Right now in Spokane County there are hundreds of properties listed on the Spokane Register of Historic Places. How many can you name? As a Spokane native and history major, I wanted to believe that I would be familiar with the majority of the historic buildings, but I honestly couldn’t list more than about twenty properties off-hand. In the United States alone there are over 92,000 properties listed on the National Historic Register. In fact, the National Park Service has stated that “almost every county in the United States has at least one place listed in the National Register.” What is the purpose of preserving all of these buildings?
Historic buildings and preserved objects do have a place and a purpose in the modern world. The most obvious reason for keeping historic buildings and items around is to preserve the history of the place, people, time period, and culture that a specific structure inhabited. One way to preserve that history is by turning the building into a museum, a topic heavily discussed in previous readings. In Mickey Mouse History, Wallace discussed a popular concern shared by many preservationists over the years—that there would come “a future in which America found itself without roots, without a sense of identity, with nothing to lose.” (187) Making an effort to preserve the traces of history that we still have is one of the first steps we can take in remembering the past as a society. There are also many reasons to preserve old buildings that aren’t quite as academically motivated. Wallace points out that “history has become a cash crop,” and that “twenty-nine states [list] tourism as one of their three largest industries.” (188) Many of the spots responsible for fueling the tourism industry are sites listed on the National Historic Register. There are also other monetary motivations, such as tax breaks and grants, available for owners of historically registered sites. Whether well-intentioned or not, a great deal of historic preservation has taken place over the past fifty years because these measures were put in place.
One problem presented by historic preservation is the reality that we only have a finite amount of space in cities and in our country as a whole. It can be argued that the number of historic sites and objects we have is already excessive, and as years go by the issue will only get worse. For example, the documentary Objects in Memory shows some of the over 10,000 objects, ranging from melted filing cabinets to calculators, that were preserved from the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Many of these items hold immense emotional value, but is it reasonable for the government to pay to house these artifacts in climate controlled, expensive environments from now until eternity? At this time there doesn’t seem to be a clear solution to our country’s storage problem, but instituting a stricter system for sorting through proposed artifacts may be a good place to start.
Historic places seem to be easier to implement into the surrounding community than artifacts. In Public History: A Textbook of Practice, Cauvin makes the argument that “it is crucial that urban historic preservation engages with communities.” (79) Without a community that is using, or even aware that these buildings exist, there isn’t much of a point to preserving these structures. It is the job of a public historian to find ways to link their community to local historic sites. One possibility is converting historic buildings for public use. For example, the Preservation Nation blog recently posted an article about a historic brewery in St. Paul being converted to a rent-controlled apartment community for artists. Eastern State Penitentiary even operates as a haunted house certain nights to help pay the bills and to expose the community to the historic jail. While not an ideal situation, it cannot be denied that Eastern State Penitentiary has gained much of its popularity from the haunted house attraction. A really cool campaign started by the Preservation Nation Blog, This Place Matters to Me, is a great example of a practical way to get a community involved in historic preservation. Even in Spokane, a recent survey of 778 East Central properties resulted in a walking tour that helped engage and inform the community.
Historic preservation is a complicated topic; we fear forgetting, so we become historic hoarders instead. There is always value to preserving artifacts and historic sites, but to reach their full potential we must find ways to inform the community of the historical sites all around them.