Friday, June 07, 2019

Why Old Places Matter

Why Old Places Matter: How Historic Places Affect Our Identity and Well-Being
Thompson M. Mayes
Rowman & Littlefield, September 2018

Hardcover | 8-3/4 x 11-1/4 inches | 168 pages | 74 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-1538117682 | $45.00

Publisher Description:
Why Old Places Matter is the only book that explores the reasons that old places matter to people. Although people often feel very deeply about the old places of their lives, they don’t have the words to express why. This book brings these ideas together in evocative language and with illustrative images for a broad audience.

The book reveals the fundamentally important yet under-recognized role old places play in our lives. While many people feel a deep-seated connection to old places -- from those who love old houses, to the millions of tourists who are drawn to historic cities, to the pilgrims who flock to ancient sites throughout the world -- few can articulate why. The book explores these deep attachments people have with old places –the feelings of belonging, continuity, stability, identity and memory, as well as the more traditional reasons that old places have been deemed by society to be important, such as history, national identity, and architecture.

This book will be appealing to anyone who has ever loved an old place. But more importantly, it will be an useful resource to articulate why old places are meaningful to people and their communities. This book will help people understand that the feeling many have for old places is supported by a wide variety of fields, and that the continued existence of these old places is good. It will give people the words and phrases to understand and express why old places matter.
dDAB Commentary:
A couple weeks ago I went on a press tour of the TWA Hotel, a restoration and reuse of Eero Saarinen's TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport. The new hotel uses the old terminal as a lobby with lounge, restaurant, and shops, and it features two new wings with hotel rooms that flank the 1962 building. It is a masterful restoration, courtesy of Beyer Blinder Belle, and one that seems like an no-brainer; who, after all, would not want to see Saarinen's building given a second life? But before it was landmarked by NYC in 1994, the terminal was far from beloved by the people who used it. The terminal was basically obsolete the moment it opened, having been designed for small supersonics rather than large wide-body jets; travelers were greeted by a terminal unable to accommodate the crowds and long lines. The terminal closed in 2001, was mothballed by the Port Authority, and was eventually transformed into a hotel 18 years later — a preservation success story.

I'm bringing up the TWA Hotel in the context of Why Old Places Matter because one thought kept entering my mind when considering the saving and reusing of Saarinen's building, regardless of the fact it was functionally deficient: it was built. The fact it existed meant its reuse had to be considered — in my mind at least. Its beauty made its preservation an obvious fact, but I think that just about any well-built building deserves to be saved, or at least have its reuse seriously considered. There are various reasons for this thought: reusing old buildings is sustainable, it maintains scale and historical continuity, and it gives architects a canvas against which new architecture can be designed. In the case of Lubrano Ciavarra Architects, who designed the curved wings of the TWA Hotel, they created a neutral backdrop for Saarinen's bird-like creation. Whatever the case, I think the most interesting parts of cities — even airports — arise from the juxtaposition of old and new.

Why Old Places Matter by Thompson Mayes, vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, does an excellent job in defining and explaining more than a dozen reasons for preserving old buildings, be it a centuries-old house or a 50-year-old airline terminal. It consists of fourteen short essays between six and ten pages, each one arguing why old places matter: memory, beauty, history, architecture, sustainability, and so forth. Some of the arguments that batted around my head in regards to TWA were reiterated by Mayes. Such is the strength of his book: Although he references articles, books, and interviews that address the preservation of places, his book puts those words together into an accessible package that should aid people in understanding the value of preservation and explaining it to others. I could see it being used by people — citizens, not necessarily professionals — who want to protect this or that building or landscape but need help in articulating the why. Born from a six-month stay at the American Academy in Rome, Why Old Places Matter might be aimed at protecting old American places but its lessons are universal.

Author Bio:
Thompson McCord Mayes, vice president and senior counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has spent his professional career preserving old places. In 2013, Tom was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation by the American Academy in Rome, and subsequently spent a six-month residency in Rome as a Fellow of the Academy. The essays that are collected in this publication came about as a result of that experience.
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