Every two years, the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions hosts a conference unlike any other – an event focused on providing training and education on issues relevant to historic preservation commissions, review boards, and local governments. FORUM is a truly national event, drawing participants from all over the country to share ideas, war stories, and best practices for making local preservation efforts more effective. You might remember that FORUM 2014 was held in Philadelphia and attracted nearly 800 attendees from 48 states! Mobile, Alabama played host to FORUM 2016 from July 27-31, and nearly 600 people gathered to bask in the balmy Gulf Coast weather and Southern hospitality, including a few of us from Pennsylvania. Here are some of the highlights.
Taking It All In
Whether FORUM was your first trip to Alabama (as it was for me), or you were there for a repeat visit, the conference program included a variety of tours and mobile workshops addressing myriad topics. The highlight of the tour roster was most definitely the trip to Selma, site of the famous 1965 civil rights protest marches. An intrepid group of attendees loaded a bus early in the morning for the 3-hour ride north where they marched across the National Historic Landmark Edmund Pettus Bridge and ate lunch with a group of the some of the surviving protesters from Bloody Sunday. There was also the opportunity to view Mobile’s working waterfront on a harbor cruise, tour a working architectural millwork shop, bike the city’s local historic districts, stroll the city’s historic cemeteries, and visit a number of Mobile’s historic house museums.
Where One or More Are Gathered…
Every good conference includes opportunities for attendees to gather en masse, often in grand spaces, to be inspired by keynote speakers and celebrate – FORUM did not disappoint on any of these fronts. Two of Mobile’s magnificent National Historic Landmark churches hosted plenary gatherings. On Thursday the group gathered in the c. 1835 Greek Revival Government Street Presbyterian Church where we were greeted by Rep. Victor Gaston, Speaker Pro Tempore of the Alabama Legislature. Stephanie Toothman, Associate Director of the National Park Service and Keeper of the National Register updated the crowd on the National Park Service’s work to help secure reauthorization of the Historic Preservation Fund, NPS Centennial activities, and the launch of a beta version of a mobile survey application for cultural resources.
As if one great church wasn’t enough, on Friday evening we gathered in the Christ Church Cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. This temple fronted, stone and stucco building looks like it was ripped from the story books, surrounded by live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, and features two stained glass windows by Tiffany Studios. Franklin Vagnone (formerly of Philadelphia) challenged the group to rethink the way historic sites are interpreted, encouraging those of us in the history and preservation fields to find aspects of our sites’ histories that are relevant to contemporary issues and to break down barriers (i.e. velvet ropes) that keep people from having meaningful experiences with the past. The recipients of the 2016 Commission Excellence Awards also got much due recognition on Friday evening.
And finally, to wrap things up on Saturday, we regrouped once more at the 1927 Saenger Theater to hear Joe Minicozzi, principal of Urban3, a real estate consulting firm in Asheville, North Carolina. Minicozzi’s talk was designed to encourage those of us working in community development and revitalization to “do the math” and use numbers to make the case for investment in downtowns and the reuse of older and historic buildings. Through a series of very logical (and relatively simple) analyses looking at property taxes, value per square foot, and infrastructure costs, Joe showed how historic downtowns produce more wealth and consume fewer resources than suburban and exurban development. Even the moth math averse amongst us left there thinking – “I could do that”. That night ended with a rousing presentation from Des Moines, host of FORUM 2018 (more on that later), complete with samples of chocolate covered bacon, an Iowa delicacy.
All That Learnin…
The real “meat” of the conference were the concurrent sessions, nearly 40 in total, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The options were too numerous and varied to go on about here (you’re welcome), but have a look at the final program to see all of the things that you missed. My colleague Bryan Van Sweden joined Ted Strosser and Jim Wilson from Danville to share ideas on cooperative property maintenance programs in historic downtown. I moderated a session on state enabling legislation for local preservation ordinances with James Reap of the University of Georgia School of Law and Andrea Kern, a former SHPO intern and recent Ball State University graduate. US/ICOMOS organized a series of sessions on how climate change and sea level rise are impacting historic places and there was a healthy dose of reflection on the 50th Anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act and what the next half century might/should mean for preservation.
Getting to Know You
NAPC began hosting FORUM in 1998 as a way to gather together advocates, volunteers, civic leaders, and preservation professionals to network, exchange ideas, and craft an agenda for developing training materials and programs specific to local preservation issues. The networking aspect of the conference is especially important, as sometimes folks working at the local level can feel like a voice crying in the wilderness – alone and wondering whether they’re the only ones dealing with a stubborn property owner, challenging local politics, or outdated guidelines. In addition to the educational sessions, tours, and workshops, FORUM 2016 attendees had the opportunity to meet and chat at great events in the Mobile Carnival Museum, History Museum of Mobile, and the recently rehabbed 1907 Van Antwerp Building in the Lower Dauphin Historic District (a Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit project).
The people of Mobile were gracious and enthusiastic hosts and Mobile was a real departure from the hustle and bustle of my life in Philadelphia. The City was proud to show off its crown jewels – literally at the Mobile Carnival Museum. You might be tempted to think that Mardi Gras began in New Orleans – NOT SO! Mobile lays claim to the origins of Shrove Tuesday festivities and the Carnival Museum has 2,000+ garments worn by the royal courts from Mardi Gras celebrations going back almost a century. This place is truly beyond belief – and they even let you ride on a float and pretend to toss beads to the crowd.
Perhaps most memorable were the Azalea Trail Maids. The Maids are high school age young women who compete annually to represent their local high school and the City as cultural ambassadors. They wear handmade antebellum style gowns at official appearances and are show stoppers wherever they go. The Maids trace their origins to the 1950s and originally served as guides to the throngs of visitors coming to Mobile each spring to view the copious azaleas blooming along Mobile’s streets and parks. A group of Maids greeted guests as they arrived at the airport, at each of the receptions and events, and mingled with the crowd at the Battle House hotel where the conference was held. If you asked nicely, they even let you hold their parasols!
Until Next Time
It was great to be joined by fellow Keystoners Mindy Crawford (full disclosure, Mindy and I both serve on the NAPC Board of Directors), Bryan Van Sweden, Ted Strosser, Jim Wilson, Dominique Hawkins, and Katy Sawyer. FORUM 2018 will take us west to Des Moines, Iowa and I hope a few more folks form Pennsylvania can join the crowd. Remember, if you’re from a CLG, there’s scholarship money available to help you attend.