If I were to talk to each of our members, I’ll bet their paths to preservation work are as varied as snowflakes. The desire to pass on a place’s connection to history and tradition comes from deep inside a person! I confess that preservation spills over from my work as executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania into my personal life. In fact, the story I’m about to tell you has all the makings of a Hallmark Christmas movie. (I wrote about those last year.)
Santa’s Cabin on the Square
I live in one of Pennsylvania’s many charming small towns. It’s a great place to put on your favorite Christmas sweater and stroll among the merchants and restaurants. November marks the arrival of the Santa Cabin in the square, a town tradition dating back to 1936. Santa greets children (and adults), offering each person a candy cane and a snack bag of potato chips. (After all this is the home of Utz and Hanover is regarded as the snack capital of the world.)
Hanover’s Santa Cabin was the center of a preservation crisis that really deserves its own Hallmark movie! The first-ever cabin was constructed in 1936 from blighted chestnut trees and used for just one season. Due to the popularity of the cabin and the related boost for downtown merchants, a larger, sturdier cabin was built the following year (also from chestnut trees). Santa returned annually, even during wartime blackouts. In 2017, the decision was made to replace the old cabin. When I heard that my town might be losing a piece of its past, I decided to volunteer.
I admit that I only volunteered so I could check out the cabin’s condition and start my quest to save it. Local sentiment leaned toward repair rather than replacement and I thought my preservation experience would be helpful. However, the replacement decision was justified and the new building honors the old, incorporating many of its features and reusing a lot of the wood to craft decorative elements including the mantel and ceiling light fixture. The old window frames were reused as photo frames that document the history of the cabin. In 2021, the Santa Cabin is celebrating its 85th anniversary and the entire cabin experience only happens thanks to a great group of volunteers.
The Power of Believing
Here my story takes a bit of a mystical, Dickensian turn. That first year as Santa’s helper was when I began to believe in Santa Claus and I witnessed the power of believing. Children of all ages (from 2 days to 99 years) entered that cabin and I saw their eyes light up and felt their joy and excitement. How wonderful to believe that Santa would listen to their lists, their hopes and dreams, and perhaps bring them just what they wanted.
Last Christmas, when in-person Santa visits were cancelled, the Santa mailbox took on new priority. This year, I’m filling in as the “head elf” who manages Santa’s mail. Any letters with return addresses get a response from Santa. This experience of reading all the letters has been both rewarding and heartbreaking. Many of the letters pour out their heart and soul to Santa in the belief that he can work magic and make miracles happen. I can’t help but be inspired by those who take the time to think about what they really want and share it with Santa with a hopeful heart.
Wishing you some preservation magic
All across Pennsylvania, all year long, people come together to make magic happen. Just like the Santa Cabin, a lot of the preservation campaigns would not happen or find success without support: volunteers, citizens who attend meetings, volunteers who do research and share knowledge and show up when needed. We’re thankful for all the volunteers who are willing to give up personal time for a bigger cause. While some preservation challenges can seem as improbable as the child who asked Santa for a hippopotamus, we can perform miracles when we work together.
I think of this year’s Henry A. Jordan Award honoree, Sydelle Zove, who dedicated more than five years to rallying community support and challenging a developer’s plan to build townhouses on an important Underground Railroad site. Against all odds the developer withdrew, the township reached an agreement to buy the site, and there is [for now] a happy ending.
Jeff Marshall will receive the F. Otto Haas Award in honor of his distinguished career helping to preserve and protect historic buildings and landscapes across the state. His real passion and expertise are farmsteads and agricultural history. So even in retirement, he will be devoting time to furthering the work of the nonprofit he helped found, the Historic Barn and Farm Foundation.
Looking ahead to next year, when Preservation Pennsylvania will celebrate 40 years of helping people save the places they love, we look forward to connecting with you and honoring that bit of magic we each bring to the preservation movement.
We hope you will join us on Wednesday, January 26, when we kick off our 40th Anniversary and celebrate the two special preservationists mentioned above. The event’s keynote speaker is Bonnie McDonald, President and CEO of Landmarks Illinois and leader of the Relevancy Project, which aspires to create a national model for justice, equity, inclusion and diversity in preservation practice.