Yes to Yesterday

Let’s cherish—and sustain—our not-so-old treasures.

I once thought I wanted to be an architect. I envisioned myself in a big office with a pipe clenched in my teeth, effortlessly dashing off brilliant sketches of glassy skyscrapers that would win instant acclaim for their innovative design and wind up in places of honor on city skylines from coast to coast. The dream didn't last long (I couldn't draw my way out of a paper bag, I am irreparably inept in all things mathematical, and I'm not interested in smoking a pipe)—but while it flourished, I spent hours in the periodicals section of the public library, poring over architectural magazines and marveling at the slick-skinned glass-and-metal creations pictured on every page.

Fast-forward to today: The buildings I admired in those not-so-long-ago days are now the focus of preservation efforts—and it's downright unnerving to hear the structures I once thought of as NEW! and THE LATEST THING! being described as "historic." I believe I've managed to get over the shock of the inescapable inference: "Wait a minute … if those buildings are historic, and I'm older than they are, what does that make me?" It appears, however, that some people are still wrestling with another question: If a building is "modern" and/or a product of the "recent past," can it also be "historic"? 

Single-syllable answer: Yep.

It's as simple as this: Historic doesn't necessarily mean ancient. Generally speaking, a property doesn't qualify for listing in the National Register until it's at least 50 years old. I've already confessed that math isn't my strong suit, but this is pretty easy, even for me: 2008 minus 50 equals 1958. In other words, buildings built as recently as 1958—that's not just postwar, it's post-postwar—are, if they meet other criteria, eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic (note: Historic) Places.

Still not convinced that these not-so-old places are worth saving? Maybe this will help:

When you strip away all the jargon and rhetoric, historic preservation is simply having the good sense to hang on to something—a building or a neighborhood or a piece of landscape—because it's important to us as individuals and/or as a nation. This importance takes many forms and may derive from any of several factors. For instance, a building can be important, and therefore worth saving, because it's good to look at, and the community would be less interesting, less attractive, without it. Or it can be worth hanging on to because it has plenty of use left in it, and saving and reusing it is an economically and environmentally responsible thing to do.

But there's something else that makes a building worth appreciating and even fighting for, and it has more to do with the heart and soul and psyche than with the eyes or the wallet or the environment: Some places are worth saving because they are signposts on the road to Right Now, and we value them because they help us remember how we got here. That road didn't end at midcentury, of course, and big chunks of who we are today were shaped in the decades since then. That ranch house in a 1960s subdivision and that glass-and-aluminum office tower say a lot about us in the mid-20th century—not only how we lived but also what we valued, what we wanted, how we saw the world and our place in it. These buildings may lack the patina that Antiques Roadshow has taught us to revere, but the fact that they are unvenerated doesn't make them unimportant. 

Does that mean we have to save every suburban split-level, every curtain-wall skyscraper, every swoopy-canopied motel? Probably not—but it does mean we can't wait until most of them are gone before deciding that they were worth caring about after all. We've done that sort of thing before, and what did we get for our shortsightedness? Vacant lots and regrets, that's what. The time to make sure it doesn't happen again is now, while the recent past is more than a distant memory. 

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.