UCHS Awardee Acceptance Speech

by Aaron Wunsch

Read by Aaron Wuncsh at the UCHS Annual Awards, February 19th, 2023

The Progressive-era novelist Owen Wister knew whereof he wrote. Famed for
romanticizing the West, he saw the East more clearly and, when it came to his
native Philadelphia, familiarity sometimes bred contempt. In Romney (written
1912-1915, published 2001), Wister’s great unfinished work, he explains the
mindset of a thinly disguised “Monopolis” this way:

And Other New Works About Philadelphia By Owen Wister

“We keep on the safe side.” The habit, in the end, becomes dangerous.

And so, by mid nineteenth-century, toleration had degenerated into
acquiescence… It spread from the men of the broad-brimmed hats to
the world’s people who did business with them, undoubtedly assisted
by the climate… In town, all was well with the bank account… Why
quarrel with the gas, or the paving, or the drainage? Why examine too
closely into somebody’s profits in a municipal contract? You might
make enemies. These might hurt your business. Be moderate.

Thus grew Monopolis from a village to a large city full of big
buildings, good institutions, and comfortable citizens; hospitable,
agreeable, well-mannered and well fed; some going to Meeting and
some to dances; few of them large-spirited, most of them too careful
with their purses – which might open readily to pay for green-turtle
soup, but got lockjaw in the presence of any enlightened public
appeal; and all keeping on the Safe Side (p. 27).

Does Wister’s Monopolis sound familiar a century out? I tend to think so, and I’m
here to thank those of you who have committed yourselves to doing something
about it in the arena of historic preservation. The program in which I teach has the
sometimes-dubious honor of perpetuating a species known as the “preservation
professional.” Its members tend to be well-versed in the technical and procedural
aspects of their field, and some even care about history. Along the way, though,
many absorb the conviction that passion and idealism are luxuries they can’t
afford. Be moderate, they say – as much to themselves as to others.

I understand where this comes from. Finding a job in preservation isn’t easy and
keeping one is harder. The pay tends to be crappy and, if it’s not, there’s a good
chance you’ve sold your soul. So, keep your head down and soldier on. Why be an Owen Wister or a Lincoln Steffens when you might make enemies? Far safer to
lull yourself to sleep by reading The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the
Treatment of Historic Properties.

In accepting today’s award from the University City Historical Society, I want to
acknowledge those students who have worked for your group and others like it.
You know who you are, and you do your prof proud. I especially want to praise
those who have taken risks – who have stuck their necks out from time to time. I
hope you have not come to regret it. I hope you have not burned out. Idealism is
hard to come by, and we don’t do enough to nurture it. As for those of you who
fear Philadelphia’s reservoirs of “pragmatism” or “realism” may be running dry,
fear not: they are inexhaustible.

Without discounting the value of a program like mine, it’s important to remember
that preservation must never become a purely academic pursuit. Its values come
from fields as diverse as architectural history, geography, and sociology but its
soul lies in advocacy and activism. Ten years ago, I fought long and hard to save
the Levy-Leas Mansion at 40 th & Pine. The experience was among the most
enlightening and disillusioning of my life. I received no support from the
established preservation community, and still less support from some of my
colleagues. Some of the latter even let it be known that I was threatening my as-
yet-untenured job (being careful to couch such sentiments as gentle, avuncular
advice rather than crass corporate shilling). To the extent that those wounds have
healed (and, to be honest, some never will), it is because I’ve had the pleasure of
watching former students write nominations, publish articles, and organize events around the preservation cause.

They haven’t done so in a vacuum, of course. When I’ve been unable to help, as
has often been the case in recent years, preservation-minded alumni have received equal or better support from an informal network that includes Jeff Cohen, Mike Lewis, Emily Cooperman, LiLy Milroy, Kathy Dowdell, Suzanna Barucco, Thaddeus Squire, Oscar Beisert, Jim Duffin, Libbie Hawes and other members of RePoint. Others who should be acknowledged at this moment are those who have been keeping UCHS itself afloat and – dare I say it – leading it in a more activist direction. Again, you know who you are! So, let me just say: UCHS has provided a great service not only to West Philly but also to budding “preservation professionals” who have had career-launching internships there. I’m flattered by this award and hope I’m around long enough to see you receive it as well.

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