I am just returned from the National Trust for Historic Places annual conference in Indianapolis. For a newbie to the historic preservation profession, it was an immersion into what I have practiced much of my career: why does historic preservation matter? Both personally and professionally, I have walked the walk of understanding how important old buildings are and, more to the point, how they can be reused and re-purposed to be vibrant contributions to communities.
The non-profit housing development I founded, Partners In Housing (we called ourselves the patron saint of dumps) reuses vacant and abandoned buildings to house the homeless. The community economic impact is direct and immediate. When taking plywood off windows and cleaning out the accumulated trash, suddenly a building has life. It takes no time at all before neighbors begin to see their community in a new light.
This was much of the theme I found throughout the conference in Indianapolis.
Most exciting was the presentation by the artist organization BigCar which has taken over an abandoned Firestone service center in a failed mall parking lot. Now it has been turned into a vibrant and lively center for the arts and community involvement.
I also participated in a charette of 90 preservationists brought together to re-purpose the former Indianapolis City Hall and I sat in with a team charged with exploring a reuse of this Beaux-Arts building as a boutique hotel. The possibilities were many and the “monetization” (can it make money) of the space was real!
More than anything I came away with the recognition of a philosophy I have always believed in my work of preservation that the gems can take care of themselves for the most part. It is the diamonds in the rough which can yield exciting reuse possibilities. Whether housing or commercial/office/retail space, these not-so-beautiful buildings have a purpose and contribute to our communities. In preserving and finding a viable reuse, we can restore them to the community fabric which cities such as Hartford want going forward.
I would welcome thoughts and comments. We at HPA are exploring new roles and responsibilities as we think strategically about the future of preservation in Hartford. Community participation in the effort is what we want. Please help to guide our thinking.