The Weitzman School of Design launches a center for civil rights sites preservation

"Essential Places of Reflection For Our Democracy"

The Weitzman School of Design launches a center for civil rights sites preservation

Ben’s Chili Bowl, a fabled Washington, D.C., eatery and civil rights landmark housed in the old Minehaha Nickelodeon Theater on U Street. (Ted Eytan/Wikimedia Commons /CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has announced the launch of a new historic preservation initiative that aims to “advance the understanding and sustainable conservation” of heritage sites associated with the civil rights movement; the Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites (CPCRS). The new center will target sites that have played—and continue to play—roles in the ongoing fight for African American equality from before the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 through the present day.

The initiative is led by faculty director Randall Mason, an associate professor in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at Penn and former director (2013–2017) of the Weitzman’s School’s nonprofit community engagement and consulting arm, PennPraxis. As noted in a news release, Mason will continue to head the Urban Heritage Project, a special initiative within PennPraxis, in his new role with CPCRS.

Mason will be joined by Brent Leggs, an educator and executive director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, as a senior advisor and adjunct associate professor. According to the Weitzman School, Leggs will aid in outreach and strategy for the nascent CPCRS while teaching courses within the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation over the next three years.

“Civil rights sites that bring forward the Black American fight for racial and economic justice have served a crucial role in redefining our collective history,” said Leggs in a statement. “Thanks to a broad coalition of partners with an affirmative voice for historic preservation, our collective efforts will grow the preservation economy and the critical infrastructure necessary to protect these important places and to tell their remarkable story.”

Under Leggs, the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has led to the “perpetual protection” of numerous vital, yet still endangered, cultural sites across the country including the Art Deco Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey, which is one of only a few surviving venues that hosted Black professional baseball leagues during the Jim Crow era; boxing legend Joe Frazier’s gym in Philadelphia, and, most recently, Nina Simone’s birthplace in North Tyron, North Carolina.

Alongside Leggs, the CPCRS advisory group currently includes Monica Rhodes, director of resource management at the National Park Foundation; Kwesi Daniels, chair and assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at Tuskegee University; Amy Freitag, executive director of the New York-based J.M. Kaplan Fund, and Bill Adair, an independent arts and culture consultant.

Although just formally launched, the work of the CPCRS first began at the end of 2019 with the establishment of an 18-month partnership between Penn and the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science at Tuskegee University that aimed to bolster historic preservation-oriented teaching capacity, produce original research, and conduct public outreach at the latter school. In addition to other activities, the trans-institutional program seeks “to document and activate culturally significant buildings, sites, towns, and landscapes, and explore successful preservation, planning, and development strategies for small towns in the region.” At the time the partnership was initiated, Tuskegee, an HBCU that’s home to the oldest construction baccalaureate program in the United States and one of only two National Architectural Accrediting Board-accredited architecture programs in Alabama, had just recently begun to offer a minor in historic preservation to students.

The historic preservation of civil rights heritage sites in and around Alabama’s Black Belt region will be the topic on an upcoming online panel conversation between Leggs, Mason, Freitag, and Daniels on October 27.

As detailed by the news release, two existing public-interest initiatives at the Weitzman School have missions that complement that of the CPRCS: The Center for Architectural Conservation, which earlier this year was commissioned to produce conservation plans for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Taliesin West in Wisconsin and Arizona, respectively, and Center for Public Art and Space, which is led by Ken Lum and Paul Farber, co-founders of recent $4 million Mellon grant recipient, the public art and research studio Monument Lab.

“From the Selma bridge where John Lewis and his fellow freedom marchers confronted state troopers to the Minneapolis street where George Floyd was killed by police, the story of Black Americans’ struggles for equality is written into our buildings and landscapes,” said Fritz Steiner, dean and Paley Professor at the Weitzman School, in a statement. “These sites are essential places of reflection for our democracy, and they’re at risk of being lost for future generations.”