Arthur Ziegler: Historic Preservation in Our Time
Historic preservation. Sounds simple. Save architecturally significant buildings.
But the work is a great deal more complicated than that.
As we approach PHLF’s 50th Anniversary in 2014, I want to begin a conversation with you that in part reflects on where our organization and our movement have been, but also discusses what course we should set for our next half-century.
We have, indeed, come a long way. When we began 48 years ago, we quickly realized that a significant majority of historic buildings in our community were located in troubled neighborhoods, owned by people – many of them minorities – without significant monetary means. Even worse was the realization that a number of historic properties were owned by slumlords.
Compounding the problem was the fact that many of those neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and throughout the nation were scheduled for clearance for ‘urban renewal’, a heartless governmental, top-down series of programs that recognized no value in the existing housing, the main street retail, or the daily rhythms of generations of people in those areas. Worse, ‘urban renewal’ was absolutely soul-less and cracked the emotional bonds among the people within the community, and their ties with the buildings, the streets, shops, and the schools and churches located there.
Without much knowledge or forethought, a few of us set out to stop the disruption. Not surprisingly, we found that residents and community members who were in these areas had the best ideas for their improvement; we therefore became a grassroots-oriented organization, and the few became many.
From that early work, PHLF developed a series of principles that we have followed for nearly half a century: buildings worth saving are those of architectural significance, valued by the community/neighborhood, with feasible reuse plans.
With our work came losses and victories.
All of the North Side from the Heinz Plant to the Ohio River edge in Manchester was scheduled for demolition before PHLF became active with the residents in the 1960s. Beaver Avenue Clearance and Allegheny Center were foisted upon the North Side, but PHLF and neighborhood residents were able to save the Old Post Office, the Buhl Planetarium, and Carnegie Library. South Side was scheduled for demolition and we worked with residents and Carson Street merchants and defeated that plan, but the list of proposed demolitions went forward. Unfortunately, massive demolition occurred in the Lower Hill, in much of East Liberty, and in the Point area at the confluence of the three rivers before PHLF was formed in 1964.
Nearly 50 years later, PHLF and our allies are still working to undo the “renewal “ that destroyed the life and buildings of East Liberty, Allegheny Center, and the Lower Hill. We can see the benefits of our efforts all around our city, and can take pleasure in knowing that the areas that people love today are the historic areas: South Side, North Side, Lawrenceville, the Strip District, and the Cultural and Market Square Districts in our downtown.
I believe we have built the strongest preservation organization in the United States in terms of programs, results, and reputation. But clearly, we cannot rest on our laurels, but rather must work to evaluate and strengthen our organization so we are connected to the future. As I have learned over my years, the best use of the experience of age is to make it available to younger people who don’t then have to learn a-new, but can start at a higher level and build on that experience in innovative ways that can influence the world as they shape it.
As I, along with PHLF staff and members of our Boards, gather our thoughts on where we have been and where we will go, we invite each of you to send your thoughts to us by way of e-mail or letter with the subject line: “PHLF Thoughts.”
Let us know what PHLF means to you. Tell us which of our programs has made a difference to you, and most importantly, please share with us your hopes and dreams of what our community could be, and how PHLF can act to achieve that vision.
Thank you for your continuing support of PHLF; and thank you in advance for your innovative ideas and future participation.
Arthur Ziegler, President
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation