Importance of Historic Preservation

by Richard Guy Wilson

How do we know history or the past? We learn about it in many ways such as books, reading old newspapers, markers along the road, TV, movies, gossip and through first-hand contact. Yes, a photograph or images on your computer can give quick snapshots, but how do we know how big is the house? The experience of actually walking into a great stair hall such as at Carolands cannot be duplicated in photos. Nothing but the actuality of being there can capture the size, the drama, the “wow” effect of actually seeing it, and walking up and down. The same might be said about gardens. They can be photographed, but the slow walk and understanding the sight lines and relation to the house and the hills beyond, and the actual plants, their various leaves and smell cannot be duplicated.

Historic preservation has a long and at times contentious history in the United States. We were a new nation in the nineteenth century lacking the history of the Old World, how could we present ourselves? Dates can be important such as in the 1820s with the looming 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, a decision was reached to save and restore Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Founding fathers have always been important and George Washington’s Mount Vernon was saved by a group of ladies in the 1850s from falling further into ruin. One can trace a long history of preserving different buildings of famous individuals throughout the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with projects such as the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s, or the moving of structures and creating ghost towns such as Knott’s Berry Farm in California. A shift in the focus, or perhaps an enlargement of what is considered important comes in the 1950s and 60s with the so-called “urban renewal” and also the interstate highway system. Downtowns and main streets were ravaged by new buildings and people moving to the suburbs. What could be saved? Although there had been some previous legislation at both the national and state levels it is the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966 that mandated that all states must take an inventory of their older buildings and select the important ones to save, or at least place them on a national register.

Over the years new perspectives were gained as it became apparent that the houses of mill workers, and the actual mills, along with early gas stations were a part of our history. Open spaces, whether a town square or a common were part of life, and needed to be recognized. And of course there are developers who want to build a new tower and tear down old houses. Not everything of the past can be saved but there is much that can be adapted and put to new uses instead of just demolition.

Carolands of course is a house of former wealth, threatened many times with demolition. But it exemplifies the very best in French design both in the building itself, with its magnificent interiors, and the gardens. It can allow the individual to experience a part of the past, whether you are the master or mistress of the house sitting at your end of the table, or the servant waiting in the wings, you can understand and grasp much better the past and history.

Click for Biography