03 June 2015

Why Old Things Matter

Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set. ~ King Solomon

I recently began following and reading posts and articles at Preservation Virginia. It's a natural for me, given my fascination with the history, preservation, archeology and architecture of Virginia. The organization's website states:
We are a private non-profit organization and statewide historic preservation leader founded in 1889 dedicated to perpetuating and revitalizing Virginia's cultural, architectural and historic heritage thereby ensuring that historic places are integral parts of the lives of present and future generations.
Everything I've read thus far indicates the group is doing a commendable job in fulfilling this statement. Which leads me to the topic of this post - a series of articles linked to another preservationist website: The Preservation Leadership Forum Blog.

I was particularly intrigued by a series of articles under the heading, "Why Do Old Places Matter?" These fascinating pieces were all written by Tom Mayes, who is the deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

I would encourage anyone reading this to read all of the articles in the series. Again, they are quite fascinating. Hayes touches on many topics that are especially dear to Southerners and other Americans who have deep roots in their communities, including the concept of "a sense of place."

For example, in the article titled, "Why Do Old Places Matter? Continuity", the author writes:
Environmental psychologists have explored many aspects of peoples’ attachment to place, including the idea of continuity. Maria Lewicka, in her review of studies on “place attachment,” says “…the majority of authors agree that development of emotional bonds with places is a prerequisite of psychological balance and good adjustment, and that it helps to overcome identity crises and gives people the sense of stability they need in the ever changing world….”  Although studies relating specifically to old places are limited, Lewicka summarizes the studies this way: “Research in environmental aesthetics shows that people generally prefer historical places to modern architecture. Historical sites create a sense of continuity with the past, embody the group traditions, and facilitate place attachment….”
I was immediately drawn to the observation that these sites "create a sense of continuity with the past, [and] embody the group traditions"

It is this "continuity with the past" and "group traditions" that seem to so often be the target of criticism, scorn and ridicule by elites in American society. We hear the unrelenting call by moderns "out with the old and in with the new." Tradition seems to be automatically suspect and sneered at, regardless of the circumstance. Yet the feeling one gets when one walks into an old building, particularly one with known history, is undeniable. It is often almost a spiritual feeling or experience. You know at once you're in a special, unique and important place. And it is important to recognize this phenomenon, as Hayes points out:

Old places help people to create meaningful life stories. This may sound a bit touchy-feely for our American sense of practicality and hard-nosed reality. But the point is that people need this sense of continuity, this capacity to develop coherent life stories, to be psychologically healthy. . . . Put simply, people need the continuity of old places.
I could not agree more. But there's another dimension to this observation that the writer seems to get close to, yet misses. He's talking about tangible places. And, of course, he's right. I could not agree more. However, if this is true about the physical, could it not be argued it is ever more so with the spiritual? I'm speaking of course of our nation's spiritual and religious heritage, which seems to be under attack and threatened more and more with each passing day.

As the greedy developer, motivated by his agenda of making a profit, is often willing to tear down in order to build something newer and, ostensibly, "better", so it seems many in our society, motivated by their own agendas, are willing to do the same with our nation's rich religious heritage, our traditions and our principles.

In other words, if people "need this sense of continuity" in tangible, physical places in order "to be psychologically healthy", don't they also need the same sense of continuity in the spiritual realm?

I would argue yes. If people need the continuity of old places, they need even more the continuity of old principles. There is a connection between the the two--between old places and principles, between old buildings that have stood the test of time and old traditions that have done the same. No one better understood these connections than Eric Sloane who wrote:

The spirits and habits of yesterday become more difficult to apply to modern everyday life . . . if we can only mark time with our scientific progress long enough to let the old morals and spirits catch up, we shall be all the better for it. The heritages of godliness, the love of hard work, frugality, respect for home and all the other spirits of pioneer countrymen, are worth keeping forever. What we do today will soon become once upon a time for the Americans of tomorrow and their heritage is our present day responsibility. ~ Eric Sloane, writing in Once Upon A Time: The Way America Was

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