Few names over the past 20-plus years have been as synonymous with the National Trust for Historic Preservation as David J. Brown. David serves as the chief preservation officer for the Trust and has worked with several CEOs to implement a complex, difficult, and costly mission to save America’s historic places. As David approaches his departure from the Trust and begins writing his next chapter, we had a chance to sit down with this influential preservationist to talk about where he’s been and where he’s headed on this week’s episode of PreserveCast, a history podcast powered by Preservation Maryland.

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This is Nick Riding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. And today, we are joined by David J. Brown, who leads the National Trust for Historic Preservation, comprehensive preservation efforts with nearly four decades of experience in working to save historic places and build thriving livable communities. He plays a key oversight role in the implementation of the National Trust’s Preservation10-NEXT Strategic Vision, including their National Treasure Campaign. He also guides the trust advocacy work on behalf of the country’s most important preservation laws and incentives and oversees support for local preservation leadership, providing today’s preservation community with effective, high-impact training offerings. Prior to joining the Trust, David served as the founding executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, where he worked on some of the first studies of the economic impact of preservation. And he’s director of the Historic Staunton Foundation in Virginia. He was among the first graduates of the Historic Preservation Program at Middle Tennessee State University and has a Master’s in planning from the Georgia Institute of Technology. It is an absolute pleasure to have you with us here today on PreserveCast.

Thanks, Nick. It’s great to be with you.

So you have had quite the career. Few names are perhaps as synonymous with the National Trust as yours over the past several decades here. And you’ve worked with several different CEOs to implement their vision as well as yours for what needs to be accomplished in the preservation community. I touched a little bit in some of the bio that you have on your website about your background and some of your first work. But let’s go back a little bit further than Historic Staunton and the Master’s degrees and really sort of your path to preservation. I’m curious. Was this something that you were just imbued with as a child? Did you always know you’re going to be a chief preservation officer? What was the path there?

I’ve always been very interested in history. It’s always been really important to me. And that goes back to my grandmother on my father’s side who had a real love for history. And so when I would talk with her, I learned her grandfather had been in the Civil War. So she was not that far removed from that generation and it was a quick and easy step for me to get immeshed in history, just in being around my grandmother. And she had a great way with words. She told me many a time to make myself useful as well as ornamental. And she really thought that idle hands were the devil’s workshop. So she really pushed me to get involved in things. And my father had heard the same stories and same words growing up. And so one of the places that he went to work early on was a place in Franklin, Tennessee, which is my parents’ hometown called the Franklin theater. And that really had a real key role in my love for preservation and my path to preservation. He went there. He was selling popcorn tickets, backup projectionists. It was a place in the depression where people went to dream about a better world. And I heard stories about that theater all my life. My parents dated there and then I went there in the sixties.

But it was already starting to deteriorate when I went there. And my father really was sad about what was happening to downtown Franklin. But there were a group of people who lived in that community who really believed in the future of downtown. And they led its Renaissance. It’s now a great American main street award winner. Some people think it’s the best main street in America. And the Franklin theater has a real role to play there. And it was part of the Renaissance. And a couple of years before my father died, we bought a chair in his honor because we wanted Tom Brown’s name, a name from the past, to be connected to the present and future of that theater. And he got to see the restored theater. He got to go to the marquee lighting before he passed away.

And I just think now it’s still very much relevant to that community. It’s a place where current music acts and current films inspire and bring together current generations just as that place did for people in the depression and World War II. And just that connection to place is just very important to me. And I’ve sort of learned that by walking the streets of Franklin and Murfreesboro, where I grew up. And it was just something where history was all around me. And so I didn’t really want to teach history, but I knew I wanted to do something about connecting the past to us today. And so hat’s how I got into it.

And what was your first job in the field?

Well, after graduation, I went to be a regional preservation planner in South Georgia. And this was back during the Carter administration. And so the region that I worked in included planes. And so it was a position where I was working on a variety of projects and programs that were set up by the National Historic Preservation Act. And I really got a lot of experience in working on things from survey to early rehabilitation, tax credit work to national register nominations, to engagement with local governments. And so it was a great– it was a great opportunity for me to work on a range of things and with a range of tools that preservationists in the 60s have established and that we were now in the seventies and eighties using out in the field.

