Monday, June 8, 2009

Historic Structures: The Original Virtual Reality Experience

Delivered June 3, 2009 at Nob Hill Historic Home Restoration Ribbon Cutting
by Paul DePrey, Superintendent
WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument

I’m very pleased to be here with you today representing the National Park Service. Thank you to Admiral Smith, Mr. Henneberry, Ms. Vaughn, Mr. Caldwell, Admiral Georgione, and to Kahu Kekoa. I also have a special thank you to Kiersten Faulkner of the Historic Hawaii Foundation on and its supporters.

I’m going to talk about ‘virtual reality’ today — and talk about how historic structures increase our collective appreciation for the cultures of the past.

Let’s have a group exercise. Since we are outside let’s stop a minute and listen to the birds, feel the sun and the wind. Enjoy the shade of the trees. Listen to the naval shipyard work occurring across Pearl Harbor. Imagine yourselves as a child playing on this grass, knowing that your families and neighbors were living just over in those homes. Imagine yourself out here on this site, totally absorbed in the moment of a Saturday morning on December 6, 1941.

When we hear the term ‘virtual reality’, we often think of video games, computer systems that absorb our senses and trick our brains into thinking we are someplace we are not. Virtual reality is an escape that allows us to enter into a new dimension. What does this have to do with historic structures? In my mind, it’s simple. Historic structures are the ‘original’ virtual reality.

These structures present one of the strongest links to the past. The size of a room, the height of a ceiling, the materials used in manufacturing are all inextricably linked to a time and a place and a culture that no longer is.

Let me tell you about a virtual reality experience I had some years back.

I was walking through a field of buckwheat toward a farm house. In the background I could hear a windmill squeaking. When I entered the farm house, the ceiling in the small room was low with exposed beams, the floorboards were really wide (old growth—you don’t see that much these days), the doorways were really narrow and the window was tiny and set up high on the wall. I could just imagine what it was like to spend a long winter with a family of nine people in this small building. Or how the last place I would want to be was in that building during a long hot and humid summer. I noticed that there was no laundry room or bathroom. There was only a single heat source--the kitchen fireplace located in the center of the square floor plan.

As I visited a traditional French Canadian homestead in northern Maine, I was able to relate to the people who lived there in the late e 19th century and I understood –albeit just a bit——the limitations of their lives and why they placed such great emphasis on a relationship to their crops s and their community.

My virtual reality experience occurred when I was ten years old and visiting the local historic homestead museum in my hometown. I’m sure you have all had similar experiences with historic structures.

The National Park Service cares for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage.

Historic preservation has many purposes --fostering civic or organizational pride, increasing knowledge of local and national history, and strengthening of local economies. One of the greatest purposes may be that historic preservation is always about educating and inspiring ourselves.

When Newton Drury, the 4th NPS Director, was asked how the National Park Service’s mission contributed to WWII efforts, he responded that first and foremost historic preservation makes a country worth fighting for and enjoyable to come home to. This idea is no less pertinent today then in 1942—in fact, in some cases, his point is even more pertinent as we survey our increasingly crowded cities and towns and assess the full scope of how well historic structures are preserved.

I understand that there’s a Navy motto that goes “Non sibi sed patriae" (Not self but country). This sentiment echoes why the Nob Hill project is so important.

Preserving historic buildings is an environmentally responsible practice. Reusing existing buildings essentially recycles on a 'historic' proportion. Existing buildings can often be energy efficient through their use of good ventilation, durable materials and layout. For those embarking on new construction, the advantage of older building is that they already exist. As our friends with Forest City will undoubtedly tell you, that doesn’t mean that it is easy… just good for us all.

Historic resources like these Ford Island homes, the Ford Island Chief Petty Officer bungalows that are now part of the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument and the rest of the Ford Island historic district are significant in local, state, national and even global history. They are also significant from an architectural, archeological, engineering, and cultural perspective. They are the ‘virtual reality’ portals for future citizens to learn about not just the Attack on Pearl Harbor, but also the lives and livelihoods of those who made Ford Island their home before the attack and for those who helped the recovery of the fleet and the eventual response thru the conclusion of the War in the Pacific.

As the generation of witnesses passes on, these structures and others will continue to stand and bear witness to the past and our national patrimony. So, we must act as stewards for the structures as well as for the history that they represent. They will become even more significant over time — so we better get it right now while we have the chance. This is what the Navy is doing and we must congratulate them.

Congress passed a National Historic Preservation Act in 1966—mandating the active use of historic buildings for public benefit and to preserve our national heritage. Following passage of this Act, the Secretary of the Interior established Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties to promote and guide the responsible treatment of historic structures and to protect irreplaceable cultural resources. Today, these Standards are the guiding principles behind sensitive preservation design and practice in America. Congratulations to the US Navy and to Forest City on your successful endeavor.

How do we engage our citizens in preservation and why it is important? We do so by education, interpretation and inspiration. We place them in the spaces and structures like these that evoke those significant aspects of our collective past--what is important for us to pass on to future generations of citizens.

I would like to thank the US Navy for its continued efforts to protect our nation and to preserve the resources that make our nation worth fighting for and worth coming back to. Thanks to all of you who made this a reality. I thank you and the future thanks you.