WASHINGTON — RICHARD MOE took over as the seventh president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in January, succeeding J. Jackson Walter. A native of Minnesota, Mr. Moe served as a Senate aide and later chief of staff for Vice President Walter Mondale. From 1981 until his appointment he practiced law in Washington.
Moe says he became interested in preservation while doing research for a book about a Minnesota regiment in the Civil War. "I discovered to my horror how endangered many of the Civil War battlefields were, either by neglect or by the threat of development," he says. After Moe joined the board of the Civil War Trust, he was recruited for his new job.
Moe spoke with the Monitor in his Washington office last month. Excerpts from the interview follow:
What are your principal goals as president?
First, we have these properties around the country - 18 of them - and they're marvelous properties. I would like to strengthen that collection and add to it by making it more diverse, more representative of the whole American experience.... We're going to look at a black midwife's house in Jackson, Miss. We're looking at a warehouse in Chicago. I'd love to find a ranch in the West or a farm in the Midwest.
Second, in the public-policy area, I would like to try to use the trust to help shape federal, state, and local policies in a way to promote preservation. Too often today, our housing, urban, and transportation policies do not take preservation into account; rather, they have just the reverse effect.... We'd like to get the historic rehabilitation tax credit restored: That's our highest legislative priority.
Third, we're trying to assess what we can do more effectively to help state and local preservationists.... We can't do preservation from Washington; it has to be done locally. But we can help them through technical assistance and some financial support.
Preservation Week's theme this year is "Preservation and Livable Communities: Make the Connection." What is the connection?
I think communities and neighborhoods are richer for having older structures. There is nothing more sterile than to go into a totally new community and see nothing but steel and glass.... [Mixing in] older structures not only is aesthetically pleasing, but it gives us a sense of where we came from as a community and a nation. Sometimes people see preservation as kind of frivolous; it's not. It's important to the livability of our communities, and that's what this theme is all about. There's a craving in this country for a connection with the past, a sense of history.... There is more to a community than bricks and mortar; there is really an element of spirit.
Does preservation have any relation to environmentalism?
We are dealing with the built environment rather than the natural environment. But I have been much impressed by what the environmental movement has done in the last 20 to 30 years. Thirty years ago, nobody thought of themselves as environmentalists; now we all do. That's because an ethic has been inbred, particularly in children, who pick it up in school. I hope that through similar education means and public leadership, we can persuade the vast majority of Americans that they have a stake in preserving
What do you say to those who give preservation low priority?
We're trying to make the case that preservation works economically as well as aesthetically. Through our Mainstreet Program, for instance, we try to help business people in small towns see that preservation can be a unifying theme, a building tool, so that they can get a business plan and a design plan and get back in competition with the Wal-Mart or mall that showed up outside of town. Preservation can help a community's economy, as well as make people feel better about their community.