“Too often, discussions about preserving and investing in critical places is deemed non-essential or a nice thing to do in good times. But the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that places are even more important in challenging times.” –Nicholas Redding
I came across this article a few weeks ago, and it got me thinking – what does historic preservation look like right now? And does it even matter in such a frightening and uncertain time?
I live in a historic village, built around a gristmill that dates back to 1807 and still functions today.
Sometimes, President James Monroe, who called this little village home in his later years, even comes to visit.
I’ve lived here since 2016, when my husband and I decided to do the crazy thing we’d been talking about for the last five or so years and buy a 200-year-old house. We have never regretted that decision, and I doubt we ever will. We live in a home with a story, where generations of families have lived before us, where people watched soldiers pass by on their way to a major cavalry battle and where we find evidence every day of just how much has changed in our little corner of the globe. Our house is part of America’s history, and we have the honor of serving as guardians of that history.
You don’t just live in a building this old. You experience it. And that applies to historic preservation, generally. It’s all about the experience, because there’s nothing quite like firsthand knowledge to help you appreciate exactly what you’re protecting. So, how do we approach historic preservation in this historic moment? And more specifically, how should we approach it where I live in Loudoun County?
Presence, engagement, and experiencing history online.
Take a look at some of our most well-preserved historic sites in America, and you’ll see people. Lots of people, physically present – walking on the battlefields of Bull Run and Gettysburg, watching reenactments at Williamsburg and Jamestown, exploring the homes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Emily Dickinson, and Frederick Douglass (one of my favorites, that one). It is interesting, memorable, and valuable to immerse yourself in history.
But what do you do when you can’t?
In Loudoun, we’ve gone virtual. Loudoun’s Heritage Farm Museum has created a collection of online resources, their “Virtual Museum.” They’ve also become a pickup location for the Loudoun Made Loudoun Grown Marketplace, which itself has gone digital. The Mosby Heritage Area Association, a non-profit devoted to preservation through education, has created extensive online programming and hosts almost nightly events on their Facebook page (my favorite is “History on Tap,” and you should check it out). And Oatlands Historic House and Gardens has started a blog, “Oatlands Originals,” to share a virtual collection from their archives, and has begun hosting a video series for tours of the property, including the idyllic gardens and grounds managed by Mark Schroeter, a respected horticulturalist with extensive experience maintaining and curating historic gardens.
So many of our museums and non-profits in Loudoun have worked hard over the last several weeks to move their programming online, and to offer tours and education virtually. It’s not the same, sure, but it’s what we can do, right now.
Funding in the middle of a pandemic.
At the best of times, preservationists often have to fight tooth and nail for the funding they need. Unfortunately, desperate times often see that funding diminished, reallocated, or revoked altogether. Just recently, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted to cancel funding for the Loudoun Museum, a move made more devastating by the fact that they’d previously approved that funding.
I’m not going to argue politics here. We are living through extraordinary times, and difficult decisions are being made at all levels of both civilian life and government. That being said, many museums, historic sites, and non-profits that promote preservation survive on donations from their communities. These are scary and turbulent times, though, and if you can’t offer financial support, you can still spread the word and be vocal about what you love. Word of mouth will never NOT be powerful.
Preservation requires passion.
And your voice is a resource, just like your dollar. Preserving historic sites often feels more like a battle than a project. No matter the issue – funding, recognition, apathy – preservation is tiring and sometimes thankless work.
In my village, we worked for the better part of three years to preserve several of our historic structures when our own elected representatives moved to demolish them. It took a petition with over 5,000 signatures, hours of phone calls and knocking on doors and answering questions and making statements at public hearings before we were finally heard. But we were, and the historic fabric of our village should hopefully remain intact for future generations of Loudouners to explore and experience.
Now, not even a year later, there’s a brand new issue, and a brand new petition, as the community works to protect a battlefield and the rural viewshed of a historically significant church and cemetery.
Loudoun’s elected representatives continue to look for quick and easy ways to solve problems, even if they directly conflict with public sentiment, and even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic that stifles public input and engagement. And no matter how this one ends, in another year, there will be another fight, and another after that.
The sad and difficult truth is that in a world always looking out for the next big thing, on the hunt for instant gratification, the long and labor-intense process of preserving historic structures and protecting historic areas is, for many, not a priority.
It takes energy and passion to make an impact in a world that too often just doesn’t care, and Loudoun County sits squarely in ground zero between the vital need for historic preservation and the rising tide of new suburbia.
Connecting through history and preservation.
Click on almost any piece of journalism about Loudoun County, and you’ll read about the stark divide between its suburban, technology-infused east and its rural, farm-economy west. Here’s one, for reference, aptly titled “A Tale of Two Counties.” It’s such a classic divide in America, and here in Loudoun, one of the richest counties in the country where eastern residents regularly enjoy winery weekends and polo matches in the west, it would be funny if it weren’t so damaging.
A few years ago, the Chair of the Board of Supervisors caused a minor kerfuffle when she remarked that she regularly hears people say “idiotic things” about the county’s rural west. She apologized, but the wound she prodded was open long before her election, and it has never really closed.
In the early 2000s, a group proposed secession of Loudoun’s rural west, and that sentiment lingers today, newly invigored by discussions around an updated comprehensive plan. Residents in the east complain when schools close for snow-covered dirt roads in the west, and in the west, long-time property owners worry about encroaching new development. And just today, a group of three supervisors sent a letter to Virginia governor Ralph Northam requesting that, unlike the rest of Loudoun County, the rural west be allowed to begin Phase 1 of reopening after a month-long stay at home order. Residents are divided on this, too, with many in support of loosening restrictions, and others concerned about the potential impacts of reopening too quickly.
In this climate of divided politics, opposing values, and different priorities, it’s hard to imagine anything might bring us together here in Loudoun, but we share a rich heritage and a unique history. They belong to all of us. Loudoun’s story is America’s story, from battlefields and farmhouses to office buildings and suburbs. When we invest our time, our energy, and our resources in preserving our historic spaces for future Loudoun residents, we reconfirm our connection to this shared experience. When we agree that historic places matter and deserve to be protected, we recommit to moving forward together. Perhaps now, more than any other time in recent memory, Loudoun County needs its preservationists.
“We remember the tremendous power that physical, authentic places hold in our lives. Places provide the setting to embrace our desire to connect and engage. We must remember that feeling as we rebuild.” –Nicholas Redding