And really, I mean, it’s sort of that base level– and we hear this time and again when we talk to people, sort of that base level of understanding of tax credits and national register nominations and 106 leads to some of the moral, illustrious careers in preservation that we’ve had a chance to talk with. And so your path to the national trust. I mean, you go through Historic Stanton and then the preservation Alliance Virginia which, for people listening today who are familiar with Preservation Virginia, what was the Preservation Alliance? What was the connection there and what is it today?

Sure. The Preservation Alliance of Virginia was founded as a second statewide in Virginia along with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. And we really were the lobbying arm. We were the advocacy arm and we were a collaborative of about 160 organizations with representing about 60,000 Virginians. And we were founded and our job was to be the strong advocates at especially the state government level for preservation. And so we were involved in work that created the Virginia Department of Historic Resources at that level. And then we had a very strong campaign in the early 90s to pass a state historic tax credit which, since 1997, has seen the rehabilitation of approximately 2,500 properties and about 4.5 billion in private investment in Virginia just on the state tax credit side. So it’s been an amazing program. And you go to communities throughout Virginia and you can see those properties that have been rehabilitated as a result of the tax credit. And it’s one of the nation’s strongest state tax credit. So we were working on that level. After I left maybe 10 years down the road, the two groups decided to merge, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and the Preservation Alliance of Virginia. And that became Preservation Virginia. So the ATVA had owned 20 some odd properties and we were the advocacy arm. And so much like the National Trust, they folded those two together and became both an organization that owned historic properties, but also an organization that was a strong advocate for preservation in the commonwealth. And that’s the group that exists today and one of the more effective statewides along with Preservation Maryland and a few others around the country.

Really appreciate that, putting us in the same lineage as Preservation Virginia. But you’re right, and what a proud legacy too with the historic tax credit. I mean, here in Maryland, we always– and I think around the nation, point to Virginia and say couldn’t we be that great just with the amount of money, I mean, consistently investing almost $100 million a year in their historic tax credit program, just nothing short of spectacular. And interesting to hear about your role and involvement in that advocacy campaign. So you get to the National Trust and what’s your first job at the Trust?

Well, I was recruited to the Trust by Dick Moe to be the director of our southern regional office in Charleston. And I say that I stayed in Charleston just about long enough to avoid hurricane season because I was there for eight months. And then Dick asked me to come to Washington and be his chief of staff and then eventually, the executive vice president of the Trust. But I went down. The Trust at that time had six or eight regional offices and Charleston was one of the oldest. And so I worked there but then quickly decided that where my passion lied and I think where Dick also saw that he could use my background and my skills were working with him in the executive office to advance his priorities and to work across the entire organization. So I was executive vice president. And then in 2010, when Stephanie Meeks became the CEO, she reorganized the Trust, and I became the chief preservation officer. That brought me responsibility for oversight of all the organization’s preservation program. Somebody says that chief preservation officer is one of the great titles in the preservation field. It’s not as good as Keeper of the National Register, but I’ve always thought it’s quite an honor at an institution like the Trust which has such a legacy and also such promise. To be the chief preservation officer here and to have responsibility for all of our major program areas is quite an honor and something which I think about every day as I do my job.

Yeah. I mean if it touches a building or it involves advocacy, it runs through your shop one way or another. And you have a big team to accomplish that work, but at the end of the day, the buck stops there. I’m curious. You’ve seen a lot of changes at the Trust during your tenure. Anything that you think would surprise people in terms of what you found when you got there versus what’s there today? What are some of the things that perhaps strike you? You’re laughing there a little bit, but I’m curious, right? I mean it has changed profoundly.

It’s changed profoundly. When I first came, I realized the computer system at the National Trust was worse than the computer system at my small statewide nonprofit, and that has certainly changed. And I think that’s changed in the field in general. The online technology that we see in terms of both how we do our work, but then also how we save places, I think has just changed dramatically. And I was thinking earlier today, we’ve been working across the country trying to save historic post offices, which as the postal service changes its mission and its way it works, it doesn’t have the same need for these landmark buildings. And so we’ve been working for the better part of five or six years with a range of post offices. But what’s so interesting about the online piece of that is we’ve now brought together those stories of 20 different post offices that have been saved. And they have different uses, different ways of saving them, and we’ve pulled that all together on savingplaces.org, our website, where people can look at the stories of these post offices. We use GIS technology to tell those stories, and they can also go there and get information about tools they can use in their own community. So we didn’t try to show all the post offices that have been saved, but tried to bring together a representative sample. And that’s really changed sort of how we can use technology to make the case for preservation.

