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  • Diversity in Preservation:Rethinking Standards and Practices
  • Vince Michael (bio)

At the 1993 National Preservation Conference in St. Louis, I did my first presentation on diversity in preservation in a session that sought to answer the question: How do we get more people of color and inner-city dwellers involved in preservation? My answer was: Wrong question. They are involved. I chronicled a long list of efforts by Landmarks Illinois in Chicago to that date, including my experience with the North Kenwood community, which I wrote about in the Future Anterior journal in 2005.1 The question was more appropriately, how do we integrate our efforts with theirs? This is the same question National Trust President Stephanie Meeks has been asking more recently—how do we reach out to local preservationists?

Those efforts I chronicled on the South and West Sides of Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s were limited by preservation standards like integrity and practices that focused on architectural design. Twenty years later, as vice-chair of the National Trust’s Diversity Task Force, I have been working with the National Park Service to identify how standards and practices might be changed to recognize more diverse historic sites.

In particular we need to consider how integrity is determined; how the period of significance is defined; and how the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards are applied.

Judging Integrity

At the 2013 National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis I was part of a Diversity in Preservation Conversation Starter with National Trust Trustee Irvin Henderson and Ray Rast of Gonzaga University. We were tasked with revisting and discussing prevailing notions of significance, standards, integrity, and criteria. Ray Rast described his challenge surveying and documenting sites associated with labor organizer Cesar Chavez. He commented that he kept running [End Page 5] into issues of integrity, which generally means that a structure retains essential physical features that allow it to convey its historic identity.

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The Forum, an abandoned dance hall in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, has a rich cultural history in spite of many building alterations over the years.

Photo: Vince Michael

There are three problems with how we judge integrity. The first is the word itself, which was adopted when we created the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, largely because the international word “authenticity” seemed too problematic. In fact, it is the opposite. In international practice, the process of preservation defines authenticity in a culturally specific way, allowing a broader analysis of significance beyond simply the visual and architectural. “Integrity” is a legacy of the visual, formal, and architectural focus of the preservation movement over time. The Depression-era HABS program, the creation of the Society of Architectural Historians in 1941, and the first “lists” of architectural landmarks in American cities were all defined architecturally.

The second problem, as I learned from Ray Rast, is that integrity is an on-off switch. Either a property has integrity or it does not. In academic terms, it is Pass-Fail. But why not A, B, C, D, F? Because integrity reflects the incremental changes that take place over time [End Page 6] (including restoration), it should naturally be a gradient or continuum, like A,B,C,D,F. As soon as you try to apply this to practice, it works easily. That building has lost its cornice and been resurfaced, so I give it a D+. If they restore the lobby maybe it is a C and put the cornice back and you get a C+. Steel, beef, butter, and beans are graded: why not historic buildings?

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The presence of vacant lots raised questions about the integrity of the Black Bottom District, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Russellville, Ky., during the National Register nomination process.

Photos courtesy Kentucky Heritage Council

The third and most crucial problem is that integrity is defined architecturally even if the significance of the property is not architectural. How do you measure how well a property conveys historic significance that has little to do with architecture? Where Lincoln died, or where the Declaration of Independence was signed, for example? All sites of historic...


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