The Mystery of History and Place: Radical Preservation Revisited

HomeArticlesThe Mystery of History and Place: Radical Preservation Revisited

“We forget . . . that there is a natural history of souls, nay, even of man himself, which can be learned only from the symbolism inherent in the world about him. It is the natural history that led Hudson to glimpse eternity in some old men’s faces at Land’s End, that led Thoreau to see human civilizations as toadstools sprung up in the night by solitary roads, or that provoked Melville to experience in the sight of a sperm whale some colossal alien existence without which man himself would be incomplete.”

– Loren Eiseley

“Strangeness in the Proportion”[1]


“For the essence of life is presentness, and only in a mythical sense does its mystery appear in the time-forms of past and future. They are the way, so to speak, in which life reveals itself to the folk . . . . For it is, always is, however much we may say It was. Thus speaks the myth, which is only the garment of the mystery.”

– Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers[2]


Historic preservation refers to the activities and the organizations—both private and governmental—that are concerned with preserving remnants of past human activity—artifacts, buildings, and places—based upon their possessing the quality of significance. This quality recalls the fact that historic preservation ostensibly goes beyond (but without rejecting) academic history’s concern with reconstructing objective history to a broader philosophical focus on what these places mean in relation to questions such as “who we are, where we came from, and what is the legacy that shapes and enriches us.”[3] Like as not though, these questions, lying at the very roots of historic preservation and human existence, are seldom mentioned in practice. In lieu of this, justification often moves to arenas of thought that are more comprehensible by the public such as the generation of “tourist dollars.” While this might gain currency in a world devoted to production and financial success, it doesn’t mean that it actually grapples with or even comprehends the nature of its concern.

Human history is in part a chain of objectively lived and reconstructed persons and events. However, as the philosopher of history Eric Voegelin often pointed out, it also includes the dimension of consciousness through which history is “illuminated with meaning from within by the human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization.” This illumination manifests through an “elaborate symbolism” that includes rites, myths, laws, sacred places, and theory that serve to make sense of human life and the cosmos within which they live making it “an integral part of social reality.”

Furthermore, the symbols “express the experience that man is fully man by virtue of his participation in a whole that transcends his particular existence,” effectively serving as pointers, or reminders, that make life “transparent for the mystery of human existence.”[4] By the mystery of human existence, or the mystery of being, Voegelin alludes to a dimension of existence that transcends human concepts, a quality that we can only point to when we ask “Why do we exist rather than not exist?”[5] Here we intuit that there is more to existence than what is given though our senses. Furthermore, to know that past societies interpreted their existences in a multi-dimensional manner leads to the corollary that we too, being part of the same historical process also view the world through similar symbolic structures. Our appropriation of the past involves in part images which are enmeshed in symbolic overtones that we are not readily aware of, especially when we are focused only on the objects.

The holistic nature of human experience was truncated by the rise of positivism, or scientism, which excluded from knowledge that which does not conform to scientific methods. Knowledge in this view refers only to facts pertaining to empirical objects. All else falls into the realm of value amounting to little more than opinion or subjective prejudice. Acceptable knowledge therefore is reduced from the totality of human experience–in its range from the concrete to the apperception of mystery–to the delimitations of methodology. Such a positivistic knowledge would of course prove most receptive in the realm of technology, production, and job-training, where knowledge produces power, and power dominates public dialogue.[6] Given the modern mind’s ability to deal with the objective and the technical yet coming up short when dealing with the nature of human experience and symbolization Walker Percy referred in his 1989 NEH Jefferson lecture to a radical incoherence, a “Fateful Rift”–the “San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind”– represented by the dominance of empirical science to the exclusion of complementary means of knowing.[7]

The historic preservation movement is devoted to the preservation of “significant,” or symbolic, components of the landscape. Over the last century it has become institutionally ensconced in the form of private organizations, university departments, and governmental bureaucracies in the form of agencies and regulations. Through these the movement has acquired a large public voice strongly affecting the public perception of history. Despite its being mandated to deal with symbolic dimensions of history, the voice of the movement has—with a few exceptions—been primarily positivistic.

