Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Preservation Success Story: Old Erie on Foot

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Continuing our theme of Preservation Success Stories this Preservation Month, we’ll feature short interviews with our 2020 Community Initiative Award winners for the next few weeks.

First up is Erin Phillips, aka Old Erie on Foot in the social media world. In July 2018, Erie resident Erin Phillips started her Old Erie on Foot project on Instagtram with a hashtag and a call to action for fellow history and Erie enthusiasts to discover and explore the area’s amazing older and historic places. She believes that “every old building has a story that needs to be told.”

What inspires you to want to preserve your community/specific place?

I think, looking back at my childhood, it was my mother’s appreciation for old, historic places that initially sparked my interest.  Our public library was one place that I can point to as an early inspiration to care for older places: it had marble floors, a grand staircase, murals and sculptures, dark wooden shelves with ladders, the echo of a domed chamber.  It was all so magical and very formative for me. 

I’ve always loved to take walks and after college, I lived in Philadelphia for a while, and walking around those very old, historic neighborhoods solidified my interest.  So when it was time for my husband and I to buy a house, an old home in an old neighborhood was a must.  Taking walks around our current neighborhood is what continues to inspire my love for old architecture, simple or ornate.  It’s all special and worth preserving.

Photo of woman on porch.
Erin Phillips, 2021.

Is there a historic place or historic preservation project planned or happening that you’re particularly excited about?

It is a very exciting time for historic preservation in Erie and there are a number of projects that are happening now, some at a small scale and some on a very large scale.  The preservation happening in the West 6th Street Historic District at the hands of Tom Hagen (a local philanthropist) and Jeff Kidder (an architect whose speciality is in historic architecture), is particularly exciting.  They are working to restore and preserve a large number of the historic mansions in this district.  They have saved a number of architecturally/historically significant homes from slow decline and, with the creation of the Historic Preservation Trust, they have ensured their care into the future.  This is not only a huge improvement for the aesthetics of a main street in our city, but a major win for our built history and I am so grateful for it.

Spenser House Bed & Breakfast.
April 13, 2021 post from Old Erie on Foot.

Do you think there are untold stories in your community? If so, what are they?

I feel like every old building has a story to tell, and most of them are untold.  All the old homes I walk by in my neighborhood every day were once someone’s pride and joy once: they raised their children there, they housed their aging family there, they cooked their meals, grew gardens, read stories and lived their lives there.  Some had major accomplishments and are already a part of the recorded history of our town and some were just simply living their lives.  These stories, the houses that hold them, and the potential discovery of those stories is what excites me most about an old place.

January 13, 2021 post from Old Erie on Foot.

Would you consider yourself a preservationist?

I would consider myself a novice preservationist.  One goal with my Instagram and blog is to hopefully inspire more people to take on an old home in the city, to preserve its original character and help keep the built history of Erie intact.  I understand that many old houses are not well loved, that the repairs and code violations pile up, and eventually there is little left to do but knock it down.  But I’ll never like it or feel good about it: I will always mourn the loss of history and potential that disappears when a building is demolished.  I hope to become an expert preservationist as time goes on and I learn more, but for now, I’m doing what I can with my resources and my voice.

Three books on a table: The Little House, A Field Guide to American Houses, and Erie, PA.
January 1, 2019 post from Old Erie on Foot.

Last year we ran a series of blog posts called #FavoritePAPlaces. Can you share with us one of your favorite PA places and why it’s a favorite?

My favorite place to be on any given day is right here in my neighborhood.  My family lives in the West Bayfront area of the City of Erie and it is the people and places in my area of the city that inspire me the most.  This neighborhood holds so much history: from the grand mansions of Erie’s early entrepreneurs to the simple, old bungalows perched on the cliff above the bay.  Our neighborhood was historically one of welcome and it looks and feels that way more and more as time goes on.  

People listening to music.
September 26, 2020 post from Old Erie on Foot.

Any words of encouragement or inspiration for our blog readers that are interested in preserving Pennsylvania’s older and historic places?

I would encourage anyone with an interest in old places to do whatever you can, whatever is within your means or skillset, to help preservation efforts in your town.  Whether that means restoring an old home to live in or rent, donating to local preservation groups, speaking out by way of internet resources, your local newspaper, or by attending city council meetings when there is an intention to tear down an old building that you care about.  Or even by simply taking and sharing a picture of an old building you love.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken a picture of a building just to find, a few months later, that the building was demolished.  A photograph can be the only form of preservation that remains after a building is gone.

Ghost image of demolished building.
April 5, 2021 from Old Erie on Foot.

Interested in learning more about Old Erie on Foot and Erin’s award-winning work?

Be sure to follow @PATrailsofHistory on Instagram later this week as we hand over the virtual keys to PHMC’s Insta account to Erin. She has some really cool things in store for our followers Thursday and Friday, May 13 and May 14. Don’t miss it!

Do you have a Preservation Success Story to share with us?

This year, we’re celebrating National Historic Preservation Month by asking our readers to share with us a Preservation Success Stories in their communities using PA-SHARE (Pennsylvania’s State Historic and Archaeological Resource Exchange), which is PA SHPO’s new online data management and cultural resources GIS tool. And you might just win something!

Three entries submitted between May 1 and May 31 will be chosen at random for three-month Pro subscription to PA-SHARE.  We’ll announce the winners in a blog post on June 4th. We’re going to do our best to make sure that the chosen subscription winners represent a diversity of applicants and projects.

All entries will also be automatically entered to win a 2021 PA SHPO Community Initiative Award. The Community Initiative Award from the State Historic Preservation Office (PA SHPO) recognizes organizations, municipalities, agencies, individuals, and others whose work embodies the theme of Pennsylvania’s statewide historic preservation plan, #PreservationHappensHere.  PA SHPO selects three to four winners from a pool of candidates, typically each fall.

To learn more about sharing a Success Story, check out this post.

Author: Shelby Weaver Splain

Shelby Weaver Splain is the Education and Special Initiatives Coordinator for the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office. Shelby is a native of Bucks County and holds a Masters degree in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University and a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Historic Preservation from Goucher College.

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