
My husband and I moved to Phoenix for his job in 1976. I was appalled at the lack of ‘history” versus what we left east of the Mississippi River. As an interior designer at Mehagians on Central Avenue, now the home of Stein Cox, I drive around to find the old part of Phoenix, despite design clients tending to be located away from the city center. After my kids were born and I took a break from design, I started teaching at Scottsdale Community College.“History of Architecture and Furniture,” “20th C. Architecture and Furniture," and “History of Decorative Arts” were my specialty for years. In 1992 I was awarded a small school grant to photo document the historic buildings of downtown Phoenix, which I presented to adult learning groups, Chamber of Commerce groups, etc. As I directed the design program at SCC, I had less time but never lost interest in preservation.
I have also always been interested in the environmental movement. In 1970, I led a trash pickup in my county for the first Earth Day. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle always meant to me that we should restore old buildings instead of sending all those materials to the landfill. I had seen various family members do just that with their old homes. My son bought a 1920 craftsman styled house built by Frank Avery on 44th St., just north of Indian School. He restored the old house into an office for his business. Much was wrong with the house, a new roof, new windows, doors and exterior drainage were needed but he kept the essence of the house with its original wood floors, built-in cabinetry and floor plan. There is a warmth you feel when you enter, and I’d like to think that has contributed to his business’s success. I helped him list the house on the National Register which introduced me to a like-minded community. So historic preservation wraps itself around my upbringing and my environmental interests for a major motivational purpose in my life.
Alesha: Historic Preservation matters to me because it connects me to my sense of place and those that have been here before me. Preservation works to save the landscapes and places that make each community unique. I would rather be able to visit and enjoy the historical buildings that I learn about than just look at pictures. I am able to see the spaces that generations before me have visited and how they have changed over time. If only one building is changed, my sense of place wouldn’t change too much, but those “only one” buildings add up until I no longer recognize my city. I want to be a part of preserving our historic buildings while also preparing for the future.
Happy Preservation Month! Thank you for working to preserve Arizona’s historic places!
Figure 1 Photo of Old Vail Post Office provided by Alesha Adolph
Figure 2 Photo of Camp Naco provided by Helen Erickson
Figure 3 Photo of Teatro Carmen in Tucson provided by Perla Shaheen at KGUN9
Figure 4 Photo of David and Gladys Wright House in Phoenix provided by Alison King
Figure 5 Photo of the Avery House in Phoenix provided by Roger Brevoort