In 2002 my article “Radical Preservation: Toward a New and More Ancient Paradigm” sounded a call to recover the roots of meaning that are foundational to the historic preservation movement.[8] “Radical”- from the Latin radicalis–refers to roots, to a time of origins, and to fundamental principles, and a concern for such first principles (or basic axioms) is in the Aristotelian sense the basis of philosophy. For Voegelin the root of history is essentially philosophical, an enquiry into the nature of human existence that ranges from the concrete upward to the ineffable mystery.[9] The term radical refers to a convergence of those elements in an endeavor basic to the human condition. Radical preservation called for the recovery of an older way of grasping the world. We must cultivate, as E.V. Walter stated in his treatise on the experience of landscape, “some old perspectives to grasp things whole and entire. We need to recover a way of thinking that ancient people took for granted. . . We need to experience the world in a radically old way.”[10]

In calling for a recovery of roots, I was not and am not calling for a new methodological insight relevant only to the preservation movement but to a recovery of all that is implied when we speak of history and place as significant, or meaningful. This calls for broader insights that are seldom if ever encountered in the reigning positivistic focus on the material. These insights will by virtue of the nature of human experience have to span the San Andreas Fault of the modern mind separating fact and value, science and religion, the concrete and the mysterious.

Glimmers of Transcendence

The experience of history and its symbolization are multidimensional. Far more than a detached object of study consisting of material entities and their relations, it is a process that we stand within where we see it from a limited perspective like tadpoles within the world of a mud puddle and certainly not from a detached perspective outside and above the process.  While it is possible to discern entities and causal processes, yet everything is nevertheless suffused with a penumbra of mystery like light seen by tadpoles filtering in from above.

Symbolization is at the heart of preservation concerns. The word “significance”–the foundation of preservation activities–is derived from the word “sign,” practically a synonym for symbol. With significance we are delving into the heart of symbolization, and this entails more than a focus on merely historical objects but on the conscious experience of them. It is here that the object (historical and otherwise) in all of its dimensions of meaning is to be found. No objects are intrinsically significant; they are only significant to the degree that they enter into conscious experience at the nexus of the past, present, and future.[11]

During a field trip in Europe the founders of quantum physics Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg visited Kronborg Castle in Denmark, once the home of the historical Prince Hamlet, the prototype of the central character in the Shakespearean play. While there Bohr reflected on the experience, remarking:

“Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists, we believe that a castle consists only of stones and admire the way the architect puts them together. The stone, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and the ramparts speak a different language. The courtyard becomes an entire world, a dark corner reminds us of the darkness in the human soul, we hear Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”. . . . everyone knows the questions Shakespeare had him ask, the human depths he was made to reveal…. And once we know that, Kronberg becomes quite a different castle for us.”[12]

The castle is in part an empirical object that can be examined scientifically. Yet as Bohr observes in light of Hamlet it is changed. But what is changed? Certainly not the empirical castle. Here we must consider the fact that the castle is a part within a much larger experiential whole. The “objective” image of the castle is only part of the experience of it. Behind it lie the remembered historical associations: Who built it? When was it built? Who was associated with it? Then there are associations with Shakespeare’s play which raise broader, more philosophical associations in “the human depths he was made to reveal.” All contribute to a symbolic potency leading through a web of associations onto endless horizons eventually pointing to the mystery of being itself. Why is there something rather than nothing?

There is no distinct experience of the castle as a separate object to which one then attaches feelings or speculations. Instead the place as experienced appears as an object, or a focal point, embedded in a web of associations, some concrete, some much less so. The place as experienced as the nexus of historical and narratological associations and potentially to echoes of the beautiful, even pointing to that which cannot be captured by words, the ineffable. It “gathers world” a Heideggerean term aptly used by Christian Norberg-Schulz in his phenomenology of place and building,[13] indicating that what a place or building is, is based on its context within its world of historical and geographical associations, many lying latent and subliminal.