Right, because when you got there, in order to do something like that you’d have to produce a publication and mail it to everyone, you know? I think we actually–somewhere in our office here, we have a film on film, actual film, not VHS, from the National Trust about saving places. I mean that’s how it had to be disseminated. I mean that–

I’m sure you do. That’s exactly right. So that’s a big change sort of on the way we do work. And I think, Nick, the other big change I’ve seen are just the range of places that are being saved now. I’ve been in this for four decades, and so I do go back a bit to the columned-mansion type of preservation, but we’re now saving places that tell the full American story at every level and really making preservation relevant. And I was thinking of the work we’re doing down at the Ghost Fleet of the Potomac in Charles County, Maryland, which is a fascinating place. And it’s being saved not only for the shipwrecks that are there, over 200 shipwrecks, but it’s now created this rich ecological region that is worth saving. And so, by partnering with those who care about that place from an ecological standpoint, preservationists are working hand in glove with others that, in the past, they may not have worked with as closely. So that’s just one example of where we’ve really worked to reach out to different partners and think about saving places that perhaps in the public’s mind they don’t immediately think of as preservation.

Right. Yeah. I mean I guess it’s been said that it’s the preservationist’s job to figure out what the landmarks of 30 years are and figure out how to save them now because there may eventually be public consensus around the idea of that but when you’re saving it, sometimes it can feel like a lonely place. And I’m sure that mid-century modern 20, 30 years ago was not something people were talking about and now it’s almost taken for granted that, “Yeah oh, we’ve got to save places like that. But that was a difficult argument to make in 1992 or so.

Well, and I’ll push you back a decade in the [laughter] ’80s. People were sort of pushing back against trying to save art deco. And it wasn’t until you had people like Barbara Capitman down in Miami Beach saying, “Yes, these art deco hotels are worth saving,” and really making that case in a very public way, that all of a sudden it flipped in terms of the public support. And we’ve seen that all along. It was Victorian buildings before that. And you’re right, it’s been modernism, and now people see that as something that’s very much worthy of preservation. And so we do need to think about what’s next.

So let’s drill down a little bit on some of these changes though and also some of the things that you’ve seen during your tenure. Sort of rapid-fire here, but what do you think was the biggest preservation loss during your time with the trust? And not just something perhaps that the trust was involved in but, just broadly speaking, anything that you can point a finger on and say you really wish that had gone in different direction?

Well, I can think of several, but I always think the loss of a National Historic Landmark is a very sad occasion because there are not that many of them. These are places of national significance, and we should do everything we can to try and keep these places saved, thriving, alive. And we were involved in trying to save the Chautauqua Amphitheater which is here in Buffalo. It was part of an NHL district. And this was a place where FDR, William Jennings Bryan, Susan B. Anthony, Thurgood Marshall, Ella Fitzgerald, Van Cliburn– I mean, you can just sort of go down and say, “This is American history. These people were on the stage there at the amphitheater.” And yet the institution in 2014 had said, “We’re going to demolish the amp, and we’re just going to build a new one that’s going to have better amenities, and it’s going to look like the old one.” Well, it’s not the same. And even though there was a really strong push to save it and a great campaign, ultimately, the institution decided that they were going to demolish it, and they’ve done that. And that is typical of a type of loss. So I think when we lose something at that level of significance to the country, it cannot be replaced. And no matter if it’s a perfect replica, it still not the place where those people spoke and walked and performed, and you’ve got that physical connection to that. So yeah, there are others, but that’s one that just sort of strikes me as totally unnecessary. It could have been easily saved, easily reused, rehabilitated for current uses but wasn’t to be.

It’s a [inaudible] of more money than sense [laughter].


So biggest preservation victory? What’s something that you– I mean, perhaps even that you had a hand in that you’re really proud of during your tenure with the trust?

