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What if historic preservation reflected the diversity of the American people?

By Gail Dubrow

 

Landmark registers recognize and protect many places of interest to design professionals, including great examples of architectural and landscape design, exquisite craft, and distinctive style. Many more landmarks have been preserved because of their connection to important individuals, events, groups, or aspects of daily life in our nation's history. Because most Americans and visitors learn about our history through visits to historic sites and buildings, rather than textbooks or scholarly journals, public awareness of the role that diverse groups played in our nation's past depends on what we think is important to save and whose stories we choose to tell at historic places.

The College of Design is doing important work to answer this what-if question in the context of world heritage, creating a niche that provides students with the exposure and experience to build cultural competencies required for world citizenship and global design practice. But critical cultural competencies can also be acquired by working on preservation projects within the United States, where social relations of race, class, and gender have resulted in an under appreciation of the rich tapestry of historic sites and buildings that can raise public awareness of diversity's imprint on our cultural landscape.

 

Bath house
The oldest and most intact example of a sento or Japanese American public bathhouse, located in the basement of Seattle's Panama Hotel, shown above. It was located in the heart of Japantown at Sixth and South Main Street.

 

African-American history has been illuminated by excavations of the slave quarters linked to great mansions, as well as in historically black communities--both urban and rural. On the West Coast, the heritage of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans has become a focus for preservation, from the immigration station at Angel Island to the places where they settled, worked, and built communities. Women's history goes beyond spinning wheels and candle-dipping at historic houses, as our register of National Historic Landmarks has expanded to honor women's contributions to paid labor, community building, scientific invention, and more.

 

Gail Dubrow bookIn my previous faculty appointment at the University of Washington, I had the privilege of working on a wide array of projects with the National Park Service that engaged architecture, landscape architecture, planning, and preservation students to document Seattle's historic Japantown; the World War II internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho; and places significant in the history of Cesar Chavez and the Farmworker's movement. Together we contributed to a more inclusive view of the nation's past and attracted a more diverse student body to preservation education and practice.

 

Grappling with the long history of American social inequalities that have left gaps and distortions in our established register of landmarks can attract underrepresented groups to the important work of historic preservation and position all preservationists to master the cultural competencies needed to approach any preservation project from an inclusive perspective, whether here or abroad.

 

Gail Dubrow has taught and conducted research for more than 20 years on preserving places significant in the history of women and underrepresented groups, including a wide array of projects with the National Park Service. For her book, Sento at Sixth and Main (with Donna Graves) she documented 10 places significant in the history of Japanese Americans. She also coedited Restoring Women's History through Historic Preservation, which won a top prize from the Society of Architectural Historians. Dubrow is vice provost and dean of the Graduate School and a faculty member in the School of Architecture, Department of Landscape Architecture, public affairs and planning, and history.