My own experience with history and place goes back to my own origins at an extinct townsite, Palo Alto located in rural Mississippi, which has been connected through family and community back to 1846 when my great-great-grandparents settled there and opened the first store and post office. Digging into the history of the area, I early intuited, was more than procuring and interpreting facts. For every artifact, site, and fact encountered evoked linkages that were both personal yet gave rise to larger and larger contexts with each standing for the interconnectedness of personal experience, community life, history, and existence itself along with the associated philosophical questions. Further the history of Palo Alto beginning in 1846 had no distinct ending leading as it did up through time to me, the teller of the tale. Thus while the history was about something objective, yet it also took place as an analogical story in my head, which was in turn inside the objective world.

In his thoughtful book A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community, Robert R. Archibald recalled how his quest for a more adequate understanding of his work in historic preservation forced him to read widely and to meditatively explore his own memories of history and place.  From this endeavor came the insight that public history exceeds the usual concerns of scholarship to include the interplay between history, culture, and human life.  In effect it concerns not just facts about material phenomena but more broadly and more inclusively, it concerns meaning and values.  Of all these the most important is transcendence, the intimation of something beyond, of a reality that transcends and encompasses our very existence.  As Archibald observed:

“[Transcendence] is fundamental to humanity and without it we are diminished in capacity and potential, removed from sources of inspiration and the wellsprings of creativity, deprived of tranquility.  In these experiences the human spirit soars, insights gleam, and wisdom abounds.  And we all seek and require the respite and relief that these experiences provide.  Good places, good communities offer people opportunities for inspiration, crucibles for creativity, and realization of potential.  The necessity of such places must inform all that we do. This we can know from the past.”[14] 

Regarding the experience of place and evocations of transcendence, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur rhetorically asked:

“Is it simply a residual phenomenon, or an existential protest arising out of the depths of our being, that sends us in search of privileged places, be they our birthplace, the scene of our first love, or the theater of some important historical occurrence—a battle, a revolution, the execution ground of patriots? We return to such places because there a more than everyday reality erupted and because the memory attached to what took place there preserves us from being simply errant vagrants in the world.”[15]

This calls to mind a wide range of places such as churches, memorial shrines, temples, and places deemed sacred by American Indian tribes. The terms “sacred” and “holy” are often used in reference to battlefields, realms where reenactors “seek imaginative entry into the heroic past.”[16] If interrogated they might reply that they didn’t mean “sacred” in a “religious sense.” Regardless of what their definition of a religious sense might be, they do appear to be inchoately expressing the sense of experiencing something that transcends the everydayness of life. Scholars often refer to the work of Rudolf Otto in his seminal work The Idea of the Holy[17] which proposed that the basis of religious traditions was the experience of the holy or sacred which is encountered as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, an ineffable mystery that is both terrifying and tremendous. Another scholar of comparative religion, Mircea Eliade often noted that in a world preoccupied with the material the experience of the sacred still occurs, but is often not recognized behind the “camouflage of the sacred,”[18] an experience probably behind many of the references to “sacred” or “holy ground” whether in traditional properties or the majesty experienced by John Muir in the Yosemite Valley. The awareness of this can help give one a sense of place in the world.[19]

Such intimations are fundamental as motivations for preserving places and buildings. However, it is often forgotten that the origin of preservation does not derive from sites and buildings per se but from the sites with their symbolic associations—“the memory attached to what took place there.” The movement originated with attempts to symbolize an inchoately apprehended transcendental order as perceived in a quasi-mythical past and as part of a growing national civil religion,[20] such as the commemorative activities of erecting monuments to historical events and heroes and the preservation of places such as Mount Vernon and Plymouth Rock.  In this regard, geographer Lester Rowntree and anthropologist Margaret Conkey observed that preservation movements tended to arise as a process whereby “landscape symbols are promoted to alleviate stress through creation of shared symbolic structures” in which the landscape emerges as a “cosmological symbol.”[21] Similarly, in her study of historic preservation in Charleston, South Carolina, geographer Robin Datel saw the movement offering Charlestonians “the reassurance of a familiar place,” a symbol of permanence amidst the flux of change.In a larger context this can be seen as part of the Charleston Renaissance in which a body of architects, artists, authors, poets, and preservationists rallied in support of “the betterment of the city” by tapping into the heritage of the area.[23]

