Highlights from the National Trust for Historic Preservation Annual Conference

From October 29 to November 3 (today) the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been holding its annual conference right here in Indianapolis. I was able to secure a scholarship to attend the conference for free (thank you IUPUI!) and I tried to attend as many different sessions as possible while still making time for school work. I am not an expert on historic preservation, but wow, every session I attended was amazing. I met a lot of people from around the country and was quite impressed by the variety of jobs these historic preservationists held. I came out of the conference having a much better understanding of what historic preservationists do and I could definitely see myself working in this field if the opportunity arises. Ultimately, I learned that historic preservation is more than preserving buildings; it’s about the preservation of stories, people, and communities too.

Here are some highlights, thoughts, and interesting points I learned while at the conference. I still don’t know a lot of the lingo behind historic preservation, so please forgive me for speaking in rather general terms:

  • On Wednesday, October 30 I had the opportunity to work with my friends at the Indiana State House (where I used to work) and help run a field session/tour that started at the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse and eventually made its way to the State House. The Federal Building was completed in 1905 and was also the main post office of Indianapolis when first completed. In 1974 the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Amidst the Great Recession of 2008 federal stimulus money was used to renovate the building, which provided employment to many laborers in and around the area who had either been laid off or had their hours cut.
  • When the field session moved to the Indiana State House, we heard former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard speak about efforts to preserve the Indiana Supreme Court Room back to its original design. Starting around 2002 (if I remember correctly) federal funds were given to the state to undertake this work. Shepard talked about some of the challenges associated with the restoration, especially the strict scrutiny given to the project by some taxpayers. Sometimes preservation efforts are not readily appreciated by the public, who would rather see tax funds spent for other purposes. Being clear about the project’s purpose and the potential benefits of such work, argued Shepard, is integral to teaching the public about the importance of preservation.
  • On Thursday, October 31 I attended a rainy field session on reviving urban neighborhood centers. We traveled to various parts of Indianapolis, including Fountain Square, Irvington, 10th Street, and Massachusetts Avenue. Throughout the tour I was continually struck by the devastating impact of de-industrialization in Indianapolis, which started in the 1970s and has continued to this day. For example, a Ford automotive plant and a factory that made Duracell Batteries on East Washington Street have both shut their doors in recent years, leading to the loss of more than 10,000 jobs on this street alone. East Indianapolis has also suffered from some of the worst rates of foreclosure in the country thanks to de-industrialization, predatory lending, and the 2008 Great Recession. The best way to preserve a historic building is to find new tenants for it, but developing new uses for these buildings  has been a challenge for preservationists in the area. Thankfully, a program called the Super Bowl Legacy Initiative brought some much needed funds following the 2012 Super Bowl, and it appears as if these funds are being used for good purposes.
  • I was also struck by the number of abandoned theaters throughout the city that I saw on the tour. During the twentieth century, Indianapolis was actually well-known for its theaters. However, as the jobs went, so did the theaters. Some of these theaters have been restored as music venues (see, for example, the Murat Theater), but many are still completely abandoned. I would be really interested to read a historical study that analyzed changes in theater and fine arts in conjunction with changes in the built landscapes of the surrounding communities of these theaters.
  • I attended three sessions on Friday, October 1 and live-tweeted so many interesting points to #PresConf that my phone ran out of juice before the end of the day. All three sessions were excellent, but the first one (“preservation as a meaningful tool for addressing community change”) was really striking. Matt Cole and Jason Berry of Chicago and Michael Allen of St. Louis did a great job of reinforcing the importance of moving the historic preservation discussion from districts, tax codes, and the history of neighborhood creators to discussions about the people who currently live in these historic neighborhoods, which are often riddled with crime and poverty. Jason Berry summed this up by stating, “I love good windows, but things happen.” The job of Historic Preservationists is to help local communities handle change and address questions that are important to the community, not to act as community spokespersons or deciders of the future.
  • Another session entitled “Cocktails, Coloring Books, and Cyber Space” provided new strategies for educating local communities about historic preservation efforts. Members of the Landmark Society of Western New York outlined three innovative ideas they are experimenting with to try and raise awareness in Rochester, New York, and the surrounding areas. One (“Cocktails”) involves using drink coasters with QR codes at local historic drinking establishments that lead to LSWNY’s website. The others (“Coloring Books” and “Cyber Space”) are geared towards children and families. “The Littlest Preservationist” is a coloring book addressed for children, while the computer game “Historical Friction” challenges students to envision preservation efforts from the perspectives of both preservationists and developers. The site will be up and running in the spring of 2014. While LSWNY acknowledged that these initiatives are in their experimental phase and that the takeaways and outcomes from these educational initiatives is a bit murky, the goal at this point is to get kids looking around and thinking more about the built environment in their local area. I think these ideas are great and I look forward to seeing how these initiatives work out in the future.

Click on the gallery below to see some pictures I took during the conference.

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