Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Through the eyes of preservationists

Historic preservationists have to have two sets of eyes: One that looks clear-sightedly at the past and one that sees into the future. It’s a trick, and not all people have, or want to have, the duel perception. But once you have it, it’s darned hard not to look at an old structure and begin the imagining – what did that place look like in its heyday, who frequented it, what went on there, how did that building influence the people who lived here? You can blur your eyes a little and help the past come into a vibrant focus. But those people who don’t have the duel perception look at old buildings and see just that. Old. Time for something else. It’s a legitimate perspective, it’s just not how we preservationists perceive.

Thus the conflict arises that many of us have experienced – one group wants to tear down an old structure to make room for their new whatever, the other group wants to preserve and repurpose. The members of Manteo Preservation Trust (MPT) and concerned townspeople from the small coastal North Carolina area called Roanoke Island are in this tug of war right now over saving our Works Progress Administration-era gym. On the other end of the rope is the Board of Education and other concerned townspeople who see the gym as old and tired and in the way of their needed school addition. And it is a needed addition, no quarrel over that. But MPT has come up with a solution that would give the school board more space than what they would obtain from tearing down the old gym with no additional cost to them. Still, the tug of war persists. From a preservationist’s perspective, the intriguing question has to be…why?

When logic, cost-saving and time-saving don’t sway a decision toward preserving a structure, what’s at play? We at MPT are asking that question and trying hard to find the answer because we’re pretty sure preservationists all across the country have their own version of it. Is it a power struggle? The fuddie-duddies vs. the forward thinkers? The idea that anything new is better than anything with age? We have to listen for the answer with unbiased ears; too much is at stake, not only in this one old gym, not to. One answer we’ve formed revolves around, not surprisingly, eyes and ears. We often have to be taught what to see.

Since it’s a given that every single situation can be viewed with many different perspectives, our job as preservationists has to involve teaching. And that teaching has to be done well before a tug of war begins. In the heat of the tug, we don’t have time to tell the story of what that place once was, what it meant to so many people, why its walls contain more than brick or wood or cement. The reasons why each side is tugging become secondary to the very act of trying to pull the decision one way or the other.

So, whether we end up winning our battle over the WPA gym or not, we have learned a big lesson. You have to teach people how to see sometimes – how to see past the exterior and into the heart and soul of a place. And this seeing has to be taught in neutral times, when the tugging rope has been dropped and both sides have time to unflex their muscles and expand their vision. 


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