Looking Backwards

Dr. Jeremy Wells studies the allure of historicity

Bethany Vaccaro
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Dr. Wells at a 19th century structure original to Ferrycliff Farm, which is now the present-day Roger Williams campus Photo by Melissa Stimpson

When Dr. Jeremy Wells, assistant professor of Historic Preservation at Roger Williams, was growing up in Colorado and Idaho, his parents would often take him to visit the old mining ghost towns in the mountains. He was fascinated by what he saw and the sense of the thousands of people who had lived and labored there. “I was also intrigued by what I perceived as the way these places were utterly authentic,” he remembers. “Only nature had changed them since their abandonment.” This was the beginning of his captivation with historic places.

But it wasn’t until his late 20s that Dr. Wells discovered that historic preservation is an actual career, with professionals working in a wide variety of areas from planning, design, materials conservation and regulatory compliance to historic site interpretation and advocacy. Today, he focuses largely on the area of historic preservation planning.

“I am particularly interested in people’s values for and emotional attachment to historic places,” he says. Using social science research methods, he is able to help inform preservation planning decisions and present ways that historic buildings and places should be conserved to retain their authenticity. “Historic preservation is really about sense of place and quality of life,” observes Dr. Wells. “It’s why historic places around the country have some of the highest property values, because a lot of people really enjoy living and working in these places.”

To help us understand our attachment to old places, Dr. Wells has conducted research in places such as Charleston, SC. There, he compared residents’ place attachment between a historic neighborhood and a New Urbanist development across the river. “I was trying to understand what it was about a ‘historic’ or ‘old’ place that made people value and experience it differently.” The age of a place can have a tremendous impact on residents’ emotional attachment to it.

“My hope is that this sort of information can lead to better planning decisions,” says Dr. Wells. “Historic preservation has for too long been framed in terms of preserving historical facts or benefitting buildings. It’s about people, and we therefore have a lot to learn about people’s values for the historic environment.”