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The Evolving Nature of Preservation

Interview with Phil Thomason


Thomason & Associates

Can you tell me me a bit about your background and how you became interested in historic preservation? Are you from historic area?

I grew up in a historic house in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I appreciated the quality and the craftsmanship of that house—it was actually a Craftsman style house from 1914. In college, I went on a semester abroad in London and Florence, which had a huge influence on my interest in history and architecture. When I got out of college, I had a different career for a few years but eventually decided to go back to graduate school in this new field called historic preservation. Middle Tennessee State University was one of the first in the country to have a graduate program in historic preservation, so I went there from 1978-1980 and worked for an architectural firm for a couple of years afterward. I ended up starting my own business in 1982, so next year, I will have been doing this for 40 years with my own business. In terms of dealing with resilience, this is all pretty much a new field within historic preservation. We've really had to look at how we address flooding issues, high water issues, and recovering after disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes. It's been interesting to see the progression over the years of how we deal with and increase our knowledge of resilience and responses.

In addition to the entry of resiliency, what ways have you seen historic preservation change throughout your career?

When I was in graduate school and when I was starting my business, there was not a lot of interest in mid-century resources. Of course now those are at the forefront, but I think the passage of time gives us more appreciation for those kinds of properties. In my age group, we all grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and there were so many millions of Ranch, Split-level and Mid-Century Modern houses that we never thought they would be worth saving. Now we know better.

The other thing that has really changed is that we’re getting away from the real kind of elitism that preservation had a reputation for in the mid-20th century, with the emphasis on mansions and the really notable kind of houses and museum houses. Now preservation is coming to mean something much broader and certainly is more inclusive of minority resources and resources that are associated with the LGBTQ community and women’s history. There's more of an emphasis on telling the whole story and revising the revisionist history that we grew up with in order to tell more of how this country changed and evolved over time from multiple perspectives. A lot of the properties that we've been dealing with in historic districts and individual National Register nominations reflect a much wider variety of resources.

Is the diversity of resources also reflected in the people working in historic preservation?

Yes, certainly those who are joining the field in their 20s and 30s nowadays reflect more diverse backgrounds. I've always noticed that most people in this field have a certain level of social consciousness about the importance of preserving these properties for future generations. The importance of telling the story of how a community evolved and of including all of the participants in that story. In the younger people who are now graduating from preservation programs, or those who have been in the field now for 10 to 20 years are certainly much more conscious of diversity and how they can widen the scope of what we consider to be important and what we consider to be worthy of preservation in this country.

Can you talk about your company, Thomason & Associates? What is your niche and why are you uniquely equipped to help communities in historic preservation?

We do design guidelines all around the country. The design guidelines we were preparing in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s were all pretty standard in terms of following the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rrehabilitation. A lot of the language is still the same, but events like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy really led us to realize just how much of our heritage was at risk from the intensity of storms and the reality of climate change. We started also started seeing this need to address how we could make properties more resilient, which can be through wet flood proofing, dry flood proofing, hardening and in some cases, elevation. We've been doing a lot of those kinds of guidelines here in the last four years, and it's not easy, in that it's not easy to change minds. To many long-serving Historic Preservation Commission members, the idea of changing a building’s relationship with the street through elevation is pretty jarring. It's a hard concept for some to understand the need for it and why we're doing it. Once we start talking about increasing sea-level rise and the intensity of our storms, people start to understand why we have the guidelines we do. We work with the local commissions to help them realize that if we are going to save these resources, we have to allow property owners to harden and elevate in many situations. We're going to see more of this in the years to come, I'm sure.

We just had the Keeping History Above Water conference in Charleston. For many years, Charleston's Board of Architectural Review resisted the whole idea of elevation, but now they've realized that this is really necessary. Charleston was the first city in the country to have historic zoning and design guidelines and has revised its guidelines to combat the increasing effects of climate change. The reality of climate change is becoming more apparent. All you have to do is look at the last few years of the really intense flood events that have happened around the country, even in places like Colorado and Nashville. There's the understanding now that it's just not the coastal communities—communities all across the country have some risks of flooding or high-water events. Of course, those aren't the only disasters - we have tornadoes here in the South and there are wildfires out west, so we're all dealing with how do we write these guidelines in ways that preserve and maintain the character of our communities and the character of our houses and commercial buildings, while at the same time, realizing there has to be room for adaptation and resilience and the ability to meet the new realities of climate change.

What role do you see preservation-based firms, playing, why is it important for organizations like yours to help out communities?

Any kind of climate change effects are affecting the entire community and not just the historic districts. There's a lot of things that communities can do to make themselves more resilient as a whole, and then they can encourage individual property owners to consider their individual landscaping and how the water moves through the community. Preservation-based firms have the ability to take more of a holistic approach to a community's preservation planning efforts, as opposed to just focusing on the historic areas, which typically are smaller areas within an overall community. There's a lot of planning now that really emphasizes responses to disasters and ways to make communities more resilient.

How did you initially connect with Lisa Craig?

Lisa and I saw each other at preservation conferences many times in the past, and I became aware of the work that she was doing in Annapolis. We connected, and I said, I really like what you're doing and I'm trying to change my work into being a benefit to communities and writing more resilient type design guidelines. I really have a lot of respect for what Lisa has done over the years, and she's certainly considered to be one of the foremost experts in resilience and the overall planning approach that communities need to do.

Resiliency is still a new area in our field, and it's interesting to see how quickly it's being embraced. There’s been so much dialogue since Hurricane Katrina about the impacts that these kinds of events can have and how we can try to preserve and protect our properties the best way we can. We’re all doing our best and we realize that they're going to be compromises on some aspects of the integrity of our historic properties, but that's going to be the only way they're going to be able to survive.

Philip Thomason – Project Principal

Phil is Principal of Thomason and Associates, a preservation planning firm based in Nashville. Phil has 40 years of experience working with communities across the country on historic preservation projects including cultural resource surveys, design guidelines, National Register nominations and community-wide planning. His firm has completed over 70 design guideline manuals for cities as diverse as Salt Lake City, Madison, Indiana and Montclair, New Jersey. His projects include award winning preservation plans for Little Rock, Arkansas and Cary, North Carolina. He is a frequent speaker on historic preservation issues and serves on the Board of the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions and as an Advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation


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