Sept. 11 reaffirms trust's mission to 'save history'

When the catastrophic events of Sept. 11 occurred, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, found himself in Chicago. His first instinct, he says, was to get back to the trust's offices in Washington, D.C., in order to urge people to "keep on doing what they were doing."

Since 1949, when the trust began, it has grown into the largest nonprofit preservation organization in the United States, with approximately 270,000 members. It provides leadership, education, and advocacy to save America's diverse historic places and to revitalize communities.

This work, Mr. Moe is convinced, has taken on greater-than-ever relevance in recent months. Preservationists, he believes, play an important role in protecting the cherished places and symbols that terrorists realize are the glue of American society.

"Think for a moment about where the blows fell on Sept. 11," he said in addressing the recent National Preservation Conference in Providence, R.I. "Not on missile bases or factories or power plants or shipyards. No, the targets were people and buildings that symbolize America's military and economic strength."

Moe, a Minnesotan who was chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale and a member of the Carter White House senior staff, says America's cherished places "surround, support, and illuminate almost every aspect of our lives," while embodying Americans' fundamental values.

Many of these - from neighborhood schools and town squares to barns and farmland - are on the trust's preservation agenda.

"If we're going to meet the challenge of living in a changed world," he says, "it is imperative that we pledge our best efforts to recognizing and safeguarding the places that help give us a sense of community."

Courthouses, he points out, embody a commitment to the rule of law; state capitols and city halls point to the grandeur and stability of democratic government; and Main Streets all around the country are living symbols of the virtues of hard work and free enterprise.

Such places, Moe asserts, are especially needed by a nation at war for their ability to teach, enrich, inspire, and, in the words of one historian, to cultivate a communal sense that is "the very backbone of human dignity."

The World Trade Center towers, Moe says, were not historic, or greatly admired architecturally. And their loss isn't likely to have the same catalytic effect on the preservation movement as tearing down New York's beloved Penn Station did in 1963.

Still, he believes, the loss of the towers will "reaffirm" the preservation movement's mission and help people focus on what is really important in cities, communities, and neighborhoods.

The National Trust is lending a hand in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks by participating in a public- and private-sector alliance that is assessing damage to historic buildings in lower Manhattan in order to deal with preservation issues.

While attending the National Preservation Conference, Moe sat down with the Monitor to discuss the issues surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as preservation efforts generally. Some of that exchange follows:

How will the terrorist attacks affect the growing momentum of the back-to-city movement?

In the first few days after the attacks, there were reports that people might want to leave New York, leave Washington, because they were understandably scared about what might happen. Some people with younger children have picked up and moved. I think those concerns have abated somewhat, however. The numbers are not huge yet in the back-to-city movement, but the trends are very definitely in that direction. I think that will continue because people are attracted to urban life.... They like the notion of living in a large urban community in which they can walk to work and not have to fight traffic [and] sprawl....

In what way was it evident that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had an impact on public actions?

One thing immediately apparent after the attack was that people went to national parks. Attendance [at other vacation destinations] dropped, but people went to national parks for solace, for comfort, and maybe security. Historic sites of many different kinds, and natural sites, bring people back to places that are special.

Are preservationists sometimes typecast as building huggers?

I think there was a time when the preservation movement deserved the criticism that it was elitist and removed from the concerns of everyday Americans. I don't think that's true anymore, although sometimes the perception exists. I think we've become much more relevant. People's first instinct now is not necessarily to tear down a building, but rather to see it reused. There are exceptions to that, but there's been a sea change in terms of attitude.

What new challenges face the National Trust?

We're at an interesting point because a lot of post-World War II architecture is coming online as historic, which, according to the technical time frame, means it's 50 years old. This gets us into the whole issue of modernism and what's worth saving. We're finding that a lot of postwar modernist buildings are threatened by demolition, and people don't think of them as historic. What we try to persuade people to see is that this is always happening. [At one time], a lot of people didn't like Victorian - and now we can't preserve enough of it, or [of] Art Deco. So this is always changing and always will, because tastes change, styles change. That's what makes life interesting, but it's a struggle.

So do you think the trust is going to move into preserving high-rise buildings, for example?

If they're high quality, yes.

Any particular buildings?

I'm not familiar with any high-rise buildings at risk, but there certainly are a lot of modernist buildings that are coming under threat: the TWA Terminal at Kennedy International Airport in New York, the Wilde Building in Hartford, Conn., and others like that.

What is one of the biggest changes you've seen since becoming president of the National Trust almost nine years ago?

Sprawl is such a huge preservation issue, and it wasn't back then. It's an obvious one because it tends to suck the economic and social life out of whole communities. Part of fighting sprawl involves revitalizing old communities, so that you don't have a demand for sprawl, and you keep people in their [current] communities.

How does the trust establish priorities?

We go in a lot of different directions, but, to a certain extent, this is not determined by us, but by what is happening in the country, out in the communities. What we try to do is be a support mechanism. (Former Speaker of the House) Tip O'Neill said all politics is local. Well, all preservation is local, and what is happening in Boston or Philadelphia is driven by people living in those communities, and it should be. Increasingly, preservation has evolved over the last 50 years from saving significant individual sites to saving places, which has involved whole neighborhoods and communities. One of the things we've found is it's easier to save a building if you save its context.

Haven't small towns been aware of this for some time?

Yes, we've learned a lot from small towns. One of the most important National Trust programs is Main Street, whereby we go in and work with the local business community to revitalize deteriorated downtowns. These communities realized early on that the health of downtown is essential to the health of the community as a whole. That's been a fabulously successful program that we've now taken to larger cities, to neighborhood commercial districts.

Endangered places

Each year the National Trust for Historic Preservation selects 11 sites, landscapes, and buildings (or building types) threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, and insensitive public policy. The sites on the current list are:

Historic American movie theaters.

Bok Kai Temple in Marysville, Calif., a focus for Chinese immigrants who came to the US during the Gold Rush.

Telluride valley floor in Telluride, Colo., a region rich in mining history.

CIGNA campus in Bloomfield, Conn., a prototype for suburban office parks.

Carter G. Woodson Home in Washington, D.C., residence of the "father of black history."

Ford Island, Hawaii, at the heart of the Pearl Harbor historic district.

Miller-Purdue barn in Grant County, Ind., a classic built in the 1850s.

Stevens Creek settlements in Lincoln, Neb., home to many farming immigrants.

Prairie churches of North Dakota.

Los Caminos del Rio, a 200-mile stretch along the US-Mexican border where cultures have blended.

Jackson Ward Historic District ("the Harlem of the South") in Richmond, Va.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.