Do Old Places Matter?

By Thompson M. Mayes, National Trust for Historic Preservation

In 2013, I embarked on a journey both literal and figural. Thanks to support from the American Academy in Rome and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I moved to Rome for six months so that I could investigate a question I had hoped to study for more than a decade: why do old places matter? What difference does it make to people if we save, reuse or simply continue to use old places, or don’t? Do old places enhance and improve people’s lives and, if so, how? While exploring Rome, and the many layers of history embedded in that astonishing palimpsest of an old city, I finally had the great gift of time to try to understand this central facet of both our work and our human experience.

Thompson Mayes is the keynote speaker at the Preservation Conference on Friday, May 31, in the historic North Country town of Littleton, N.H.

Thompson Mayes is the keynote speaker at the Preservation Conference on Friday, May 31, in the historic North Country town of Littleton, N.H.

Why did I embark on this journey? Aren’t the reasons obvious? As someone posted on Facebook in response to one of my essays, “kinda crazy that the question even has to be asked.” I was motivated to explore this topic because I had a sense that people who care about old places—many of whom may not even be conscious that they care until something is threatened or lost—didn’t have ready words to express why old places make such a difference to them and to their communities, even though many of us feel the importance intuitively and often very deeply.

What I found is that, yes, old places do indeed matter, and for more reasons than I thought. From memory and identity, to architecture and history, to beauty and sacredness, to economics and sustainability, old places matter for reasons so numerous, all-encompassing, and essential to who we are as individuals and as a society that their place in our lives is difficult to fully recognize. The kaleidoscopic listing of reasons in Why Old Places Matter suggests just how important older places are. Yet even the essays in the book, which treat the topics singly, can only hint at the totality – the all-encompassing world of meaning that old places have for us. The old places of our lives are like the air we breathe: surrounding us, sustaining us, influencing us, and even a part of us.

By the very nature of the individual disciplines that study place, almost none of them strive to see the whole - the overarching totality of the role old places play in our lives. That’s a key reason why I believe Why Old Places Matter is necessary-to try to get a greater glimpse of the meaning of old places by gathering the individual reasons together. Altogether, the old places of our lives give us, to borrow a phrase from a program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, an Internal Compass that orients us in our lives, and helps us know who, what, where, and sometimes even why we are.

It is my hope that Why Old Places Matter will encourage more people to think about why old places matter to them. I hope it will give people phrases and words to help them articulate and express their deeply-held feelings about the old places of their lives, and that it will help build a stronger ethic of appreciating, saving, and continuing to use old places. But more importantly, if we broaden our understanding of the old places in our communities and our own lives, we may help people lead more fulfilling and richer lives. These places spur our memory, delight us with beauty, help us understand others, give us a deep sense of belonging, and perhaps most fundamentally, remind us who we are.

Thompson M. Mayes is acting chief legal officer and general council for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This essay was excerpted and edited from the prologue to his 2018 book, Why Old Places Matter: How Historic Places Affect Our Identity and Well-Being. Mayes will be the keynote speaker for the 2019 New Hampshire Preservation Conference in Littleton on May 31. His book will be available for purchase there.

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