Robert Melnick How did you become interested in landscape architecture?
I started out in American history, many years ago, and then took some time off from school and then discovered landscape architecture, as most people do rather late in life. I went to SUNY Syracuse to study [landscape architecture] with George Curry who was a major influence early on in my life. I was a painter and an artist, so George encouraged me to put together my interest in art, my interest in history, and my interest in landscape architecture.
When I was in graduate school I spend a fair amount of time in the Library of Congress going through the Olmsted Papers, when they were still open to people. When I was still in school I did a little bit of practicing and ended up teaching at Kansas State. When I was at Kansas State I got very interested in small towns, the prairie, and landscape preservation.
What was your role in the early development of cultural landscape guidance for the National Park Service?
About a year later I decided to take some time off from Kansas State, and without going into too many details, was supposed to work for HABS/HAER in what eventually became known as HALS, although at that point we had no idea what it was going to be called, and for many reasons that fell through.
So I found myself in DC without a job, it fell through literally at the last minute. I had met Hugh [Miller], and I went to visit him. I called and asked if I could come to his office at the National Park Service. Mostly I went not looking for a job in the Park Service but looking for something to do for the next eight or ten months till I went back to teaching. I knew that Hugh was very well connected in DC and that’s where I found myself. We talked for a long time, and then about three days later he called me and said he had been thinking about it and talking to folks and why didn’t I come back and visit him again. So I think that day, or the next day, I went in to meet with him.
Hugh was remarkable. He said to me “We have this problem, we know how to work with historic structures; we know how to work with archeological sites; we know how to work with natural landscapes; but there are these other landscapes in the parks where people and cultures have lived for years if not centuries and we have no idea how to address them, would I be willing to come and work on that with him?” Well that was kind of just a gift from heaven, from my point of view.
So when I went to work for Hugh, he basically said “help us understand this issue.” As I went through we refined it and refined it and refined it. Eventually, even though we had some early ideas, it was clear it wasn’t going to get done in eight or ten months. We applied for and got a contract from the National Park Service and decided to use Buffalo National River in Arkansas as our case study.
It was more than a case study it was a test case. In the middle of that contract, I moved to Oregon, taking the contract with me, but by that point all of the field work was done and I had a couple of great graduate students who came with me to finish their degrees at the University of Oregon and finish working on this project. We wrote the first guidelines for cultural landscape preservation, how rural historic districts work. Out of that came Bulletin 30 [Guidelines for Documenting and Evaluating Rural Historic Districts] and much work after that.
What other types of guidance documents have you authored?
In the early 1990s, Arnie Alenen [University of Wisconsin] and I got talking about the fact that there was a need for a book about cultural landscape preservation. We decided to do a reader. We decided that we would go after very good authors, we would give them topics, and we would edit it. That got delayed largely because of my work commitments at the University, but by 2000 it came out. It was Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America from Johns Hopkins Press.
Arnie Alenen and I co-edited it. We won three national awards for that book and more importantly there were people who felt that it really spoke to them and it really spoke to the kind of things that they were interested in. Subsequently, about three years ago, maybe two years ago, there was a meeting at Goucher College on landscape preservation. I gave the keynote and Richard Longstreeth from George Washington University was asked to edit a book coming out of that conference. Richard and I had taught together at Kansas State University, so I had known him for many years.
That was a book, kind of the next phase of thinking about landscape preservation [Cultural Landscapes: Balancing Nature and Heritage in Preservation Practice]. It was in that book I wrote what I saw as a very personal piece. I think some of the things we write are very technical and removed and very codified. I wanted to write a very personal piece about how I got involved in landscapes; what landscapes meant to me; and what I thought the challenges were, now going into the future.
What is an example of a challenge you see in the future for landscape preservation?
One of those challenges was to deal with issues of sustainability and the larger environmental movement. I wrote an article for APT [Association for Preservation Technology] this past fall, fall of ’09 on issues around climate change and landscape preservation. To me, without a doubt, this is the single biggest issue we’re going to face in landscape time. May not be in my lifetime, it may not be in anyone else’s lifetime that I know, but I’m absolutely convinced that unless major changes occur, there will be significant climate change. I think that will dramatically impact the way we think about landscapes, even how we define integrity, certainly how we define treatment. One of the things I say in this article is that we may have to choose some landscapes that we simply can’t save because of climate change even though they’re important, they’re significant. We may have to practice what I call “landscape triage” where we make some very, very difficult decisions because of climate change. I think this potentially could flip everything on its head. I mean that very, very seriously that a lot of the way we think about the desert, or about orchards, or plant materials that define certain landscapes, if the climate has changed dramatically enough then that’s all out the window, and therefore how we think about them is not out the window, but it’s going to take some hard rethinking.
How did you become involved in the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation?
I was talking with Bob Harvey [Iowa State University] one day and he was saying that they were just about to put together a very small group of people to meet to talk about landscape preservation. It was very vague and he knew it was vague. The organizers of that meeting were Bob Harvey, Susan Buggey [Parks Canada], Bill Tischler [University of Wisconsin], and primarily Tom Kane. Tom, as you may know, was a landscape architect out of Vermont and really early on understood many issues around landscape preservation. That meeting was in New Harmony, Indiana in 1978.
I rode my motorcycle from Kansas to Indiana and met these incredible people. There were maybe twenty of us there. I don’t remember the exact count. Susan Buggy was there of course. Hugh Miller [National Park Service] was not there; he couldn’t make it that year. We mostly spent the time sitting in a circle talking about what we were interested in and what mattered to us. For me it was an eye-opener, that there were other people out there who were asking the same kind of questions that I was and who I could really learn from.
At the end of that meeting we decided to meet again the following year and to form an organization. We decided at the very end, we went round and round– somewhere I have a notebook with the 15 different names we had — we ended up thinking it was really an alliance of people who were interested in landscape preservation, hence the name. Bill Tischler offered to host it at The Clearing in Door County [Wisconsin], which is where we met in 1979 and where I met Hugh Miller and Arnie Alenen. It again was a remarkably invigorating meeting because here were people who were working on issues that were of critical interest to me and critical interest them obviously, and people who I could talk to about it who didn’t say to me, “why are you even interested in this,” which is what I mostly got from other people.
What does the Alliance mean to you?
I always felt — although in recent years it’s been harder for me to get to Alliance meetings — I’ve always found that the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation is a place that really invigorates me, largely because of old friends who I meet and find out what they’re doing, and new colleagues who I meet and find out what they are doing. I love the size of it and the scale and the fact that we always go out and really look at landscapes, really investigate them and talk about them and it mixes both a very theoretical and practical side to all of this work. I think for me it only reinforces my very basic love of landscapes.
I recently wrote a piece that is in a book about the first landscape I ever knew in New York State as a child and I realize that a lot of that was reflected in my involvement in the Alliance. That the Alliance was a place where people, you know everyone from senior people to graduate students and undergraduates even would come to talk about their work, learn from each other and really share. And so often conferences and meetings are 300, 500, 2000 people and it’s impossible to really spend time, you spend your whole time in a hotel room. You never see daylight.
I think for a group like the Alliance really having a sense of being in the landscape is critical. It started with New Harmony, we did field trips in New Harmony. We did field trips at the Clearing and it became a pattern that we all, we not only just talked about landscapes we’re in them, we’re looking at them and we’re trying to understand them. So for me it’s still very vital and very, very important.
Recorded at the 2010 Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation Annual Meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico