The Back Page: Payback Time

Bestowing awards rewards us all.


Preservation awards

Credit: Getty Images

What's more enthralling than a batch of before-and-after photos? Nothing, that's what—and that's why I enjoy preservation awards ceremonies so much. Last fall I attended three in two weeks, and the experience left me downright giddy.

The first was in Columbus, Ga., where the Historic Columbus Foundation marked its 40th anniversary by handing out a passel of awards, most of them to people who had renovated a house or donated hours of volunteer time to the planning and staging of foundation events. As they posed for photos, the honorees looked proud of what they'd done—and rightly so, judging by the pictures that flashed on the screen: Shots of people eating hot dogs at Riverfest and showing off their party duds at the Heritage Ball alternated with images of sagging porches straightened and scabby paint jobs smoothed. It was a celebration of preservation at its grassroots-iest, and by evening's end there wasn't a face in the place that didn't sport a big grin.

A week later, the presentation of the Mayor's Awards for Excellence in Historic Preservation here in Washington, D.C., showed what a multifaceted undertaking preservation has become. Winners included an exhibition on the work of an underappreciated 19th-century architect, the conversion of historic auto showrooms into apartments and commercial space, and the community-driven creation of a neighborhood history brochure. A celebrity was in attendance: Kevin O'Connor, host of PBS' This Old House, accepted an award for the on-air rehab of a dilapidated Washington row house. And in the something-you-don't-see-every-day category, the D.C. Department of Transportation was honored for restoring the layout of one of the city's original traffic circles—a project that was warmly (and deservedly) lauded even though it had snarled traffic for months.

The Trust presented its own awards at the National Preservation Conference in Pittsburgh. If you've ever attended this event, you know that occasionally a winner will punch you right in the heart. Several years ago, one of the honorees was a frail 92-year-old man who had spent much of his life as caretaker of an abandoned Spanish mission in central New Mexico—and when that little old guy shuffled onto the stage, the theater echoed with the kind of cheering usually reserved for rock stars. More recently, a similar thing happened when we saluted the crew of a historic fireboat that played a heroic role in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center: I'm sure those men are used to rough waters, but the huge, noisy wave of audience adulation was enough to knock them down.

This year's presentation didn't have that kind of "choke-up" factor, but it had just about everything else.  The ceremony recognized throngs of architects, lawyers, artisans, planners, public officials, and private citizens for developing innovative programs and policies, turning eyesores into icons, and restoring everything imaginable: a seaside hotel in New Hampshire, an adobe mission in Texas, a movie palace in Hawaii, and much more, including the Alabama bus that carried Rosa Parks to fame. The event lasted an hour, and I was sorry to see it end.

In these cynical times, it's tempting to be dismissive about these quintessentially American parades of plaques and trophies and grip-and-grin photos, but I find them inspirational. I think this is because, in a world of mixed blessings and diminished returns, awards ceremonies are an unalloyed pleasure, a feel-good rush with no harmful side effects—what Martha Stewart calls "a good thing," pure and simple.

We heard a lot about legislative anniversaries last year—the 100th anniversary of the Antiquities Act, the 40th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, and so on. If you ask me, awards ceremonies show that we preservationists (plus lots of people who wouldn't dream of wearing that label) are doing a good job of building on the foundation laid for us by the visionaries who wrote and enacted those laws. Happily, more praiseworthy work is being done every day, so we can—and should—keep handing out awards for years to come. That means more before-and-afters, which suits me just fine.

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