Historic Preservation and the Need for Belonging


By Laurie Paolicelli

The need for belonging. 

When you think of historic preservation, it’s not often that you think of the need for belonging. Until you read Tom Maye’s book. Then it all makes sense.

Historic preservation are simply two big words for saving old places. In his book, Tom talks about why old places matter on so many different levels, but it is these words, “need for belonging” that jump off the page.    

“Old places speak to that need for belonging in a way that little else can because they give us the chance to feel a connection to the broad community of human experience, a community that exists across time.”

Many first time visitors to Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough report this feeling in visitor research studies.

“My senses came alive.” 

“I felt intrigued, excited, but safe. Like I was home, but in a home I never knew yet felt so right.”

It wasn’t until I read Tom’s book that I began to see how appropriate the word sacred is, especially when talking about historic preservation.

Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, explains it this way:

“Sacred places are places that are viewed as different, as set apart by the community, and there is something that lifts people up and takes them out of their normal life.”  

That, on a bumper sticker, could explain Chapel Hill, Carrboro, or Hillsborough’s allure.

“A place that is viewed as different. As set a part by the community. A place that lifts people up and takes them out of their normal life.”

Carolina Inn, Chapel Hill

Places like University of North Carolina (UNC), remind us that in addition to bringing a sense of history, identity, and continuity to Chapel Hill, UNC is a sacred place as well, valued because of history, architecture, and beauty steeped in two centuries of a collective belief in higher education. That’s sacred.

And visitors often talk about how special downtown Hillsborough feels to them. If fact, the Hillsborough Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 with an implied period of significance of c. 1754, the year in which the town was laid out by William Churton, to c. 1920. Town leaders have prioritized preservation.

Downtown Hillsborough

Downtown Carrboro

Historic Preservation’s Challenge

Patrice Frey, President and CEO at National Main Street Center, in a recent column for Bloomberg City Lab, writes a story on “Why Historic Preservation Needs a New Approach.” Frey points out that with new tools and financing methods, preservationists could save endangered spaces without alienating those who should share our cause.

Patrice Frey, President and CEO at National Main Street Center

Writes Frey: “The English system of grading buildings offers inspiration. Under this heritage conservation system, buildings are provided with one of three grades based on differing levels of significance. Since 1947, historic buildings fall into three categories:

Grade II buildings are of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them.

Grade II* buildings are particularly important buildings of more than special interest.

Grade I buildings—the highest grade—are of exceptional interest.

Frey believes that such an approach would be useful in the U.S., as it would offer a system of gradation that acknowledges that our historic resources are not monolithic and that different kinds of interventions can be expected for different kinds of places. “This could be transformative for preservation, helping planning and preservation professionals address the reality that not all buildings enjoy the same level of significance. In some instances, compromise is appropriate in order to accommodate other important social goods and economic realities.”


For a look at local historic sites that have been surveyed and that are listed in the National Register districts, see the link below. “The green dots are properties that are being considered for the National Register, but not yet listed,” says Cathleen Turner, Regional Director of Preservation North Carolina.


State Preservation Map

If we can see the past for what it was, we can believe in a future we can’t yet see. The continued presence of old places helps us know who we are and who we may become in the future.

Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

Share This Article

Scroll down to make a comment.

Be the first to comment on "Historic Preservation and the Need for Belonging"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.