Similar experiences underlie the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) which provides the legislative basis of many preservation activities. The spirit of this legislation is articulated in the report, With Heritage So Rich, which observed that mobility and change had left Americans with “a feeling of rootlessness combined with a longing for those landmarks of the past which give us a sense of stability and belonging.” The report then prophetically stated that:

“If the preservation movement is to be successful, it must go beyond saving bricks and mortar. It must go beyond saving occasional historic houses and opening museums. It must be more than a cult of antiquarians. It must do more than revere a few precious national shrines. It must attempt to give a sense of orientation to our society, using structures and objects of the past to establish values of time and place.”[24]

The originating forces were therefore not simply concerned with the material that is with saving “old things.”  Instead they recognized, however inchoately, that they concerned symbols that expressed a sense of meaning, purpose, and identity, in essence the experience of transcendence. In doing so preservation opposed, albeit unconsciously, two of the ideals of secularism: the hegemony of scientism and the rejection of an exemplary history.  However, few grasped the problems that would be incurred by institutionalizing its concerns within a social and intellectual milieu that had abandoned the requisite standards of understanding. As legislation was written and organizations created, few, if any, had the ability to rise above the limitations of modern thought dominated as it is by empirical methods. Subsequently, inherently flawed understandings were institutionalized and promulgated by a flurry of activity focused on technical and regulatory matters.

The Closure of Horizons

Human experience and symbolization take place within social contexts. Social mechanisms serve to promote and disseminate symbols as the means of communication. The establishment of preservation societies and agencies was intended, however inchoately, to promote the dissemination of meanings associated with artifacts and places. However, what is being promoted, and what meaning has been lost?

After I began working for the Historic Preservation Division of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in December 1985, I intuitively recognized the potential offered for recovering the full range of experience and symbolization. Because my own professional training provided little help in understanding, I began to read widely in matters pertaining to phenomenology of place and comparative religion and eventually began to write and publish articles. Despite these efforts my colleagues were largely uninterested, and my continued efforts were for the most part ignored as if they were rocking the bureaucratic boat. I composed an introduction to our comprehensive plan for historic preservation, designed to recover the importance of these matters. There was no response, and the manuscript soon disappeared.

In an in-house memorandum in 1999, I suggested that the historic preservation movement has a responsibility to go beyond intellectual provincialism to a recovery of the fundamental principles involved in interpreting the symbolic dimension of place. After all, preservation purports to be concerned with the preservation and dissemination of symbols from the past which have implications for bettering the public’s horizons of understanding and moral concern. It seems obvious that preservationists should have an understanding of the matters with which they are concerned. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. My memorandum was not well received, and I was called into the office of the Deputy SHPO. His major concern was that calling the preservation profession to reflection upon the spirit of its mission was overstepping the bounds, bounds apparently defined by an uncritical adherence to the letter of the law and the regulations. To make his point he told a story:

“There are millions of automobiles in use every day. Every morning people get up and go to work in them. Cars throng the highways. Inside each car is a complex mechanism that permits it to move. Yet very, very few drivers have any understanding of the mechanics involved in the automobiles. Nor do they need to. Preservationists are like the drivers, and preservation is like the cars. Preservationists work with preservation on a day to day basis. They are paid to do this. Yet do they need to understand what preservation is about? Of course not!”

Then came the concluding line: “Preservationists are not paid to think!”

I could only think that this “parable” was askew, but in a manner that was insightful into the problem. By comparing preservationists to drivers, they were clearly perceived as being passive users of a product rather than active designers. I was informed that I must uncritically adhere to bureaucratic mandates. If they were flawed and even self-defeating, the problems were outside our purview to critique and we must plod on obediently. The broader implications exemplify an institutional setting in which (1) professionals are trained in a positivistic tradition based on “objective” knowledge with little ability to deal with the attendant depths of meaning, and (2) the bureaucracies to coordinate professional activities actively discourage and suppress the questioning of flawed concepts. In other words, the institutional background of historic preservation effectively suppresses the very thought that is required to understand and communicate its concerns.

