The built environment is a physical record of the needs and values of humanity. It reflects shifts in the way societies have dealt with their problems and expressed their beliefs over time. Consider the pyramids of Giza, the Colosseum of Rome, the citadel of Machu Picchu, or the superhighways of today. Building any structure involves a commitment of resources, and the resulting bridge or road or edifice offers clues to the challenges and priorities of different civilizations.
We wouldn’t be able to enjoy the antiquities in landscapes around the world today were it not for the stewardship of those places over time. But historic preservation as a profession only began to take hold during the Industrial Revolution when, with the significant growth of cities, the demand for new infrastructure ran roughshod over traditional ways of life.
Some folks back then understood the importance of saving places that marked important turning points in their history. In the United States, 19th century preservation efforts involved securing sites like Independence Hall in Pennsylvania and George Washington’s Mount Vernon home for posterity.
Early in the 20th century, the 1906 Antiquities Act recognized the need to protect archaeological sites on federal lands. A few years later, the National Park Service was charged with the management of significant battlefield sites and other landmarks.
The National Historic Landmarks Program was created in 1960, but it wasn’t until later in that decade when Lyndon B. Johnson was President that historic preservation became possible on a wider scale. Passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966 funded a system that has distributed grants to preservation efforts at state and local levels ever since.
This has helped to increase awareness that historic preservation enhances our understanding of the complex weave of aspirations, injustices, politics, forms of worship, systems of education, creative expression and other stories that make up this nation’s fabric.
Today over 50 colleges and universities across the country offer historic preservation programs, and the mission of historic preservation is being taken up by thousands of professionals who work to landmark sites for present and future generations to learn from and enjoy.
Sarah Steen is one of those professionals.
She’s the landmarks coordinator for the King County Historic Preservation Program, located in Washington State. We met over a cup of coffee recently in a café that operated out of a converted boxcar.
“I’m not a super-orthodox preservationist,” Steen said. “I like new architecture, too, and it’s very rarely that I feel something needs to be frozen, but I want to see the past continued: controlled change to some degree.”
Steen grew up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and loved to roam the countryside as a kid, exploring old farms and abandoned barns, and imagining what life must have been like for the people who had lived there in the past.
When she went to college at San Francisco State University, majoring in history was a natural fit.
But she never knew that historic preservation existed as a profession until after college, when she lived in New York for a couple of years and found work with the Greenwich Village Historical Society. Steen conducted research and inventories for the Society, which she then translated into stories that would engage the public.
Later she moved on to the National Archives and Records Administration before returning to her home state and enrolling at the University of Oregon to work toward a Master’s degree in Historic Preservation. During that time, she also squeezed in seasonal work in Yosemite – assessing, documenting and repairing historic structures within the national park. The job included stints at remote sites in Yosemite’s backcountry – accessed via pack mule.
Steen graduated in 2010 on the heels of the Great Recession. Jobs were in short supply then, but she pieced together work in her field for a couple of years until landing full-time employment as a Washington State Parks ranger at Fort Ebey State Park. The coastal defense site had been built during World War II.
A couple of years later, she transitioned to a position at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. The site interprets not only the Euro-American exploration and settlement of the area from the 18th century on, it also delves into the cultural traditions of the indigenous people who had inhabited the site for centuries before that. It is an atypical federal historic district in that it encompasses a mix of lands including the aforementioned state park, some county-owned property, historic farms under private ownership, and 200+ acres belonging to the federal government.
As preservation coordinator for the Reserve, “I was out working with people all the time,” Steen said.
She handled public grant programs and policy work. She even conducted a field school on how to reset and clean the markers at the onsite cemetery.
But to do that, she first needed to get the training herself, which meant a work trip to Kalaupapa National Historical Park on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. The Park is the site of a leprosarium established in 1866. To this day, the facility continues to serve as home to a few Hansen’s disease (leprosy) patients who no longer are forced to stay there, but who have found sanctuary there and remain voluntarily.
For Steen, the practicum was not only instructive, but profound. She recognized the unique situation of the patients still living within the park, and the Park’s promise to tend their gravesites when they pass.
“It made me realize how important it is to have a place to remember loved ones,” she said.
All of these experiences have shaped her personal convictions about the substance and purpose of historic preservation. As important as it is to safeguard some of America’s grand architectural gestures – Grand Central Station in New York City, or California’s Hearst Castle, for instance – Steen believes it is just as essential to raise up the significance of vernacular architecture.
These are humbler structures, more likely to rely on locally sourced materials, with design and labor contributed by local builders. The buildings themselves may be modest, but they still tell affecting and relatable stories about how people in the past confronted problems and tried to work through them.
In her role as landmarks coordinator for King County over the past five years, Steen has been serving the 12th most populous county in the U.S. The county is home to many recently arrived immigrant populations, with census data indicating that nearly 30% of the local residents speak a language other than English – well over 100 languages are spoken in households throughout the county. In addition, BIPOC, LGBTQIA and disabled populations all contribute to this highly diverse community.
This presents an obvious imperative for residents to be able to empathize with one another, and to understand the array of stories that have brought so many different populations to the community.
There are lots of ways to tackle this challenge, and Steen is committed to addressing it in her own line of work.
“Historic preservation has deserved some of the bad rap it’s gotten. It’s been primarily white,” she noted.
To change that, she’s an active participant in a nationwide preservation roundtable of more than three dozen historic preservation colleagues who are working to implement everyday changes in local government practices that will help make landmark nominations more accessible.
This is being accomplished by reducing the fees associated with landmarking, for starters, and by helping landmark advocates learn how to do inventories that effectively capture the cultural significance of a site.
Steen and other historic preservation professionals also coach new-to-preservation advocates on how to talk to decision-makers and gate-keepers who might initially be resistant to the idea of landmarking a site that represents the history of one of any number of traditionally marginalized communities.
There’s no denying that past planning and zoning decisions, dictated by political will, have impacted the way communities look today – helping some neighborhoods prosper while others have been left to languish. But all communities contain stories that are worthwhile for other people to hear, and Steen believes that is key to connecting people to historic preservation, and to each other.
Designating a property as historically significant is one way to acknowledge that those ancestors were here. That they left their mark. That they mattered.