Putting the People in Preservation
We have a propensity to remove people from photographs of buildings. Sometimes this makes sense. For instance, in survey work, the intent is to have the building speak for itself – we want to notice the cornice, not the corduroys. Folks in the Vernacular Architecture Forum (the “premier organization in North America dedicated to the appreciation and study of ordinary buildings and landscapes”) are infamous for their desire to capture buildings sans humans.
Historically, it’s difficult to find photographs of buildings without people. Families gathered in front of their house and barn, showcasing their horses, wagons, farming equipment, and pets. It is clear that the pride in the house was tied to the people who made the farm and animals operate. Photographs with humans are infinitely more interesting because those images resonate with us on an emotional and social level.
The preservation world is often maligned for caring about buildings more than we care about people. We’re the people who restrict paint colors, reject additions to historic houses, or recommend treatments that cost more money than anticipated. It can be argued that preservation tools restrict the creativity and quirkiness that was responsible for providing our current generation with the very buildings or architectural details that excite preservationists today.
I would argue that preservationists do care about people – we advocate for saving old buildings because they are often the most visceral, tangible, and sentimental connections we have to our ancestors. Houses are not just filled with layers of paint and linoleum, but saturated with memories and stories yet to be told.
Maybe we are poor marketers. We expend so much energy promoting and celebrating buildings that we forget to share the secret behind projects’ successes: the people. Every preservation project succeeds because of a dedicated band of volunteers who spend Saturdays flipping pancakes, writing grants, and priming clapboards. Money helps, but it is seldom the driving force.
Our New Hampshire landscape exists because generations before us dreamed of building glorious steeples and endowing ornate libraries, evenin the smallest of towns. They exist today because people care to preserve these landmarks that have come to symbolize their community’s strength and permanence.
In my journeys across New Hampshire, I meet the people who make preservation projects happen. I relish those interactions as much as my ability to see these landmarks. My job wouldn’t be much fun if these buildings stood empty with no one to greet me.
At our annual preservation achievement awards, we make sure to tell the stories of the people. We want to celebrate the town of 800 that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore their meetinghouse, the homeowners that sacrificed greater returns on investment for the sake of history, and the committees that spent decades making incremental progress on their schoolhouse.
And yes, we make sure to include photographs of the people who make it all happen.