Well, in a manner of speaking that’s what I came away with from the Knox Heritage 2012 Preservation Awards and Annual Meeting, but I’ll get to that later. It’s a feel-good meeting attended by several hundred interested parties, that includes election of next year’s officers, but features the conveyance of various awards for excellence in preservation. A keynote speaker also addresses the issue of preservation from one angle or another.
Scott Schimmel who, with his wife Lisa Sorensen, owns Bliss and Bliss Home on Market Square, opened the night with a farewell address, of sorts. I particularly enjoyed his sonic tour of the history of the Bijou. Knox Heritage originally formed as a group to stave off the destruction of the Bijou Theater in 1974. Of course, it received several million dollars worth of attention just a few years ago and today it looks simply beautiful.
Madeline Rogero presented the Mayor’s Award for Knoxville, followed by an award presented by Knox County Mayor Burchett’s representative, Michael Grider. Kim Trent recognized the other winners, most of whom were outside of the downtown area. Several preservation projects in Fort Sanders were acknowledged and 36 Market Square received a well-deserved award for the great work done on that beautiful building. Ken and Brenda Mills accepted the award and I got a second to talk to Ken who assured me progress is being made toward condos in the upper floors and that we will, indeed, have yogurt on the square eventually.
The keynote speaker for the evening was Leslie Greene Bowman, President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The foundation is responsible for the operation of Monticello and for larger efforts directed at education regarding Thomas Jefferson. They are, of course, leaders in the area of preservation. Monticello has nearly half-a-million visitors each year and, interestingly enough, has changed considerably over the years as scholarship and excavation has revealed increasingly accurate details of life on the mountain. I’ve toured the home probably twenty times starting in the 1960s, so it is a pretty special place to me.
The portion of her address that struck me the most was the section in which she described a shift in the focus of preservation, or perhaps more accurately, a re-defining of the task for preservationists. I love touring old houses so much that I could not have imagined the idea that there could be too many historic homes open for visitors. I’m apparently a member of a declining demographic as attendance is dwindling for such tours.
It turns out preservation efforts for years have focused simply on the saving of buildings while ignoring the financial sustainability of the property into the future. Only so many people will tour so many homes. There are now more than eight thousand homes open for tours. And their audience isn’t sustaining them.
Some high-profile homes have struggled to remain open, often taking extreme measures to survive. Ms. Bowman suggested that if an historical property is to sustain itself, the questions must be asked: Who is the customer? What do they want? What value will be provided? The simple fact is that some of the historical homes must be used in alternative ways that provide financial sustainability and, hopefully, contribute to the economy. Westwood, the future home of Knox Heritage is a good example of an adaptive use of an older structure as something other than opening it up for tours.
It left me contemplating once more how much I appreciate people like Brian Pittman who is self-financing the return of the Mary Boyce Temple home to a residence. It also made me re-think various uses for older buildings that I’ve been irritated about in the past, such as the STEM Academy in the L and N. While it might not be the use I would’ve hoped for, it’s a use that keeps the building occupied and involved in the conversation of daily life in 2012. That’s a valuable contribution to preservation.
I’d encourage you to join Knox Heritage. They do fine work in the center city and beyond. Additionally, they offer great opportunities to tour older homes and buildings, to view properties undergoing renovation and to hear engaging and provocative speakers like Ms. Bowman. In the meantime, you might want to read Jack Neely’s more thorough description of Ms. Bowman’s address. Apparently it struck him as much as it struck me.