The Need to Debunk Historic Preservation Stereotypes and Myths

Supporters of historic preservation have often been deemed obstructionists, something that probably dates back to when the movement in the US first began, in the mid-19th century. But does standing (sometimes literally) in the way of a building demolition really equate to “standing in the way of progress?”

A recent article on the Next American City “Buzz” blog draws attention to the various stereotypes that exist about preservationists. Anyone who has been involved in preservation here in Portland, OR has probably heard these at one time or another:

“here’s the gray-haired old lady laying herself down in front of an oncoming bulldozer, the guy dedicated to rescuing decrepit buildings and saving historical artifacts, and the   Not-In-My-Back-Yard types preventing economic development at every turn.”

As the article points out, there are some folks who probably do fit these stereotypes, but it is also completely inaccurate to generalize historic preservationists as foes to progress.

A January 10, 2010 article about the future of the Dirty Duck Tavern building in NW Portland, echoes the sort of stereotypes mentioned above, bringing things home to Portland:

“Preservationists like many single issue groups in Portland are anarchists that believe that their way is correct and compromise or collaboration is not a process in which they want to participate. It is opposition for the sake of opposition. They are satisfied to leave the building empty as long as it serves their ends.”

Over the past 150 years, preservationists have certainly evolved. Ask one these days and you’ll find that probably most have moved away from a focus on preserving only the grandest of buildings and toward the preservation of whole communities, where architecture might not even play much of a role, except to give residents a “sense of place.” The trouble with this new paradigm is that preservationists (at least to some extent) have not brought the public along with them. The movement needs to make sure that as we look at preservation through the more recent lenses of community and sustainability that we do not forget to help people along the way, to better understand where we are going and why.

This Preservation in Pink blog post, addresses 10 myths preservationists often face. These myths need debunking just as some of the stereotypes mentioned above.

As always, we’d love to hear from you.

What do you think about these stereotypes and myths?

What can we do to better in order to break these down?



Filed under Historic Preservation

7 responses to “The Need to Debunk Historic Preservation Stereotypes and Myths

  1. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about stereotypes, but there is a certain segment who probably holds them. A bigger population is simply unaware of preservation. I think it behooves preservationists to work upstream and bring solutions to the table that demonstrate an understanding of the economic, cultural, and environmental aspects of the big picture. There is also an argument to be made for the “re-branding” of historic preservation. I’m liking the term “revitalization!”

  2. Daniel Ronan

    As a planning and policy minded individual, I’ve seen throughout our developmental history we’ve made certain policy choices that have harmed preservation efforts. Historic preservation, in my mind, came alive in the sixties with dying downtowns and expansive freeway projects which threatened our built history.

    Today, I don’t see such an active historic preservationist community as in the past. What I see, and to some extent, what I have experienced in my dealings with the historic preservation program at the University of Oregon, is a silo-ed discipline that hides behind protecting building types and building integrity, rather than heritage and history. Perhaps this is changing with historic districts, but I still see a focus too much on buildings, and not enough on context.

    Missing in the Columbia River Crossing debate, for example, is the historic preservationist perspective. Where is any concern from preservationists for the preservation of the existing bridges? They obviously have some historic character, and could be rehabilitated at significantly less cost than a new bridge with enough political push back.

    While it might now be easier to sit back in our respective disciplines and continue to think about our topics in isolation, now more than ever is the time for preservationists to create alliances with planners, policymakers and politicians to save our ever-disappearing built environment.

    Making these alliances work will require “proactive preservationists,” activists that will be willing to if not take a stand, make a statement on policy and political issues of our day. Until then, we can continue to see public processes and the public itself leave out historic preservation altogether.

    • Daniel, thank you for your insightful feedback. Collaboration and compromise are absolutely essential to the future of historic preservation as a movement. What that ultimately means is still to be determined, but we must continue to discuss such issues.

      Also, preservationists actually have raised the issue of the original Interstate Bridge. One suggestion, for example, was to consider the old bridge for bike/ped/light rail use. Unfortunately, any mention of such reuse of the old bridge fell on deaf ears. No one involved in the project seemed the least bit interested in such an idea.

