A brief chat with two of the brightest minds in historic preservation
Photograph by Amy Freeman
We at Seasons Style & Design are mad for old houses and antiques, particularly here in the Piedmont region. But we know a couple of blokes who are even more in tune with historic preservation than we are. You might even call them a couple of true North Carolina tJoshing aside, not long ago we met up with Robert Leath of Old Salem Museum and Gardens, and MESDA (Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts) and Preservation Greensboro’s Benjamin Briggs for lunch and conversation on the porch of the historic Tavern in Old Salem, eager to hear what two of the brightest minds in the historic preservation movement havet to say about the subject.
SEASONS: In a few words, what is the state of historic preservation?
BB: Locally it’s very good. When people in Greensboro are contemplating demolition of an old building, for instance, they now call us to find out about its history. Years ago, the first call they would have made was to get a quote on the bulldozer. That’s a major change. It means the public is aware of the importance of preserving older structures. That thinking now crosses all lines of income, ethnicity and business. Folks are curious to know the building or house’s history. That’s welcome change from the past.
RL: We see the same the same things happening here in Forsyth County. There’s a genuine awareness and interest in preserving older buildings that wasn’t the case decades ago. Winston-Salem is undergoing a transformation from industrial use to a high-tech and medical base that’s bringing exciting new life to places like the old Reynolds buildings and warehouses in the city. It’s a pretty exciting time, all things considered.
SEASONS: Well, in that spirit, tell about your beginnings in historic preservation.
BB: I was sort of born into it, you might say. I inherited a love of it from my parents who liked old houses and took me to see historic sites in Williamsburg and Charleston when I was growing up. I also inherited the house I grew up in near Jamestown, a house built in the 1840s. Working on that house over the years captured my imagination and taught me a great deal about the difference between restoration and renovation. During my prep school years in Pennsylvania, I remember a speaker who stressed the importance of doing something you love in life. That made a strong impression on my career decision. I was fortunate to have an internship with the Historic Charleston Foundation. So you could say I was more or less destined to do this kind of work.
RL: I grew up in Fayetteville. My dad was an architect and I was fascinated at a young age with seeing how houses came together and functioned. I also had a strong interest in American history — though I thought perhaps I would eventually wind up studying the law. But after an internship at MESDA’s Summer Institute, my passion for history and houses merged and that led to my first job at the Historic Charleston Foundation, where among other things I got to work on the restoration and refurbishing of the Nathaniel Russell House. That was a fabulous laboratory for anyone who loves history, architectures and culture. I was lucky to move on to Historic Williamsburg and eventually return to Old Salem. So you could say I’ve come back to where my passion was born.
SEASONS: Historically speaking, where did the preservation movement in America come from?
RL: Its origins lay, to some degree, in the Centennial of America, when people began to express a broader interest in American history and felt the need to commemorate it in some fashion. The Bicentennial in 1976 also gave historic preservation a major boost, prompting Americans to think about where they came from and celebrate the pride in the nation’s age.
BB: That public interest also began to take root with passage of the National Preservation Act in 1966, which saved Grand Central Station and other landmark buildings from destruction. In some ways, the South was in the forefront of historic preservation because under the act the first four designated historic districts were Charleston, the Vieux Carré in New Orleans, Alexandria (Virginia) and Old Salem. The popularity of Williamsburg also played a major role in broadening awareness.
RL: I’ve always had a pet theory that the Cold War even had something to do with the rise of America’s preservation movement. Set against a radically different economic and political system like the Soviet Union helped define our American-ness, making our national identity and history a matter not just of pride but even life and death. If you were a child from the 1950s onward, there’s a good chance your parents took you to see Williamsburg, Washington DC or Jamestown. These places became like the Stations of the Cross of our cultural identity, places worthy of family pilgrimage. If you grew up in eastern North Carolina, Tryon Palace was a fieldtrip, while in the western regions, Old Salem. Just about every school kid visited one or the other — some both.
