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CARPE LIBRUM: Tom Mayes talks about the importance of preserving old spaces

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and/or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Why Old Places Matter
Thompson M. Mayes
Rowman & Littlefield, 2018, pgs. 168

“Most of the windows are original…“

“All of the windows are original,” I interrupted. “I have added stained glass inside a couple of existing windows, but all the actual exterior wood windows are original.” 

We were sitting in the dining room of the bed and breakfast, while having a meeting with the docents for the Old Wilmington By Candlelight Tour. I agreed to join the 2019 tour, which is a fundraiser for the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. The House Captain was covering the important points for the docents. I started to realize many of the houses that get shown on the tour probably have been through much more extensive alterations than mine.

“I’ve repaired, but not altered,” I said. “There has been only one major change to the house, which was converting the servant’s bathroom to have a handicapped accessible bathroom. Pretty much everything else is the same.”

It is my childhood home and we are only the second family to live there. That also seems unusual for the tour.

All of this was swirling in my head when I picked up a copy of Tom Mayes’s book, “Why Old Places Matter.” Mayes, the chief legal counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, DC, was in town as guest speaker at the Historic Wilmington Foundation annual fundraising luncheon. The foundation asked us (at the bookstore) to carry copies of his book—then Mayes kindly offered to come by for a signing event.

Unpacking a box of the books was like opening presents from Santa: They are gorgeous, glossy, full color and oversized. Readers who like historic architecture will fall in love with these books at first sight. There are a lot of picture books of old buildings that have relatively little substance: One can flip through them in 30 minutes and have absorbed everything they offer. Mayes’s book is not that.

His book grew out of a collection of essays around the question, “Why do old places matter?” As such, Mayes offers a variety of answers, including continuity, community and history. He also talks about economics, sustainability and the importance of beauty. As I grew up in an historic home and currently own a historic commercial building, the narrative history and context of both in our larger social history is very important to me.  I admit: I have a hard time allowing myself to enjoy the beauty—or to admit that I enjoy the beauty—of my house. I am able to say I don’t want to live in a suburban wasteland where everything looks the same and is built out of cheap Chinese drywall. Yet, it seems difficult to actually talk about the beauty of the house: the architectural flourishes, the details, the sconces (which, yes, to the best of my knowledge are original). It’s all  part of why I love the house so much.   Mayes gives me permission to admit it and revel in it a bit.



Partly it comes from the stunning photography throughout the book, paired with lovely and personal explanations in the captions. Mayes manages to model what a love of beauty can be, both visually and in text, without getting lost in some sort of John Ruskin-esque rabbit hole.

Make no mistake, there is a pragmatic side to this book and to Mayes’s work. There’s a very real economic benefit and sustainable aspect to historic preservation that, though difficult to quantify, is quite tangible. (Remember: Historic preservation is the ultimate recycling!) That part I am far more comfortable with: home ownership and preservation as a step toward environmental stewardship. Certainly, it reminds me historic preservation means less material taken to the landfill and less raw materials harvested for production. But it isn’t at really the forefront of ye olde brain.

All that aside, what Mayes really reminds us of is the importance of continuity and community in historic preservation. Right now our area is facing several big discussions about who we are going to be as we move forward. Perhaps looking back is something we could do. Our history is far from perfect, but in addition to learning from our mistakes, we have multiple monuments to the power of community vision.

Our library system traces its beginning to the NC Sorosis community service club. Houses of worship were built through community commitment and funding. Cemeteries tell stories of multiple generations who passed through here. Mayes reminds us how all these spots are part of old places that tell our stories and connect us. Looking at that beautiful book, I marvel at the many lovely and wondrous things that make Wilmington special. More so, I wonder why we want to throw them away so quickly and easily?

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