  3. Tanya March

    Peggy’s word choice “revitalization” is wonderful, PPS should hire her to replace who ever selected the word “re-build” for the PPS bond measure.
    Words can be very misleading. My understanding is that there is a flyer being distributed which falsely states that funds from the the bond measure will tear down Portland’s Historic Schools. I’d like to know AHC’s stance on the PPS modernization bond, I covered that puzzle on the AHC FB wall.

    I thought the mission of this blog was to keep up with the AHC advocacy efforts and Portland preservation news. Maybe my definition of advocacy is not the same as I would use in advocacy planning. In my mind advocacy means pleading for, supporting, or recommending. I’d like to see more “advocacy” in this word press page. If want to talk about Historic Preservation stereotypes I’d enjoy that over coffee or in a Preservation Theory classes not on a blog where I would expect to find the latest on Preservation in Portland, it is sad that DJC does a better job of telling preservation hotspots in Portland than preservationists. I am not angry at staff, I’m just frustrated by the direction this blog is going, I use to enjoy it more.

  4. The Preservation blog is a way to draw a larger group of people into the important conversations we face. However, I wonder if we couldn’t learn also from a national and even global influences. The question of ” The Need to Debunk Historic Preservation Stereotypes and Myths” is so fundamentally rooted in the life of the everyday person. So it seems that fundamental thinkers the likes of Leon Krier who question the basics of how we make cities has to be examined. On a positive side, Steven Mouzon in the “Original Green” equates places that we love with sustainability. All preservationists all know this. But when new work is beautiful built Christopher Gray still wonders if this is an appropriate modern solution. Steven Semes in “The Future of the Past” goes thoroughly into every possible option for making additions to our communities. In the end he calls for a more dominate role for preservationists in the making of great places. The Prince’s Foundation chief executive, Hank Dittmar speaks clearly on drawing upon what has worked as pattern (past as pattern) and adapting it for the 21st century. In the spirit of a new continuum we can be inspired in this place with words from Niles’ “Beauty of the City”: “All new things built with the idea of preserving the beauty of the city and adding to it”, A.E. Doyle, September 16, 1906.
    (see links below)
    Mary Czarnecki

    Steve Mouzon posted my presentation on the Original Green website, as seen here in Portland at the CNU summit 2011. Links related to the Original Green, the New Urban Guild, the Guild Foundation, and Mouzon Design.

    Does Christopher Gray agree with Steven Semes? – Architecture Here ……/2011/03/has-christopher.html

    Semes,The Future of the Past – › … › Professional & Technical › Architecture

    Videos for globalization hank dittmar
    “Globalisation from the bottom up” – Mr Hank …
    10 min – Feb 10, 2009
    Uploaded by ThePrincesFoundation

    “Globalisation from the bottom up” – Mr Hank …
    6 min – Feb 11, 2009
    Uploaded by ThePrincesFoundation

    Videos for Leon Krier, Videos for leon krier u m
    UM School of Architecture Lectures: Leon Krier …
    103 min – Jul 19, 2010
    Uploaded by universityofmiami

    The Architecture of Community by Leon Krier, Dhiru A. Thadani … Beauty of the City: A. E. Doyle, Portland’s Architect … › … › Artists, Architects & Photographers – Cached

  5. Pingback: 2011 in Review – and in Rhyme | Portland Preservation

  6. Scott Orvin

    I cannot speak to stereotypes nor I am I particularly concerned with them. I can however speak from personal experience about the commission in my neighborhood–the Old Village in Mt. Pleasant SC. They are dishonest and petty. And unfortunately, quite real. They live in $2million + homes, own multiple houses, and are highly influential in political circles. The commissioners deprived me of Due Process. I filed a FOIA request and obtained emails of commissioners discussing pending applications, including my own, with interested third parties; such as my neighbor, a former town councilman. This is quite common here.

    I am a Charlestonian. I respect and appreciate historic preservation. I live in one of the few public neighborhoods in Mount Pleasant. Its what makes the Old Village so special. But the folks on the commission would put a gate up if they could. Sure, they love the location and they love their $2million dollar homes. But they don’t want to pass by the riffraff as they leave the neighborhood on the way to their beach houses or plantations or mountain retreats. If they get their way it will destroy our community. That this has anything to do with historic preservation, is a myth.

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