Not Your Grandparents’ Preservation Movement: An Interview with Thomas Visser

A few years ago, I arrived in a small midwestern city with a master’s degree from the University of Vermont’s Historic Preservation Program and a couple of years of cultural resources management under my belt. Before I knew what hit me, I had risen to fame as the so-called “young person who knows all about historic preservation.” City officials courted me to join the historic preservation commission, hoping I could inject new life into the group. Apparently, even in a vibrant college town, a youthful preservationist is a rarity.

Is the preservation movement aging and outdated? Perhaps more importantly, has it outlived its usefulness? According to Thomas Visser, Director of the University of Vermont’s Historic Preservation Program, no. Interest in historic preservation is thriving. His program receives a steady stream of young applicants who are eager to take the helm from preservation professionals moving into retirement.

But Visser does feel that the early historic preservation ethos may be aging. “Three or four decades ago, in an era of expanding American economic growth,” explains Visser, “it seemed that the main threat to historic resources was typified by the iconic image of preservationists (young and old) protesting to save an antique building from being demolished for development.” The idea of historic preservation as a “cause” has given way to the idea that historic preservation is an important planning tool. A luxury has become a necessity.

Why? Today’s preservationists tackle a myriad of significant issues in this era of economic and environmental uncertainty. Visser sees this trend in his graduate program recruits. “Indeed, among our recent students – who have witnessed the discouraging effects of slump and downturns – we are now seeing great interest in working to improve the future by helping to re-build rundown communities and sites through socially responsible approaches that are environmentally and economically sustainable, and that also respect the achievements of the past.”

To keep the public interested and invested in preservation, we need to show preservation’s value to creating affordable housing and small business opportunities, sparking economic development, and maintaining the healthy and sustainable communities in which we thrive. Preservation can protect both our past and our future.

Written by Lizzie Tisher, Summer Associate

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