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  • Writer's pictureGM Shay

What is Preservation's Future?

Ironically, the historic preservation movement began with the demolition of a commercial hotel in Savannah. From the debris of The Desoto, a cause was born and as legend has it, a determined group of “blue-haired ladies” stopped the next historic demolition, took up a collection and bought the Isaiah Davenport House to make it a museum. That cause celebre’ became a movement and led to the creation of the National Landmark Historic District thirteen years later. Today each of the 969 buildings that were identified in that 1969 NLHD nomination as Notable, Excellent or Exceptional has been saved and preserved. In essence, the original mission of preservation in Savannah has been successfully completed!

But instead of declaring victory, somehow the movement became a kind of religion. The adherents became so convinced of their righteousness that they decided they had the obligation to dictate the future of the City of Savannah’s urban growth and development. In their view, the few residents of “their neighborhood” were better judges of what should happen to the vacant urban land than were the owners of that private property or the civic institutions that were elected or appointed to oversee our central business district. In that way, their movement became esoteric to most of Savannah’s population, ignoring our larger concerns.

Art and Commerce, Savannah’s twin Muses standing guard from the pediment of City Hall, represent why our city is different than most other American cities. In fact, the millions of tourists that visit here every year probably come to see what we are not, as much as what we are. We are not another generic American downtown. Art and Commerce are not the mortal enemies that some from the preservation movement would have us believe, and this is not just a National Park, it is a living breathing urban ecology. Like all ecologies, it relies on diversity and adaptation to grow and develop, not just “the look of things” in the words of Jane Jacobs. The historic preservation movement’s adherents, whether they admit it or not, depend on this very same diversity and change in order for their cause to survive, too.

Environmental responsibility, economic resilience, public safety, workforce housing, social justice and hurricane recovery are just a few of the challenges that our modern city must face. All of them are at least as important as saving all of the marginally significant historic fabric remaining now that the Notable, Excellent and Exceptional have been preserved. If the future of preservation is made into a win–lose proposition, then it is hard to see how that religion will remain relevant.

Although the preservation purists question any form of practical compromise, I still think of myself as a true preservationist. This is because we are willing to roll up our sleeves and do the very hard work of figuring out how to save and adapt our remaining but marginal historic fabric. Making these buildings and places address the other challenges of urban ecology, so they can survive deep into the future, may be a big part of what comes next for historic preservation. Shouldn’t we at least try to keep Art and Commerce together? It is, after all, what made Savannah such a unique and wonderful place to begin with.


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