Six Places to See the Future in the Past: Exploring Historic Preservation

Preservation: that word sometimes carries with it ideas of being stuffy, of putting things up on a shelf, of making no changes. That could not be further from the truth. Historic and heritage preservation are seeing the future in the past.

Quite a bit of my work and my background has to do with thinking about traditional music. The work of those involved in historic preservation, which most often has to do with the built environment, has aspects in common with the work of those working traditional music fields.

Each of these fields requires study of history and culture, and seeing ways past aspects of culture may speak to the present day. Each often involves deconstruction and reconstruction. Historic preservation and traditional music practice, when done well, require understanding of storytelling, and understanding of co-operation. They each require creativity. When done well both traditional music practice and historic preservation work to create and enrich community. Both historic preservation practice and traditional music work require vision.

Florida Historic Capotol Tallahasse lights

Here are several stories from our archives related to seeing the future in the past for you to enjoy.

Sheila visited Berry Gordy’s former home in Detroit, where Motown Records began. It’s a museum now. Trying to place Motown? Think Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, Diana Ross… Sheila also learned about people behind the scenes who helped make “I Heard It Through Grapevine,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and many other songs lasting parts of the tapestry of American music. Naturally, she found sunshine on a cloudy day.

It was a cloudy day when Skye visited the Open Air Museum near Kaunas in Lithuania. There he found buildings which had been moved onto the site from other locations, to preserve them and to tell stories of the ethnic regions of Lithuania. Such museums are common in Europe, and you may find them in other parts of the world too. There’s the Village Historique Acadien near Caraquet in New Brunswick, for example, which helps visitors learn what life was like for French speaking communities in the Canadian Maritimes. Such open air museums often make places where history, storytelling, and preservation intersect.

acadian new brunswick horses village historics

At times the past of a place may look discouraging. That’s when the vision and co-operation parts of historic preservation especially come into play.

The once thriving King Edward Hotel was falling apart and seemed useless for four decades. Refurbished, it is now a top destination as a Hilton Garden Inn in Jackson, Mississippi — which many still call the King Edward.

Designs for a new state capitol building in Florida rising behind the former capitol showed that the older building would be demolished once the new one was finished. People in Tallahassee and from around the country rose up to support saving the building. It is now the Florida Historic Capitol Museum, with exhibits which tell the story of the building, the state, and the process by which the building was restored.

stained glass Florida Capitol Dome Tallahassee

Toronto’s Distillery District was a thriving area in Victorian times, but by the late twentieth century much of it had been abandoned. A revitalization project arose. The Distillery District is now a lively food and entertainment location for both visitors and residents, and it regularly hosts the Toronto Christmas market.

toronto christmas market tree and building

In Glasgow, Scotland, the Old Fruitmarket used to be just that: the city’s fruit market. It too fell into disrepair until it was re-envisioned as concert and events location, and restored with many of fruitmaket vendors’ signs put to use to add to the building’s character.

These are just a hint of the places we’ve explored where historic and heritage preservation have a place. Look for your favourite city or region in our archives and see what we have explored — and if we’ve yet to write about ti, let us know. Chances are, one of us has been there or is headed that way soon.

At this writing it’s a time — the month of May — when historic preservation is especially celebrated in the United States. Want to learn more? Saving Places, the website for the US National Trust for Historic Preservation, is a place to start. The National Trust for Scotland has a site you will want to explore, as well, as does the National Trust for Canada , and the Irish Landmark Trust. There are many such organizations, both national and regional, to help you explore history as you travel.

Here’s a song to help you reflect on ideas shared here:
it’s called Bricks and Mortar. New Zealand born, Scotland based musician Jamie McClennan wrote it and sings it it here along with his wife and musical partner Emily Smith. You may find it recorded on their album Smith & McClennan Unplugged.

Photograph of Toronto’s Distillery District at Christmas courtesy of Toronto Christmas Market.


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