Letter: Hidden Stories to Savor

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602 S. Gay Street
2nd Floor
Knoxville, TN 37902

Many thanks to Jack Neely for that insightful essay on the value of historic buildings. [“Historic? Who Sez?”, cover story, Jan. 17, 2013] I would just like to add another reason to save them, a reason that may not seem practical or obvious but one that should be considered nevertheless: the gift of story that an old building brings. Since the beginning of human existence, people have been motivated, inspired, affirmed, enlarged, comforted and sustained by stories, especially stories that connect them to place. We make sense of ourselves as a people through history, and history is nothing but stories. Without them we are ciphers, orphans always trying to establish our identity and sense of self-worth.

An old building is like a bridge between parallel universes, it enriches the present by its accretion of experience through time. We become empowered when we take our place in that timeline. I am a “junker” because I love the hidden stories in old things. For me, just looking at old things or being in old buildings is transcendent; I am relieved of the trivia of the present by being able to live imaginatively in another time.

A sentence I once wrote about old buttons could easily be about old buildings: “Old buttons represent an unspoken commitment America once had to art, craftsmanship, and beauty, all of which serve the spirit in invisible ways, an effect not statistically quantifiable and, therefore, of little value in today’s dollar-driven culture where the next cheaply made thing is cranked out purely for short-term profit.”

It takes a visionary to see beyond immediate gratification or past the seeming quick-fix to a problem, need, or desire. Fortunately, we seem to be in a period of growing awareness of and appreciation for old architecture, thanks in large part to Jane Jacobs. The U.S. has seen a Jane Jacobs revival since her death in 2006. New York and Toronto have each proclaimed a Jane Jacobs Day. Architectural awards and medals are given in her honor. Her book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, republished in ’93, is a bestseller.

The writer Barry Lopez says that the only thing that is holding us together is stories, stories and compassion. I think compassion is often created from story. If saving worthy old buildings contributes to compassion, then long-term value is endless and boundless, spreading from community to the world at large. Thanks to Knox Heritage for protecting our old buildings, David Dewhirst for renovating them, and Jack for telling their stories.

Judy Loest


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