The event has been years in the making, and it's finally at hand. The 2008 National Preservation Conference convenes at the Tulsa Convention Center on Tuesday, Oct. 21, and concludes on Saturday, Oct. 25.
The NPC is the annual convention for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an organization dedicated to "helping people protect, enhance and enjoy the places that matter to them." The event brings together more than 2,000 people from across the nation--professionals and amateurs alike--with an interest in preserving individual buildings, Main Streets, and neighborhoods.
Beyond the economic benefits that any national convention would bring to a city, the 2008 NPC holds the promise of building, at long last, critical mass for the protection of our historic buildings and beautiful neighborhoods.
While there have always been many preservation-minded individuals in our city, the dominant culture, as led by the daily paper, the Chamber of Commerce, and the development lobby, has treated anything old as disposable and has regarded preservation as an enemy to growth.
In nearly every city with a successful preservation program, there is a champion for preservation among the city's social trendsetters. That sort of champion has always been this publication, Urban Tulsa Weekly.
The NPC is coming to Tulsa thanks largely to Marty Newman, a Realtor and long-time trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The 2008 NPC has the potential to bring preservation-minded Tulsans in contact with the best ideas and strategies from the historic preservation community. It could also help local preservationists find each other and begin to work together to advance the cause.
My wife and I attended the 1998 NPC in Savannah, Ga. Over the course of the week, we built our understanding of historic preservation concepts and strategies.
We learned about adaptive reuse of historic buildings and saw firsthand how Savannah College of Art and Design chose the reuse of scattered buildings around the historic district instead of demolition as a strategy to build its campus, repurposing an armory as admin offices, a 1960s motel as student housing, hundred-year-old railroad shops as studio space, a historic theater as the college auditorium, and a downtown department store as the school library.
We saw examples of sensitive infill: New homes that matched the scale and style of existing neighborhoods, chain retailers that deviated from their standard store plans to meet the design guidelines of pedestrian-friendly historic districts.
My wife went to a session on heritage tourism: attracting visitors by developing and marketing a concentration of attractions relating to a unique aspect of local history.
We learned about revolving preservation funds like the Historic Savannah Foundation, which purchases buildings threatened with the wrecking ball and sells them to new owners who will restore them.
We attended a lecture and slideshow on downtown revitalization by Roberta Brandes Gratz, who cited example after example of how small-scale, but strategic improvements--a concept she called "urban husbandry" -- brought downtowns back to life, while massive hundred million-dollar projects failed to produce lasting results.
We came away from the conference enthused and inspired, wishing only that many more Tulsans could have been there, learning what we were learning, seeing what we were seeing.
This year, that wish could come true.
Make A Difference
Although the conference is less than two weeks away, there's still time to register. You'll find a preliminary program and registration information online at http://www.preservationnation.org/resources/training/npc/.
The pre-registration cost is $400 for the week. National Trust forum members get a discount: $325. Full-time college students can register for $150.
You can register for a single day for $175. (Wednesday, with the opening reception, is a bit more: $225.)
There are additional fees for optional events like bus tours, luncheons, field sessions, and Saturday night's closing party at Cain's Ballroom, featuring western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.
Many of the sessions qualify for continuing education and "health, safety, and welfare" credits for architects.
The exhibit hall will be open to the public on the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th, with no entrance fee. Exhibitors in the past have included non-profits, government agencies, universities offering preservation-related degrees, architects and contractors, and companies that make building materials--doors, windows, lumber, masonry, antique hardware, insulation--used in the energy-efficient restoration of historic buildings.
Many exhibitors will offer special presentations and demonstrations of their products and how to use them. If you're restoring an older building or just thinking about it, you'll want to make time to tour the exhibits.
The opening and closing plenary sessions, the National Preservation Awards ceremony, and special lectures by Oklahoma Historical Society director Bob Blackburn and author Michael Wallis are also free and open to the public. (Check the Tulsa Preservation Commission blog for times and locations: http://www.tulsapreservationcommission.org/blog/)
Each year's NPC program is tailored to highlight aspects of preservation in the host city. Tulsa's theme is "Preservation in Progress," a polite way of pointing out how far Tulsa trails other cities.