Nor was I alone to recognize such problems. Robert Archibald reflected his growing awareness of a discrepancy between history as a scholarly discipline and history as a dimension of human life. Upon beginning a career as museum curator, he discovered that his scholarly training was inadequate for understanding the multidimensionality of the lived experience of history primarily because the “mantle of objective distance” associated with his training  equated “the search [for truth]…with the use of scientific methodology.”[25]  While these methods might be appropriate for positivistic scholarship, they provided little understanding of his principal concerns.

In simple, if historic preservation has been assigned the task of dealing with an elusive quality of experience such as symbolism then the practitioners who provide the primary interface with the public should be able to interpret significance in a manner that does it justice. The recognition of the dimension of meaning involved has led some to searching for what is perceived to be meaningful, an approach that has much to offer. However, it does offer the possibility of reifying the experience, by elevating what may be little more than nostalgia or a fleeting fixation, which could thereby be transformed into a matter of great public concern.

The originating forces were therefore not simply concerned with the material, i.e. saving “old things.”  Instead they recognized, however inchoately, that they concerned symbols that expressed a sense of meaning, purpose, and identity, in essence the experience of transcendence. In doing so preservation opposed, albeit unconsciously, two of the ideals of secularism: the hegemony of scientism and the rejection of an exemplary history.  However, few grasped the problems that would be incurred by institutionalizing its concerns within a social and intellectual milieu that had abandoned the requisite standards of understanding. As legislation was written and organizations created, few, if any, had the ability to rise above the limitations of modernistic thought. Subsequently, inherently flawed understandings were institutionalized and promulgated by a flurry of activity focused on technical and regulatory matters.

These are exemplified by the use of the term “significance,” which plays a critical role in preservation legislation and regulations from as early as the Historic Sites Act of 1935 through the 1966 NHPA, among others. At a conference devoted to examining the concept, Katherine H. Stevenson observed that it is “the central, defining core of our programs because it specifies the universe of properties that we recognize, protect, provide assistance to, and interpret.”[26] Yet the notion of significance was based upon an erroneous assumption — that it is a characteristic inherent in a property, that is to say, that it exists in a property and has little relation to more comprehensive considerations of meaning. For example, the NHPA states that “[t]he quality of significance…is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects [emphasis added]” which possess integrity and meet at least one of the four National Register criteria of significance.

All of these criteria are based upon objective and associative characteristics, effectively separating them in thought and practice from the traditional concerns with symbolic qualities that to expand our horizons of understanding and moral concern.[27]  Historical properties could then be effectively placed under the purview of various scholarly disciplines, whose practitioners, trained only in studying objective phenomena, were unable to comprehend that the concept was “illogical, unworkable, and [did] not entirely suit the purpose for which it was intended.”[28] By implication history is no more than a material process affording things to study and collect as pastimes for antiquarians and aesthetes.

These concerns have become institutionalized, so that incentives are locked into place for endless continuation, while there are disincentives for the few who question the status quo. The most pervasive disincentive is the entrenched incomprehension of that which falls outside of effectively methodological purviews creating an intellectual/social milieu which isolates those who would recall the movement to a broader vision. For persistent gadflies, social pressures can be more direct.

With its institutional and financial basis and its public visibility, the preservation movement serves to legitimize the notion that culture and heritage are little more than old stuff.  The reduction of meaning to material terms has two direct implications.  First, it indicates that thinking based upon positivistic assumptions is so deeply engrained that few notice that culture and significance have been reduced to little more than the sum total of material objects that exist in a given space.  Second, it provides the basis for endless bureaucratic activity that would disseminate these flawed notions to the public.

The ramifications are readily apparent. Mandated by NHPA with the task of identifying and preserving “significant” properties, the Federal government placed the National Park Service in charge of the agenda and state historic preservation offices were created to assist. Additionally, federal agencies involved with lands such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management all created divisions or departments with “heritage managers” to oversee “cultural resources” as one manages coal, petroleum, timber, and wildlife.

Preservationists in their employ had no trouble finding endless numbers of artifacts, buildings, and sites that fit within the broadly defined criteria of significance, all of which had to be surveyed, inventoried, nominated to the National Register, or archaeologically excavated. Additionally, the availability of vast sums of money for archaeological work to “preserve cultural heritage” endangered by projects using Federal funds launched a new industry in which companies have been created to excavate sites and in general engage in Cultural Resources Management (CRM).  While the modern world has largely forgotten its cultural heritage, in one sense of the term, government entities and CRM firms now retrieve masses of artifacts and arcane information, all dutifully stored in climate-controlled environments for the edification of posterity.  The availability of grants for National Register properties and other cultural projects has spawned the growth of museums and conferences, while the marketability of cultural projects has fostered “heritage tourism” initiatives for attracting tourist business—heritage as commodity.

We are now seemingly drowning in “heritage,” a term often used but seldom comment on despite its seeming importance. We “celebrate” it at cultural festivals and cultural museums. We turn the homes of musicians, artists, and entertainers into shrines to these gurus and saints of the new age. Experts wait in the wings ready to provide lectures on arcane cultural and historical topics. Hardly anything that humanity has ever created is beneath being treated like sacred relics. Not surprisingly, there is virtually no understanding as to what it means.  One would be hard pressed to find any serious discussion of the spiritual dimensions of life in this frenzy of activity. Instead we are surrounded by the propagandistic usage of terms such as “multiculturalism” and “cultural diversity” that glibly abandon the search for meaning for facile celebrations of “many truths” that glibly abandon the pursuit of any truth common to all. As Jacques Barzun observed, although there is “more and more cultural stuff to house, classify, docket, consult, and teach…in the qualitative, honorific sense, culture…is declining.  It is doing so virtually in proportion as the various cultural endeavors—all this collecting and exhibiting and performing and encouraging—grow and spread with well-meant public and private support.”[29]

Spanning the San Andreas Fault

Human existence finds itself in an immeasurably small present located between a remembered past and an anticipated future. All human knowing and action takes place within this framework despite naïve and polarizing claims that champion either the return to a Golden Age and the rejection of the future or the rejection of a dark past in favor of an enlightened future. With a dominance of empirical science the past has often been reduced to little more than a source of information rather than the basis of self-understanding with symbolism spans facts and values enmeshed in an awareness of the transcendent mystery.

Radical Preservation was conceived to serve as a gadfly to raise questions and critique the preservation movement calling it to recover the holistic experiential base lying beneath the call to preserve symbolic elements of the landscape. The primary goal is to establish the foundational role of preservation as a radical hermeneutic, an interpretation that aims to recover a more comprehensive understanding and to disseminate it to its public through recovering the symbolism inherent—not in the landscape per se—but in our experience of the landscape.

There is no permanent meaning to material things, that is meaning is not “inherent” in them. Instead they have primarily the potential of being meaningful, a potential that is actualized in the present experience and upon reflection. This potentiality can vary based upon the physical nature of places and their symbolic linkages (e.g. Kronborg Castle and its linkage to Hamlet).  Furthermore, experiences of place are not unique and idiosyncratic. The search for unity, or commonalities, is critical for understanding this and communicating it to the public. If everything is idiosyncratic then there is no common basis for recognizing communicating anything.

Consciousness of history and place spans a range of what Voegelin termed the complex of experience and symbolization with the two going hand-in-hand. Without conscious experience of reality there is no symbolization, just as there are no symbols without experience; to forget the experience behind the symbolization is to render the latter meaningless. Because experience and symbolization occur within the same reality, we see equivalences between similar experiences and symbolizations that appear cross-culturally from perceptible objects and the facts that describe them to the experience of mystery and the multivalent symbols that point to it.[30]  In these equivalences we find commonalities.

Because history is a process in which we exist, it plays a formative role in our personal existence whether we recognize it or not. This realization is behind the traditional concerns with personal formation (whether they be Confucian learning or Greek paideia) that promote the cultivation of virtues such as wisdom and pietas through exposure to insights and symbols from the past. Because historic preservation is concerned with the symbolism of history and questions pertaining to basic principles, it would not be far off mark to say that it has a stake in encouraging these virtues. This would necessarily involve raising horizons of understanding and moral concern, effecting personal transformation through exposure to symbols from the past. Closely related to wisdom is the virtue of pietas, or piety, which, despite its popular meaning today, refers to a respect for nature, other people, and the past, respect growing out of the knowledge that they represent a larger community of being to which we owe our existence and our responsibility. Richard Weaver described pietas as a “lost power or lost capacity for wonder and enchantment.”[31]

Wisdom and pietas are concerned with transcendental values – the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. According to Freeman Tilden in his wise little book, Interpreting Our Heritage, Beauty is the key to understanding the need to preserve, because Beauty is the call of wonder, the call toward something beyond, the guide toward the True and the Good. He wrote that it is “the path along which our quest for understanding must go. Surely we deal with an essence that is beyond our powers of expression. But we can, and we do, feel its reality.”[32] Beauty is represented in part in those places which despite their imperfections possess a genius loci, a sense of place, that call us to wonder at that which transcends the empirical.

Radical Preservation is a call to recover, not just the roots of the preservation movement, but the roots of human experience and that which has been forgotten in the modern world with its positivistic focus on the empirical. Beyond simply saving bricks and mortar it is also a call to a broader, more inclusive hermeneutic that also evaluates historic places in terms of their symbolic potential. Furthermore, preservationists must be able to communicate this to the public and instill within it an understanding that goes beyond seeing preservation as a matter of saving old stuff. Such a hermeneutic is demanded by the very nature of a field that invokes the aura of mystery found at privileged places. In doing so Radical Preservation lays out an approach that spans Percy’s San Andreas Fault of the modern mind.



[1] Loren Eiseley, The Night Country: Reflections of a Bone Hunting Man (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971), 148.

[2] Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 32-33.

[3] Richard Moe, “President’s Report: The Power of Place,” Forum Journal, volume 16, no. 2, 2002, 9-14.

[4] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, in Manfred Henningsen (ed.), Modernity without Restraint, vol. 5, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Columbia: University Of Missouri Press, 2000), 109.

[5] Regarding Voegelin and mystery see Glenn Hughes, Mystery and Myth in the Philosophy of Eric Voegelin (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), 1-3.

[6] Lee Trepanier, “The Recovery of Science in Eric Voegelin’s Thought,” online at the Voegelinview website.  Accessed October 21, 2016. This essay is a chapter in Lee Trepanier (ed.), Technology and Democracy, Cedar City, UT: Southern Utah University Press, 2008.

[7] Walker Percy, “The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind,” in Patrick Samway (ed.), Walker Percy: Signposts in a Strange Land (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, NY, 1991), 271-291.

[8] Jack D. Elliott, Jr., “Radical Preservation: Toward a New and More Ancient Paradigm,” Forum Journal, vol. 16, no. 3, 2002, 50-56.

[9]   Eugene Webb, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981), 17-18.

[10] E.V. Walter, Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 3.

[11] On the role of consciousness as paradoxically perceiving history as an intentional object while simultaneously participating within it as a process whose origin is a transcendent mystery, see Robert McMahon, “Eric Voegelin’s Paradoxes of Consciousness and Participation,” Review of Politics, vol. 61, no. 1, 1999, pages 117-139.

[12] Niels Bohr, quoted in Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 4.

[13] Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (NY: Rizzoli, 1980).

[14] Robert R. Archibald, A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 1999), 129.

[15] Paul Ricoeur, “Manifestation and Proclamation,” The Journal of the Blaisdell Institute 1978, vol. 12, 31.

[16] Edward Tabor Linenthal, Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993) 5.

[17] Originally published in German as Das Heilige: Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen , 1917; published in English as The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, 1923.

[18]  Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959),  204-208.

[19] Jack D. Elliott, Jr., “Drinking from the Well of the Past: Historic Preservation and the Sacred,” Historic Preservation Forum., vol. 8 (3), 1994, 33-34.

[20] Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus (1967), XCVI, 1-21.

[21] Lester B. Rowntree and Margaret W. Conkey, “Symbolism and the Cultural Landscape,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (1980), LXX, 459, 468.

