How important are your historic places? And why should we care?

Thriving activity, economic vitality, and historic "stuff" play well together.

We often get this question about historic places:

How do you grow downtown as the focus of commercial and social life, while honoring and sustaining its historic character?

Take Anytown, USA (or Canada/India/France). The downtown area is filled with historic commercial and residential buildings.

In Anytown, there is a passionate group of people who are convinced that their community’s historic properties are more than just relics.

The physical features of historic places are key components of its historic, economic, and cultural fabric.
The physical features of a place are an integral part of its historic,  cultural, and economic fabric.

They’re smart folks. They get it. They’re civic leaders, economic development people, architects, planners, Main Street Managers, merchants, and tourism folks.

Every day they are busy working to make their town or neighborhood thrive.

They want growth, investment, and high occupancy. They want lots of business, lots of appeal, lots of people bustling about, and tons of creative ideas. They believe that somehow they can grow without becoming “Generictown.”

The best “preservation treatment” is approaching historic buildings as tools for economic development.

Thriving activity, economic vitality, and historic places play well together.
Thriving activity, economic vitality, and historic “stuff” play well together.

We’re not talking about hardcore, “don’t-touch-historic-stuff-at-any-cost” thinking. Typically that approach isn’t successful.

Communities aren’t static. They’re like coral reefs, where evolution and change are part of the story. We’ll gain some and we’ll lose some, but we’ll always build on what we have and we can be smart about it.

Indeed, we’ve seen how historic properties are able to “play nice” with modern redevelopment activities. Think Charleston, Santa Fe, New Orleans, Lawrence, Portland, Miami, plus thousands of towns, villages, and neighborhoods. Places with identifiable character where much of it is tangible and  architectural.  Not to mention unique, humble, impressive, plain, ornate, interesting, and filled with story.

Historic places are where you start.

The smart money says historic properties and districts are more than just physical expressions of shared heritage; they are the basis of a community’s future aspirations. They’re where you start.

Historic places represent sustained investments over long periods. Investments that residents and city leadership have agreed are worth protecting (even when they weren’t “preservationists”). Places that somehow had enough of the right stuff to last a long time. Historic downtowns and neighborhoods shape the stage where generations of business owners, residents, civic leaders, professionals, and visitors have lived, met, done business, socialized, banked, worshiped, and engaged in the myriad of everyday activities that form the basis of every vital community.

So, how do you build a future on the unique character of place? How do you save the baby without tossing out the bathwater? What’s the best way to integrate all the stuff that’s been there a long time into all the stuff that is to come?

1. Know what you have.

RuskinARC makes it easy to record historic places on iPads, tablets, and mobile devices.
RuskinARC works on iPads, tablets, etc.

Do the inventory. First step in any endeavor. You can’t plan if you don’t know what you’ve got. Every business, grocery store, and boot palace knows what it’s got “in house” and plans accordingly.

The architectural survey is designed to look at historic properties and tell you what you’ve got, when they got there, what shape they’re in, and where they are. Without this information, it’s tough to make good decisions.

But for years the field survey has been too hard to do. Too wrapped up in esoteric terms or expensive and closed systems. Too detached from the planning process, and thus detached from the economic development process.

We created RuskinARC to make architectural survey and inventory work easy and fast, without sacrificing any power or control. It works on mobile devices, in the field, at the office, wherever you are. We are impressed at what some places have done just in the past months.

2. Make your survey information usable.

Historic places mapped and managed with RuskinARC.
Exports to GIS.

Hate to say this, but preservationists need to get out of the newspapers. If you’ve got a good handle on your historic assets and flexible data, you’re ahead of the game instead of behind it. And the information should be easy to export, manage, and use. Your planners are going to need it. The GIS people are going to need it. The economic development folks need it, as well as analysts, real estate folks, project managers, property owners, researchers, architects, and others.

Point and click architectural surveys for easy recording of historic places.
Point and click architectural surveys.

RuskinARC is a fabulous front end for collecting information about historic properties, but the back end is just as important. RuskinARC exports in seconds to GIS, Google Earth, Excel, plaintext, and more. Data, photos, attached files — the whole shebang. All keyed and nicely named for you. You can get a sense of this by trying it yourself. Get out with an iPad or tablet and give it a shot.

3. Put your historic places where people can find them!

Top: Uninteresting map of historic places in my home town. Bottom: map in RuskinARC.
Top: Uninteresting map of a historic district in my home town! Bottom: interactive map with photos, in RuskinARC.

Online, please, where we can engage.  And make it interactive. Lots of survey information is sitting around on shelves, in file cabinets, locked up in offices or in single computer systems, in PDFs or somebody’s Excel or Access database. You might have to drive down and ask the GIS guy for a map.

Argh. I have looked at far too many lists of addresses with no map, no photos, no story. And half the time, there’s no accessibility at all. I live in Lexington, Kentucky where we have fourteen historic districts. Try to find some information about them online.

RuskinARC makes interactive maps, sortable lists, and image galleries. It lets you search by architect, construction date, function, eligibility, street, and more. It lets you manage boundaries for districts, zones, or overlays. It lets you attach files, plans, drawings, photos, narratives, or whatever you’ve got.

The last college group I talked to didn’t even blink:

“If we can’t find your historic buildings online, they must not be important!”

I hope that’s not the message we’re sending.

So, why should we care about something if it either doesn’t exist or is not important? How do we attract creative planning and stewardship ideas? How do we broaden our audience, appeal to the public, show off our assets, AND satisfy planners, researchers, and GIS folks?

We created RuskinARC to be that solution. RuskinARC makes it simple to put your historic buildings online where people can find them. It’s an easy, powerful, inexpensive way to do the fundamental inventory work, while making information about your historic buildings and districts accessible and interactive.

Feel free to call or email if you have questions.

 

 

The Place is Not the Story

There are a number of ways to structure a story about great historic places. How you choose is going to be based on how much story you have to tell, and on how you are able to turn “data” into something richer and more appealing.

Picture1The first thing to remember is, the place is not the story. For instance, you may tell us how a building is the first skyscraper in Kentucky or a perfect example of Art Deco, but the short list of people who will care about those data points are architecture students and historians. What we care about are people, someone we can relate to personally. That should always be the main thread of your story, how this place affected people like me.

Stories of Place

Picture3Saying that, sometimes a place has so much history that you want to tell a story centered around it. The key is, make the story about the people that lived, worked and played there. Tell the story about the architect and how this place fits into his career, about the builders who labored for months, the original owners’ dreams for the building and how it was converted into a family-owned deli and how that helped the surrounding neighborhood prosper and grow. You can do that with RuskinARC while at the same time creating a powerful, rich repository of info about your places.

I call these “Stories of Place” and that place could be a building as well as a city. Just like in the movie “The Red Violin”, the story is about the people that changed and adapted the object over the years but the object itself is only important as the anchor for the story.

Stories of People

Picture4You could also tell a story about a certain person or group of people and how they affected a certain place. The first example here would be an architect or builder. It seems that every community has a resident architect that gave a part of the community a flavor not seen in any other part of the country. Tell us who that architect was, what their influences were, why they picked their certain style and how that affected the community around them. Show us all the places they designed or built and why each one matters to the people living in the community today.

This is also the story you would tell for famous individuals that lived in the community and where they did the work that made them famous. Tie your places back to something we know or care about and we’ll be much more interested in the places themselves.

Stories of Events

Picture2We all have events that have touched our lives and every community has them too. They could be something as simple as the story of the founding of a city or a disaster that left its mark that you can still see today or a triumph such as an invention or a disaster averted. All communities have these stories hidden away in their history and if you can bring them out and show how they affected the people living there, we will put ourselves in their shoes and imagine what it must have been like to live through it.

These are the stories that you’ll need to tell us if you want us to care about your community.

If you aren’t telling these kinds of stories to us today, get started!

Endangered Places Lists: The RuskinARC Way

One of our most recent improvements to RuskinARC has been the addition of trial accounts that anyone can sign up for and use for small projects that they may have. One of the types of projects that we’ve been seeing a lot of people talk about lately is Endangered Places lists. We feel that it’s important to promote these fragile places as prominently as possible and try to get the story across about why these places are important to the heart and soul of the surrounding communities.

To help with that, we would like to extend an invitation to all communities to use our trial accounts to promote your Endangered Places and help tell their story.

Why RuskinARC for Endangered Places Lists?

We’ve seen Endangered Places lists in a couple of forms lately, including Facebook posts and Google Maps and all of them seem to be lacking a certain cohesiveness. It’s hard to get across the story of how these things are connected and what they mean, either because the Facebook post has no map and it’s hard to conceptualize where these place are or the Google Map doesn’t have images or good descriptions so it’s hard to tell what these places are.

RuskinARC is designed to tell the whole story, with maps, pictures and descriptions to give a whole sense of where these places are, what they mean and why they’re important to protect. We are currently working on features that will make that storytelling even more powerful, but we also think that RuskinARC is the best tool out there right now for sharing and showcasing this kind of preservation work.

How To…

As a little primer for setting up an endangered places list in RuskinARC, let me run you through some of the first steps.

First, sign up for a trial account. You can name the account whatever you want, but I would recommend just naming it whatever you call your endangered places list, say “The Richmond Fragile Fifteen” or “Raleigh’s Endangered Places”.

After you activate your account from the email we send you and log in, you’re put right into adding your first buildings. For best results,

  • Add pictures. Nothing tells a story of what a place means like pictures. Trial accounts are limited to two pictures for each place and we would recommend uploading a historic picture of the place and a picture of it now to add contrast of its change over time.
  • Fill out some of the historical and architectural details. Those fields are used to generate a description of the building when people look at the details of it. It also makes it easy to search for specific architects or time periods.
  • Fill out the Additional Description, Remarks, Significance section with the place’s story. This is the other important piece that builds the rich description for each building.

After adding five places, you’ll be taken back to the description of the last place you entered. To keep adding more, just click on the New Resource link in the top right menu.

Once you’re done adding them all, feel free to look at the map and image view to see how everything looks. If you’re happy with it, click the Settings link on the top right menu. This will allow you to change the Home Page Summary for the whole project, which will show on the Summary screen when people first visit. You can also set the project as Publicly Viewable, which will allow anyone to come and view your project (but they can’t edit it). After you save that, copy the web address and tell the world about it.

While it does take time to get them all in, we believe that the richness you get out of it and the story you can tell is very worth it, to you and to your community.

Give it a shot and let us know what you think.