Trust Me: Inside the National Trust

By Arnold Berke

Trust
By Arnold Berke

Credit: Richard Thompson

September's hurricanes? their blow to Gulf Coast heritage and the ways it can recover? pervaded the National Preservation Conference from Sept. 27–Oct. 2 in Portland, Ore. The situation's urgency was underscored from the start, when Trust President Richard Moe scrapped his annual report at the opening session to concentrate on the organization's leadership response to the calamity. "It's what we do. This is who we are. This is why we exist," Moe said, outlining Trust teamwork with preservation groups and public officials to assess damage, push for tax credits and other restoration aids, and inform the public as to the value of historic places to reconstruction. (See article on page 6.)

... Held in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (née the 1928 Portland Public Theatre), the opener offered contrasting, yet equally pertinent, keynoters. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), formerly a Portland and state legislator, spoke of politics, planning, and the role of national partnerships in hurricane recovery. Commenting also on the national subtext of Proposition 37, the property rights measure that passed last year (and in October was struck down in court), he warned: "What the forces of darkness have done here in Oregon may be coming to a town near you." California writer and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto spun delightfully graphic tales from his books, showing how the conveyor of history?memory and the storytelling it brings on?can be set into motion by something as simple and sensuous as tasting an old-style peach. "I farm memories," he said. "Farmers and those who are engaged in historic preservation, we grow stories."

... Education panels? from advocacy to transportation? included some quite impassioned dialogue. At a session on the knotty issue of demolishing one building to restore another, the crowd scrutinized three nonprofits that have made such tradeoffs. The Trust's decision to support razing the Century Building in St. Louis in order to rehab the adjacent Old Post Office fostered an especially fervent exchange. Two of many remarks: "When the National Trust advocates for a project that demolishes an important historic building, that really pulls the rug out from under the preservation community and the city officials who are working hand-in-hand with these groups," said Adam Light, a City of San Francisco preservation planner. Emphasizing the role of the post office in revitalizing a larger downtown area, Trust President Richard Moe said, "We did our best to make a preservation decision that accomplished a great deal of preservation, even though we suffered the loss of a good building." Similar quandaries facing the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois were aired.

... Tours of town and country showcased a state where rigorous planning has reinforced the best of both. A shining product of that approach, Portland's light-rail system, prompted an outing to a string of North Portland neighborhoods where the new Yellow Line and the city's renewal agency are working revitalization magic, notably along commercial streets. Other urban treks showed how regional land-use policy, agile local planning, and the enterprise of many an individual have bolstered both downtown and districts nearby. Out beyond the urban growth boundary?the famous sprawl wall that was the focus of its own tour? travelers took in the gorgeous gorge of the Columbia River, towns and landscapes of the Oregon wine country, and one of the all-time wonders of "parkitecture," Timberline Lodge.

... Outside the official to-do list, there were, as always, serendipitous encounters with people and places? and the impromptu learning that both impart. One group of conference-goers, on a downtown wander, came across the 1888 Skidmore Fountain, a caryatid-crowned artifact of old Portland. Here was graceful beauty, certainly, but also a reminder of long-ago public-mindedness, of the sort of unabashed civic spirit that could carve boldly into the monument's base: "Good citizens are the riches of a city." What a peach.