Old places orient us in our world
Date: Capital Gazette, August 1, Tom Mayes
Annapolitans live, work and play in old places every day. From the Colonial Annapolis Historic District to City Dock to the modest buildings of Butler's Row, these places set the stage for peoples' lives.
But why do these old places matter? This year, Annapolis is hosting a series of lectures to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. I was privileged to speak about a series of essays I wrote on why old places matter. (They can be found at forum.savingplaces.org/blogs.) While I have always been an unabashed advocate for keeping and reusing old places, as I wrote these essays, I found to my surprise that old places are actually more important to people than I — and many preservationists — generally recognize. Here's why.
Old places, including the old places of Annapolis, matter for many different and overlapping reasons. I'll start with some of the more obvious.
First, the old places of Annapolis attract tourists — literally by the boatload. People love Annapolis because of its history and charm, and those tourists drive the economy of the city, filling hotel rooms, restaurants and museums, raising tax revenue and providing jobs.
Then there's history. Annapolis is a National Historic Landmark — it's nationally significant. With the oldest State House in the country and places like the Charles Carroll House — home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence — and the Banneker-Douglass Museum, these old places of Annapolis embody our civic, state and national history.
There's architecture. Buildings like the Hammond-Harwood House, a significant example of Colonial Palladian-style architecture, are part of our cultural heritage, and help make Annapolis beautiful.
And sustainability. Carl Elefante said, "the greenest building is the one that is already built." It takes years for a new building — no matter how green — to make up the environmental cost of the demolition of an existing building.
And there are other reasons — the sacredness of places like St. Anne's, the way the town's historic plan fosters community, and the way old places spur creativity and the creative economy.
These are all important reasons. But there's something even deeper and more fundamental.
The continued presence of old places provides the people of Annapolis — citizens and visitors alike — with a daily and ever-present sense of identity, memory and continuity that is deeply grounding. We are attached to the old places of our lives — from the places where we live, to the places where we study or work, to the places where we play.
These old places give us a sense of continuity that contributes to our psychological and emotional health. Our memories are anchored in these old places. From the graduates of the Naval Academy and St. John's who return and share stories, to the everyday citizen who remembers a first date at one of the restaurants in town, each street, building and local business triggers memories that remind people of who they are. These are the places of our lives.
I love history and architecture. I support a sound and sustainable economy built on the foundation of existing historic resources. I believe that the greenest building is the one that is already built. But the fundamental reason that old places matter to people is that they help us know who we are, giving us a sense of well-being and stability in an ever-changing world.
The National Historic Preservation Act states that historic places should be "preserved as a living part of our community life … in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people." It seems to me that these ideas begin to capture the "sense of orientation," and that the old places of our lives — the old places of Annapolis — orient us in the world.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, I hope you will consider why the old places of Annapolis matter to you.
Tom Mayes is the vice president and general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.