Patrick McGuire is the Elkhart County Historical Museum’s curator of education. He is a regular contributor to The Elkhart Truth through the museum’s community blog, Elkhart County History.
At 7 p.m. Thursday, May 22, the director of Indiana Landmarks’ Northern Regional Office, Todd Zeiger, will be speaking at the museum. The event is free and open to the public. In the presentation, Zeiger will speak about Indiana’s 10 most endangered landmarks – structures around the state that are historic in nature and face the imminent threat of being destroyed for a variety of reasons, including abandonment, neglect, lack of redevelopment and many more. Indiana Landmarks’ goal in this presentation is to shed light on this topic and mobilize the public to action.
For those of you who are reading this and wondering “What’s the point?” or “Why should we save buildings?” let me try and make the case of why historic preservation is important.
Working in a museum housed in a historic building, I feel saving buildings with historic value is essential not just to our community’s history, but our quality of life. Robert Stipe lists various reasons why historic preservation is important in his book A Richer Heritage. While we may not think of it as we drive by them in our cars, historic structures serve as physical links to the past. They tell us who we are, how we became this way and how we differ from other communities or cultural groups.
Throughout time these buildings have become part of who we are, and we have lived with them over generations. There is a certain emotion that gets tied into a church, for example, that multiple generations of a family have gone to. They serve not just as buildings; they’re part of our fabric.
In many instances, these structures create personal identity. How many times have we seen an iconic building used in a town’s logo or used to promote tourism? By doing so, we are saying these places are important to us and represent our community. Tied in with this idea and historic preservation as a whole, a sense of nostalgia is why we preserve these buildings. They create a relation to people, events and eras that are important to honor and understand.
Finally, we preserve as part of our civic duty. In many cases, historic preserved buildings are beautiful, add to quality of life and save cities from decay.
Here’s a more concrete example: Imagine trying to learn about the creation of the United States without Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Can it be done, absolutely – we have numerous books on the subject, recollections from our founding fathers and various other sources. However, being able to enter the building and physically see where these events took place adds to our education and appreciation on a level we would not be able to achieve by just reading about them. We see the walls, the paint, the chairs and the desks these people actually used, and we not only understand the event better, but form a lasting memory that connects us to it.
On a local level, we have had recent successes and failures. The public visits Ruthmere every year and has seen the home of the town’s founder, Havilah Beardsley, restored to its historic past. Also, the restoration of the Lerner Theater downtown has not only added to the quality of life in the area, but drives economic growth with money spent by visitors who see a show and stop by a local restaurant or shop in the downtown area. Every day, I report to work at one of the first consolidated schools in the county, which was converted and serves as not just the home of the museum, but as one of our biggest artifacts we use to interpret who and what Elkhart was and is today.
With these great successes , however, the tale of the Elkhart Armory building remains fresh in the minds of many. I’m sure you can remember driving down Main Street and having to merge into a single lane because chunks of the building were falling into the street. The eventual collapse of the roof led to the building being torn down, as it couldn’t be saved, renovated or rehabbed.
I don’t think we should save every building, but we have seen time and time again buildings of historic value and significance getting bulldozed to make way for square box buildings or parking lots. Do we really need more parking lots? There needs to be a balance between making way for new styles and buildings while still keeping those structures that add to our understanding and value as a people.
Progress is not possible without change, but we must remember the change is not always progress.
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