As long as historic preservation is viewed as a “cause” rather than an ongoing conversation about the value of the built environment, it will not have the meaning that it should.
Sometimes people who do not necessarily oppose historic preservation or fail to see its value still pose the question to themselves and others: Why preserve? Doesn’t the creation of new structures epitomize progress? During the most popular days of urban renewal, beginning after the the Second World War and enduring for 30 years, entire neighborhoods across the country were erased following a prescription for cities that did not include retaining older structures deemed “obsolete”. Mere decades after this approach was embraced and countless historic structures had been lost forever, a gradual movement toward preservation, reuse, and recognition of the merit of “old fashioned” architecture was seen.
The penchant for historic architecture is directly related to our basic regard for quality. The brick, stone, structural durability and solid character of old buildings are admirable and difficult if not impossible to replicate. Built at a time when labor and material costs were radically different and artisans practicing skills no longer commonly seen was the norm, the old structures remaining were viewed as literally irreplaceable. Demolishing historic buildings for new ones of inferior quality or even worse, for a parking lot or a freeway, is a failure to recognize what makes places distinctive and memorable, whether big city or small town.
Missouri is a national leader in its progressive use of the Historic Tax Credit, which has enabled communities all over the state to hang onto their historic past as they revitalize for the future. Beautiful, walkable, Main Streets lined with restored historic buildings give small towns a sense of pride and place. They draw tourism and the investment of new businesses that add interest and new services. In big cities like St. Louis and Kansas City, we can admire elegantly renovated 19th-century homes and commercial buildings once squarely in the path of the wrecking ball. While we value our history, we should not fail to learn from it. We can admire and wonder at what has been saved thanks to the Historic Tax Credit and the hard work and vision of preservationists. We can also consider the wholesale demolitions of decades past and answer the question, “Why preserve?” with another question: What were they thinking?
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