Historic sites and classic neighborhoods in Tulsa and around Oklahoma will be on display in dozens of field sessions. Bus tours will take convention-goers on full-day trips to Oklahoma City, Guthrie, Ponca City, Bartlesville, Tahlequah, Pawnee and Hominy, Okmulgee, Sapulpa, and the historic black towns settled by Creek freedmen. Special tours will focus on Route 66 west to Edmond and east to the Kansas border.
Around Tulsa, field sessions focus on art deco buildings, New Deal-era architecture (the Pavilion, Will Rogers and Webster High Schools), churches, historic gardens, mid-century modern subdivisions (e.g. Lortondale and Ranch Acres), north Tulsa, homes designed by Charles Stevens Dilbeck, and environmentally friendly renovations of historic buildings (e.g., the Fire Alarm Building, now home to the Oklahoma Lung Association). There's even a "downtown safari," searching for animals and other strange creatures in the terra cotta ornamentation on downtown buildings.
Dozens more sessions will be held at the Tulsa Convention Center. Whether you're a preservation commission or planning commission member, a city councilor, a developer, a neighborhood activist, or the owner of a historic home, there are sessions that will teach you something you ought to know.
Not Too Late
Here's a sampling of session topics that might interest neighborhood activists and anyone trying to build public support and win political battles for preservation:
Grassroots or back rooms? Choosing the right advocacy approach
Teardowns in suburbia: Preserving 1950s-'60s neighborhoods
Calculate the community costs of demolition
Residential infill development--tearing down the environment
Balancing progress and preservation in city planning: A look at preservation plans from Charleston and Galveston
Preservation Action Members Meeting: Making Preservation a Priority in Political Campaigns
Building Preservation Nation--using the National Trust's preservationnation.org website to share ideas and encouragement with preservationists across the country
Finding the money for preservation is the topic of several sessions:
Historic preservation tax credits
"Preserve America" grants
Incentives for historic preservation: Partnering with investors
Raising money for preservation
"New markets" tax credits and historic buildings
Green rehabilitation: Combining sustainability goals with rehabilitation tax credits
Show me the money: Tapping federal funds for historic preservation
"The Art of the Rescue" is the title of a series of four sessions for organizations which actively intervene to preserve endangered buildings, either by buying the buildings themselves or lending money to others who will buy and restore them. Many cities have such organizations; Tulsa doesn't. I hope some Tulsans attend these sessions and come away inspired by the possibilities and informed about the practicalities.
Tulsa's place on Route 66 has inspired a number of sessions dealing with preservation along historic highways. Other sessions with a local flavor deal with tribal and rural preservation.
A growing interest in mid-century modern architecture is reflected is sessions on the special challenges of rehabbing post-war buildings.
The green theme runs throughout the conference, and sessions deal with the environmental benefits of preservation and how to rehab historic buildings to be greener.
Many sessions touch on issues common to all non-profits: Hiring and keeping an executive director, building a solid board of directors, training new leadership, fundraising, building the membership rolls, engaging local media, and maintaining an online presence.
Several sessions focus on turning history into tourism dollars. It's not enough to have a historic place open to the public: You have to build public awareness and provide your visitors with an informative and enlightening experience.
The National Preservation Conference comes to Tulsa at an ideal moment. Tulsans have seen for themselves how concentrations of older buildings have contributed to revival of the downtown and midtown, in the Blue Dome and Brady Districts, along Brookside and Cherry Street. They've seen the same phenomenon at work down the turnpike in Bricktown.
Tulsans hear on a regular basis about foreign tourists--from Norwegian motorcycle clubs to knighted former Beatles--who come through Oklahoma to experience Route 66.
Recently, Tulsa was recognized by First Lady Laura Bush as a Preserve America community. The City of Tulsa Planning Department is developing a strategic preservation plan. The Planning Department is also coordinating the process of developing a new comprehensive land use plan--PLANiTULSA--and historic preservation ought to be considered as we figure out how best to accommodate population and job growth.
Historic preservation builds local pride, protects a city's uniqueness, generates national and worldwide interest in a city--and, has proven economic benefits.
Despite our city's scorched-earth approach to urban renewal and the relentless conversion of architectural treasures into asphalt parking lots downtown, Tulsa still has much worth preserving.
Let's hope and work toward a goal that the National Preservation Conference serves as the catalyst for an enduring and politically potent historic preservation movement to protect the irreplaceable places that make Tulsa unique.
Share this article: