New blog brings an artist’s eye to historic preservation

It’s part secret cinema, part New Yorker portraiture, part soft-boiled detective.

“Field Notes (,” the month-old blog on the website of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, takes a refreshing perspective on the local cityscape and brings a keen new voice to the preservation community.

The blog incorporates seldom-seen vintage film and recent video clips of historic or architectural sites on “Tube Tuesdays.” On most other days, “Unlisted” sites – those interesting buildings that have not made it onto the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places for one reason or another – are featured in photos and beautifully rendered architectural line drawings.

The principal artist/blogger is Ben Leech, who visits the unlisted buildings with the intention of finding out their untold story. The investigation will sometimes turn up the designer and history of the structure. Other times it just results in a few good narratives from current occupants or neighbors about the building in question. The journey and drawings are always enjoyable.

Leech, who joined the Alliance last spring as Director of Advocacy, explained that the blog takes an “experimental approach” to engaging interest in historic buildings. “I’ve found in my experience, not just in Philadelphia but other places, that most people really like old buildings, like being around them, and are curious about them, but they would never really associate themselves with preservation or architectural history. So this is a more populist approach to being aware of the built environmental – and its more quirky or mysterious aspects.”

The goal is to generate discussion, but also to find out more about little known corners of the city. “I would love it if people saw it and worked in the building 30 years ago and had a little story they could tell,” and add to “the body of knowledge about the buildings of Philadelphia,” Leech said.

Response has been positive to Field Notes so far, with a boost in audience generated by reference on the popular Philadelphia Brownstoner blog. Leech intends to enlist entries from other Alliance staffers and plans to elicit essays and anecdotes “from anyone.”

The videos are independently produced and may come from Alliance-sponsored events and tours. “We hope to encourage more of that. Otherwise it’s the standard Internet regurgitation,” he said.

Leech’s drawings really set Field Notes apart. “I feel like photographs are so ubiquitous that it’s almost more attention-getting to illustrate a building in a different way. What I’m hoping is that, sort of subconsciously, looking at a drawing and knowing it took longer to produce than a photograph will lend a gravitas to a building that might not be apparent in a photo.

“That’s the theory – that we’re communicating not just the building, but the fact that someone took a ridiculously long amount of time for dubious reasons,” he laughs. “It’s sort of honoring the building by making the drawing. That’s the idea of doing this portrait.’

Leech earned his master’s in historic preservation in Chicago in 2006 and had been doing “freelance National Register nominations and such.” When his wife sought a career move to study watchmaking, “of which there are not many places in the country,” they relocated to Lititz, Pa.

Leech worked for an architectural restoration firm in Lancaster where “work was slow, which allowed me time to generate this experimental website. I was coming from Chicago, where there was a very apparent interest in architecture; it’s a very self-consciously architectural town. Landing in Lancaster, and on the Eastern Seaboard in general, is such a different built environment, such a different landscape. It was really exotic to me. I was interested and also frustrated; there didn’t seem to be that same interest in the general public. Which isn’t true. It’s there, it’s just not on the surface as much.”

Alliance Executive Director John Gallery had seen Leech’s blog in Lancaster, and when he arrived suggested he try something similar in Philadelphia.

Field Notes is still finding its path. “The trick is to have a strategy,” Leech explained, and figure out “how we can integrate this into our mission. I think the broad thrust is that we want to find a new audience that might be interested in the blog without being – I don’t want to say intimidated or scared off – but I think there is a resistance to being identified as a preservationist in certain circles of people, especially my age, that it’s not for them. That it’s stodgy, elitist, or nostalgic folly.

“I would really like to disagree and am trying my best to show it in a different light.”

Future entries on the blog will include synopses of lesser known architects and highlights of their work, in addition to some creative games. “I want to keep it fun and lighthearted as much as I can,” Leech said.

The Alliance also has a strong point of view, of course, that will occasionally emerge in Field Notes. “I’m trying to keep the blog a little less confrontational, a little more non-partisan. That said, I think it’s an efficient way to let people know about some of our issues. When we have defined campaigns, we’ll use the blog to promote them. But I’m not sure if that will be it’s primary focus.

“It will evolve.”

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