Thompson Mayes Writes About the Relationship Between Old Places, Memory and Beauty

December 3, 2013
Thompson M. Mayes
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Thompson M. Mayes is the winner of the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation and Conservation and the Deputy General Counsel in the Law Department at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

What part of the United States did you come from?

I was raised on a farm in piedmont North Carolina, north of Charlotte, in an old farming community known as Ramah. I was surrounded by aunts and uncles, grandparents, a slew of cousins, great aunts, great uncles, and families we’d known for generations. It was a wonderful way to grow up.  People had a great appreciation for history and a long view of time. I think because of that long view, they also had an ingrained reserve and politeness, and a generosity toward quirkiness.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?  

I’ve been interested in exploring the underlying benefits of old places for years, and the Academy, with its community of fellows from the broader humanities, located in the eternal city of Rome, seemed the ideal place to think about historic preservation in the broadest possible way.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.

There are so many!  I’m astonished at how often I’ve suddenly realized during a conversation with a fellow Fellow, or on a walk or trip, that we were talking about the meaning of place.  Here’s a standout moment. The brilliant Dr. Kim Bowes led us on a tour of the Palatine Hill to discuss the origins of Rome, beginning with the archaeological site of the Hut of Romulus. As Kim explained the long preservation and archaeological history of the Hut of Romulus, my hair stood on end.  Here was a site that the Romans were consciously preserving, and writing about how they were preserving, in the first century A.D. if not earlier.  It was a preservation origin story that made me realize that people have been consciously preserving places for a long, long time.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?

I’ve learned a tremendous amount, but I also recognize how much more there is to learn, and a little of what I don’t know.  The other residents and fellows at the Academy have been incredibly generous in sharing information with me about people who have written about place from a wide variety of perspectives.  I’m trying to shape the project so that it’s open to all new information that people may contribute, now or in the future.  For instance, I’ll create an initial statement about old places and memory, but I hope – I will be delighted – if others contribute additional thoughts and information.

Have you had any "eureka!" moments or unanticipated breakthroughs in the course of your work here?

Yes.  I realized that I could stake out a position.  As a lawyer, my training is to be cautious and reserved in my judgment, even understated.  With this project, I recognized that I had a strong viewpoint, and that the project needed a strong viewpoint.  As I said in an introductory blog post on my project,  “I am an unabashed advocate for keeping, saving, and continuing to use old places. Immense and overwhelming economic and political forces cause the destruction of old places at an astonishing pace every minute of every day.  We see it in the loss of treasured places both large and small.  From the removal of a single, gnarled pear tree that has delighted us with its bloom in the spring and its fruit in the fall, to the inexcusable demolition of public buildings such as schools and churches that give our communities their identity, we are steadily losing our old places. The loss is a soul-destroying severing of people from place, identity, and memory.”

What aspect of your project are you most looking forward to?

I’m writing about the relationship between memory and old places now, and I’m excited about writing about the relationship between beauty and old places in the next few weeks. I think I’m most looking forward to seeing what the project looks like when I have a collection of the reasons that old places are good for people together in one place.  I’m not sure what form that will take yet, but I’m excited about the possibility.

What part of your project has been or do you anticipate will be the most challenging?

To date, the most challenging part has been marshaling the information that’s available about place, place attachment, and place identity, and assessing it from an “old places” perspective.  It’s a vast and diverse field of environmental psychologists, cultural geographers, sociologists, historians, architectural historians, public historians, architects, planners and others.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?

I’m stunned by the sheer volume of old places.  Buildings that incorporate other buildings.  Ruins upon ruins.  Spolia.  Baroque churches piled on Byzantine churches on Mithraic temples on Roman houses.  Archaeological sites.  Cobbled streets, 19th C. streetlamps, medieval archways, rusticated walls, doorways with keyholes with views, everflowing fountains, aqueducts, statues, chapels, dusky paintings, flickering candlelight, domes, buildings as Piranesi etched them and gardens as Edith Wharton saw them– it’s a fantastic dream of old places.  And the Romans are nice.

How have you managed the balance between your work (time in the studio/study) and engagement with Rome and Italy (travel, sightseeing, interactions with locals)?

Now there’s a challenge.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to focus on my project until I’d seen bits of Rome, so my partner Rod and I spent the first weeks walking.  We walked hours every day, seeing as many sites as possible, trying to do Rome 101.  I originally planned to spend the mornings researching, reading and writing, but I’ve discovered that I often need longer periods of time.  At the same time, the lunches and dinners at the Academy, and the travel, contribute to the work.  We went to the Venice Biennale for fun, but I immediately recognized that many of the artists were grappling with issues of place, history, memory and identity.  And, the local advisors are incredibly helpful and engaged.  

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?

I think of my project as an ongoing living project, which I hope others will also carry forward.  I hope that I can help contribute the broader humanistic perspectives of the Academy and Rome to preservation activities in the United States.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? or in Rome?

My favorite place at the Academy is the rooftop terrace.  In the morning, I often drink coffee and watch the sun rise over the mountains to the east.  In the evening, fellows may read or drink a glass of wine as the sun sets.  And at night, the city below twinkles with lights.  It’s beautiful.