BB: The end of the 1970s and early ’80s saw a real growth of this awareness thanks to popular TV shows like This Old House and the Old House Journal. Suddenly smaller cities like Greensboro and Winston-Salem created their own historic districts like [Greensboro’s] College Hill — in 1980 — and Fisher Park in 1982. Over time that eventually spread to places like Wafco Mills and Revolution Mill and other industrial buildings that have been saved and transformed into economic drivers in the region. That’s going on big-time in all the towns of the Piedmont. It’s very exciting to see.
RL: These days you can see the public interest with historic preservation in things like PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, which has something like 9 million viewers, or Ancestry.com, which is nearly a $700 million business with two million subscribers. There is a genuine curiosity about where we came from as a people. That’s why historic properties speak to people the way they do. There’s an authenticity about old houses and antiques that tells the story of who we are as a nation and how we evolved. At MESDA, we are fascinated by the stories we research about beautiful historic pieces of furniture. Every piece tells a great story.
BB: People enjoy the experience of being in an old house or a restored historic building — seeing hand-wrought nails in the floor or shutters that are so authentic they don’t lay against the wall properly, light fixtures created by hand, that sort of thing. These things are unique. They speak of our past, our share values.
SEASONS: So what challenges do you face these days?
RL: The challenge is to keep adjusting to change. The definition of “old” is always changing. A piece of furniture from the second half of the 20th century used to be just “furniture,” and now it is considered an antique, while what used to be regarded as an antique is now antiquity. Tastes change but history doesn’t.
BB: Modernism is very hot right now, and industrial rehabilitation appeals to a much more diverse group of Americans, crossing all boundaries of ethnicity and origin, particularly younger folks. That’s a welcome change. A classic 1960s ranch house could just as easily appeal to someone who grew up in Buenos Aires in the 1960s as an African American who grew up here in North Carolina. Not so long ago those houses — and their furnishings — weren’t that much in demand. But now they are driving much of the excitement in the preservation world.
RL: [Laughs] It’s all those kids who grew up watching The Brady Bunch!
BB: And that’s just great because it defines their particular passion for the past. That’s a good thing. Right now the Mid-Century buildings and massive industrial buildings are the ones that need the most attention. We’re fortunate there is such a strong interest in saving and restoring cavernous buildings that would otherwise be lost.
SEASONS: So what’s old is really new again?
RL: Absolutely. The past, someone said, is never really past.
BB: And it’s always evolving.
Serving as executive director of Preservation Greensboro since 2003, Benjamin Briggs has overseen such initiatives as the acquisition of Blandwood Mansion and the Gate City’s annual Tour of Historic Homes. His restoration work on High Point’s Ecker House garnered Briggs the Carraway Award of Merit in 1993 from Preservation North Carolina.
As chief curator and vice-president of collections and research at Old Salem Museum and Gardens, Robert Leath oversees the collections, library and research center at Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), and the collections displayed at the interpretive sites of Historic Salem Town. For his 10 years of work at MESDA, Leath received the Frank L. Horton Lifetime Achievement Award. h
Past-Times at MESDA and PGI
Fall will be a busy time for Winston-Salem’s Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) and Preservation Greensboro (PGI).
From October 13–14, MESDA will host its Fall Conference, “Good, Better, Best: Collecting for the 21st Century.” Its premise: Collections usually start with one good object, and a passion for amassing things often begins with childhood hobbies, such as stamp- and coin-collecting. Experts Wes Cowan, Ken Farmer and Colette Loll will offer thoughts on how to distinguish quality items from less valuable ones. To register: (336) 721-7369 or mesda.org.
For Preservation Greensboro, Blandwood mansion, the former residence of Gov. John Motley Morehead, will take center stage. A two-part series, “Furnishing Blandwood: Changing Taste in Antebellum America” (October 2 and November 6) highlights the art and furniture selected by Gov. Morehead and architect Alexander Jackson Davis. From November 6–8, Blandwood will close and re-open to the public on November 9 to showcase its period holiday decorations, featuring natural objects. Info and holiday tour reservations: (336) 272-5003 or preservationgreensboro.org.