Well, Nick, that’s like teasing your favorite child, so I am actually probably– I’ve got three or four of them, which I’ll do rapidly. Saving the Farnsworth House. Talking about midcentury modern– Mies van der Rohe house in Plano, Illinois was up for auction, and the person we were bidding against was going to pick it up, put it in a flatbed trailer and move it to Pennsylvania, totally out of its site. And so working with Landmark Illinois that’s trust save that. And I was involved in that a bit. But to me, it’s just a terrific save and a great preservation victory. There’s a place in Durham, North Carolina, the childhood home of Pauli Murray. And I didn’t know who Pauli Murray was when we started working on this project. One of our staff people who’s a women’s historian came to me and said this is one of the most amazing women of the 20th century. [inaudible] Marshall said she wrote the Bible on civil rights law. She was a mentor to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Also, she became an Episcopal priest and has been named a Saint in the Episcopal church. Just an amazing woman who comes from this very ordinary home in Durham, North Carolina. And we worked with the Pauli Murray Foundation to save this place, to bring resources to it. And now it’s the Pauli Murray Center for Social Justice. And so what it tells me is extraordinary people can come from very ordinary places and that’s part of our telling the story as well. So that’s another favorite. And then finally, sort of on the tool levels [laughter], I think the work we just did with you and lots of other partners all around the country to say the historic tax credits at the federal level is a preservation victory so that 45,000 buildings– we can have another 45,000 buildings that can be real rehabilitated and it will have the financing to make these projects work.

And it was not a given that we were going to be able to pull that off. It was very much a last minute win. And I relate it back to the trust and others being involved to save the west front of the Capitol when that was under threat from expansion many decades ago. Its that important and that critical. And I think it’s something that I find very satisfying in terms of my tenure at the trust, seeing these places have the financial tools they will need to be re rehabilitated and remain relevant for communities in the future.

Yeah. I mean, when you talk about broad impact and broad victory, I think you’d be a hard stretched to find something in terms of saving that program. And make no mistake, between the work of the trust and local partners all across the country and state partners, I mean, it truly was saved because it was effectively eliminated on one side of the bill and brought back to life. So yeah, it seems like you just–

Right at the stroke of midnight, typically.

Yeah. Yeah, you cut your teeth and preservation advocacy on a state tax credit and put a capstone on it with the federal, so.

Right. And that’s been important. I think one of the things that we do is trust and as statewide like Preservation Maryland do most effectively is we should be advocating for tools that local organizations, local citizens, local governments can use to say places where those buildings are located. So we’re working now on a number of States on state tax credits, but I think also, we’re going to need to look more at policy issues as well on the preservation front because the tools that we have in place were created back in the 1960s and life has changed since then. So I think one of the things that the trust does well and will continue to do is to advocate for the tools so that local organizations local preservationists can have those in place to save the places that matter to them.

Well, it’s a good lead to the next question which is, what is next for the National Trust? I mean, obviously, you’ve announced your departure and moving on under fantastic terms to the next adventure here which we’re looking forward to hearing about what that might be. But what is next for the trust? I mean, obviously, new leadership coming in. If you could give them a little sage encouragement and advice, what would it be? Where do you want to see the trust yourself personally in 10, 15, 20 years?

Great question and I’ve thought about it a great deal because since I announced I was leaving my position here at the trust, I thought a lot about the legacy of the trust but also the promise of it as an organization. And so, we’re in the search for a new president and CEO right now. So that individual who is yet to be named as of today, we will look for that person’s leadership in terms of where the organization goes. But I expect the National Trust will adhere to its primary purposes that were in the congressional charter that’s 70 years old and there really two of those. It’s saving historic places of national significance and engaging the American public and saving places. But in terms of– I actually spoke to the board of trustees in February, they asked me for some thoughts for this very question, and I said one of the things that National Trust has done through the years is be open to change. People think about preservation has been resistant to change as a field. But in fact, the way that we save places is changing all the time. And I’ll go back and use the Main Street program as an example. When Main Street was conceived off in the last late 1970s and then developed in the 80s and 90s, it was not only a push against the mall development at that time and the suburban development. But in some ways, it was a push in against traditional preservation practice. Because if you look at a place like the Franklin Theatre which I talked about earlier, it’s not a great piece of American architecture, it’s a nice Main Street theatre in a small community. And yet, what Main Street said and what the trust said at the time, these places were worth saving and we don’t have to only be saving the grand pieces of architecture.

