Historic preservationists from all over Georgia learned Thursday that old places may be more important than ever before. Tom Mayes, chief legal officer and general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said he learned, through writing his new book “Why Old Places Matter,” that historic buildings inspire people with beauty, support a strong economy, are frequently the greenest of buildings and foster of sense of identity.
Mayes’ book focuses on a series of words, or phrases, to detail the importance of historic preservation. During his keynote address at the Statewide Historic Preservation Conference in Rome on Thursday, Mayes said he often started a class in preservation law by asking his students why do we try to tell people what to do with their property.
“They often did not have ready answers to that question,” Mayes said. He started to look at the background behind many of the preservation statutes, things like protecting heritage or protecting property values.
“They didn’t really seem to quite capture the often very deeply held relationship that people have with old places,” Mayes told the audience.
Continuity is one of the concepts that Mayes examines in his book. He said old places provide a sense of continuity between the past, present and future.
“We perhaps see this idea of continuity most forcefully when the continuity is broken, where the relationship between people and place is broken,” Mayes said.
Civic identity is another concept Mayes suggests is why old places matter.
“Preservation of the place actually helps us ... give a more authentic and more nuanced understanding of our civic identity.”
Something as simple as beauty is a third concept Mayes related to almost 300 preservationists.
“We all know how much harder it is to save an ugly building than it is to save a beautiful building,” Mayes said.
Like beauty, history and learning is a very traditional rationale for preserving old places.
“Old places are like full body immersion. We experience history with all of our senses,” Mayes said. “These old places and their survival allow us to understand something about history and ourselves that otherwise we could not understand.”
Mayes also said old places foster a sense of community because they provide landmarks of both civic and individual identity.
“A community can only grow over time because of the interaction of people and place over time,” Mayes said.
Brittany Griffin, a Rome planning department employee who works with the local Historic Preservation Commission, said she agreed with all of Mayes’ points, but was particularly touched with the way he pointed out memories that historic place invoke.
“That’s a huge part of why we preserve the past, for the future,” Griffin said.
Sustainability is one of the final concepts that Mayes suggested is a reason that old places matter. He pointed to a study from Portland, Oregon, which concluded that evidence of old growth forests which were lost decades ago, “are still standing in the buildings of our state. That is where that 1,000-year-old wood still exists.”
“His comprehensive understanding of preservation was inspiring and struck a chord with all in attendance. I can’t wait to buy his book,” said David Clonts, a Rome builder and member of the HPC.
David Crass, director of the Historic Preservation division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, explained that when preservationists do their job right, it’s not always about the past, but the future as well.
The conference continues Friday with one of the final sessions featuring a demonstration of how exterior finishes commonly found on historic buildings burn. The session, held at the Fire Training Center on North Avenue, will be lead by Mary Catherine Chewning and Jamie Stone of the Rome-Floyd Fire Department.