[22] Robin Elisabeth Datel, “Southern Regionalism and Historic Preservation in Charleston, South Carolina, 1920-1940,” Journal of Historical Geography (1990), XVI,  197-215; cf. Datel, “Preservation and a Sense of Orientation for American Cities,” Geographical Review (1985), LXXV, 125-141; David L. Carmichael, Jane Hubert, Brian Reeves, and Audhild Schanche (eds.), Sacred Sites, Sacred Places, (London: Routledge, 1994).

[23] Florence County Museum, Florence SC, “The Charleston Renaissance.”  Accessed: February 6, 2017.

[24] Special Committee on Historic Preservation, With Heritage So Rich (Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1983, originally published 1966), 193

[25] Archibald, A Place to Remember, 20-31, 117-118, 155-158; others found something disturbing about the growth of preservation bureaucracies and the entrenchment of technical expertise and specialized training by professionals who had little knowledge of and concern for the transcendental dimensions of their concerns. William J. Murtagh, the National Park Service’s first Keeper of the National Register, has observed: “Inexplicably, many preservation leaders seem to have lost sight of the motives which once fueled their movement and have become preoccupied with how to preserve…with little or no discrimination as to what they are preserving and why.” Murtagh, Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997, revised edition), 167; also, see Anne Buttimer, “Home, Reach, and the Sense of Place,” in Anne Buttimer and David Seamon (eds.), The Human Experience of Space and Place (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1980), 166-187;  Roderick S. French, “On Preserving America: Some Philosophical Observations.  In the National Trust for Historic Preservation (ed.), Preservation: Toward an Ethic in the 1980s (Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1980), 182-192; Pierce F. Lewis, “The Future of the Past: Our Clouded Vision of Historic Preservation,” Pioneer America (1975), VII (1), 1-20, 1975; Frits Pannekoek, “The Rise of a Heritage Priesthood,” in Michael A. Tomlan (ed.), Preservation: Of What, For Whom?  (Ithaca, N.Y.: National Council for Preservation Education, 1998), 30; George Percy, “Preservation at a Crossroads, Historic Preservation Forum (1996), X (3), 30-35.

[26] Katherine H. Stevenson, “Opening Comments,” in Michael A. Tomlan (ed.), Preservation: Of What, For Whom? (Ithaca, NY: The National Council for Preservation Education, 1998), 16.

[27] Joseph A. Tainter and G. John Lucas, “Epistemology of the Significance Concept,” American Antiquity (1983), XLVIII, 708-712.

[28] Ibid., 715.

[29] Jacques Barzun, “Culture High and Dry,” in Barzun (Arthur Krystal, ed.), The Culture We Deserve (Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 4-5. Cf. David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), xvii: “Preservation has deepened our knowledge of the past but dampened creative use of it. Specialists learn more than ever about our central biblical and classical traditions, but most people now lack an informed appreciation of them. Our precursors identified with a unitary antiquity whose fragmented vestiges became models for their own creations. Our own more numerous and exotic pasts, prized as vestiges, are divested of the iconographic meanings they once embodied. It is no longer the presence of the past that speaks to us, but its pastness. Now a foreign country with a booming tourist trade, the past has undergone the usual consequences of popularity. The more it is appreciated for its own sake, the less real or relevant it becomes.”

[30] Eric Voegelin, “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History,” in Ellis Sandoz (ed.), The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 12, Published Essays 1966-1985 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 115-133.

[31] Richard M. Weaver, “Prologue: Up from Liberalism,” in Joseph A. Scotchie (ed.), The Vision of Richard Weaver  (New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995), 28

[32] Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage (Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, revised edition, 1977), 106-115.


This was originally published with the same title in Human-Centered Built Environment Heritage Preservation: Theory and Evidence-Based Practice, Jeremy C. Wells and Barry Stiefel, eds. (Routledge, 2019).

Jack D. Elliott, Jr.

Written by

Jack D. Elliott, Jr. is a Board Member of VoegelinView, Historical Archaeologist for the State of Mississippi, and an Archaeologist Lecturer at Mississippi State University. He is the moderator of the evforum listserv and author of West Point and Clay County (Images of America, 2015).