What Does "Historic" Mean, Anyway?
Let's face it: The label "historic" gets applied to so many different kinds of places -- from ancient ruins and Gothic cathedrals to World War II battlefields and Art Deco skyscrapers -- that it's sometimes hard to figure out exactly what it means.
What is it that makes a place "historic"? And who decides what's "historic" and what isn't?
Clearly, it's a complicated issue -- but there's a fairly simple way to approach it: Instead of asking, "Is this building historic?", it may make more sense to ask, "Is this building worth saving?"
When you strip away all the jargon and rhetoric, historic preservation is simply having the good sense to hang on to something -- an older building or neighborhood or a piece of landscape, for instance -- because it's important to us as individuals and/or as a nation. This importance may derive from any of several factors.
Some older buildings are important simply because they're good to look at. As one author put it, they are "a gift to the street" whose style, textures, materials and charm (and maybe even eccentricity) enrich and enliven their surroundings. These buildings are worth saving because our communities would be less interesting, less attractive, without them.
Others are worth saving because they have plenty of good use left in them. Innovative examples of what's called "adaptive use" can be found everywhere. Factories have been turned into convention centers, train stations reborn as restaurants, mills converted into shopping centers, office buildings transformed into apartments, and on and on.
This process is good for the environment: Think of it as the Ultimate Recycling. It can be good for the pocketbook too, since reusing an old building means avoiding the expense of demolition and saving materials and craftsmanship that are costly (or even impossible) to replace today.
Finally, some places are worth saving because they link us with our past and help us understand who we are. Places like Gettysburg, the Alamo and Independence Hall tell America's story, and we'd never allow them to be destroyed.
But places that tell your story are worth saving too: the house where your grandparents lived, the school you attended, the movie theatre where you had your first date, the church where you were married.
That's what historic preservation is really all about. It's about hanging on to what's important.