I’m always talking about the fact that it’s not the architecture that makes a building a landmark, it’s the place that the building holes in a community’s memory that makes it a landmark. And so, by thinking about the way that we save places and changing, I think the trust should continue to press itself and be on the vanguard of, how do we think anew and afresh in the 21st century with the tools we have and the challenges we have to save places? And I think that’s really one of the key issues for the trust moving forward is, how do we ensure that we’re staying true to our mission and yet being open to new ways of doing business?

It’s a challenge. Challenge for a small organization. It’s a big challenge for a big organization because people expect you to do all these certain things but then they also want you to change and adapt and it was nothing that you’re unfamiliar with I’m sure.

Well, it is true and I’ve had some experience in changing the way the trust does its work. And in a way, you’re sort of moving the battleship. You mentioned just in my division alone, the programs, the preservation division there are about 225, 250 staff people. We’re all over the country in 27 historic sites and then 9 field offices. And so there are a lot of moving parts and there are lots of things that people are doing that are very important. But if you’re trying to think about okay, how do you get this organization to focus on what its key role is, what can the National Trust do that no one else can do, it is difficult. But I think if you’ve got the right vision, people are excited by that vision and will change the way they work in order to be part of something big.

So as we wrap to the conclusion here, what’s next for you? Everybody wants to know. I mean, do you know? Should we expect a book? Is there a tell-all coming? What’s [laughter] next?

Well, Nick, I say I’m getting ready to have my gap year that I never had when I was young.

Are you going to backpack around Europe?

Going to backpack around Europe, well, I’ve got a son who’s over there so that may be possible. I’m going to take some time off and do some reading and writing and reflecting. I have a personal website that’s called moretocome.net for those who listen to this who’d like to go see it. And I write a lot on there, some about preservation, some about baseball and other things, so people have to work up through that. But I’m going to take some time to think about what’s next. And I had a really good piece of advice from one of our board members who was in a very high profile job and who stepped aside for a bit. And she said taking the time off is very good. And she said keep days and weeks open on your calendar because that’s when the magic happens. So I’m going to be looking at thinking about what’s possible. I’ve talked about doing some writing. But I also think that I still have some things to give the field and also to give to organizations. And so I’m going to think about how I can get engaged in that work in the [crosstalk].

And again, if people want to follow that, it’s whatsnext dot net?

No. It’s moretocome.net, M-O-R-E-T-O-C-O-M-E, all one word, dot net. And if they want to go find it, it’s like I said, it’s due for a facelift so it’s going to get that. But there’s some writing on there that people might find of interest. And I’ll be doing some more on there as I move ahead.

Fantastic. Well, we’ll put a link in the show notes. So for people listening, you can just click on that and jump right over to David’s page. So you said before that this is going to be the most difficult question, I’m sure. And you said before, “Oh, jeez, best preservation victory, it’s like choosing the favorite child.” So now it really is choosing your favorite child. What is [laughter] your favorite historic site or place?

Well, I knew this question might be coming. And I’m going to say I love Main Street communities. I’ve lived in five Main Street communities, Franklin, Tennessee; Cookville, Tennessee; Murfreesboro, Tennesse; Americus, Georgia; and Stanton, Virginia. And I just love the connections that are found in these places all of which have strong commercial areas, strong neighborhoods. They’re walkable. And so I’m going to cheat a little bit and say my favorite place is, and where you can often find me is in the middle of a typical Main Street community. And part of the reason is because I’ve grown up in them and have just been so affected in a positive way by them through the years.

I suppose given your track record and all of your accomplishments, we’ll let that half answer slide [laughter]. I mean, in all honesty, it’s been a pleasure to talk with you. For those of us in the field who walk in your footsteps here, we appreciate all the tremendous work that you’ve done at the Trust. And it’s good to hear that there is more to come and we’re looking forward to hearing what that is and following up with you in the future. So thank you for all you’ve done and thanks for joining us today.

Great. Thanks so much, Nick.

[music] Thanks for listening to PreserveCast. To dig deeper into this episode’s show notes and all previous episodes, visit preservecast.org. You can also find us online at Facebook and Twitter at PreserveCast. This program was supported by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. PreserveCast is produced by Preservation Maryland in Baltimore City. Thanks again for your support and remember to keep preserving.

Show Notes

David J. Brown writes More to Come…A Journal for People Who Enjoy Places that Matter, Reading Well, Roots Music, Random Observations, and Whatever Lies Ahead.