My wife is president of our county’s landmark society, and though my inability to tell a cornice from a frieze renders me a hapless consort in matters architectural—more Denis Thatcher than Hillary Clinton—I am nonetheless proud of her. For preservation seems to me far less an aesthetic ruffle than an emotional and spiritual necessity.

“Preservation” suggests to some a band of fastidious dowagers tidying up the houses of long-dead great men, polishing the silver and keeping off-limits the maid’s chambers and slave quarters. This is part of it, and a worthwhile part, too: among our family’s more embarrassing perversions is visiting the homes of the Presidents—I highly recommend the Warren G. Harding home in Marion, Ohio, abode of the best chief executive of this century. On the other hand, preserving the castles of the robber barons, or the dens of iniquity that domiciled the liars and mass murderers who have played so prominent a role in public life over the last 50 years, is a waste of effort. Preserving the boyhood home of, say, Robert McNamara, makes no more sense than memorializing the playgrounds of the youthful Jeffrey Dahmer.

Preservation in a small community is something much different. Our landmark society rightly honors the couple that restored the grand manse of the bleak turn-of-the-century industrialist who killed the man he found in bed with his wife—and was acquitted in the blink of an eye, in the 1884 version of the O.J. Simpson trial. (Saith the New York Times after the acquittal: “Rowell now goes free on a verdict which is so singularly ridiculous that the whole affair is calculated to place American justice in anything but a pleasing light.” Plus ça change and all that.)

But our society also honors, through video presentations and awards and a magnificent book, the less grand but more inspiriting homes and churches and shops within which life has been lived, and the daily made sacred, for two centuries. My wife and the rest of the landmark society (of which I am a sluggish director) know that the story of a town cannot be understood by a quick visit to the mansion on the hill.

When I walk the streets of my hometown of Batavia, New York, every building carries with it a fund of meaning and memory that can never be duplicated or replaced. There is the corner store in which I bought the Buffalo and Batavia papers for my grandfather every afternoon; here is the house in which I used to drink beer and play cards with my friends till the wee hours; there is the bleacher in which I sat with my parents and brother cheering our professional baseball team; this is the church in which we made our first communion.

But what happens when these buildings are gone? The memories remain, but the corporeal evidence of a life lived disappears, and we become as ghosts, strangers flitting through a strange land. Many of us leave, because our anchorage is no longer visible. When the signposts of our lives vanish, it does not make much difference where we live. One place is the same as the next—not hostile to our residence, but merely indifferent.

When I was a boy, the men who ran my city begged the federal government for urban renewal money, which they then used to knock down her core. In a very real sense they killed my city, and for years I despised them. But I have come to see that they were neither venal nor stupid: they had simply bought into the lie that Progress—by which her publicists mean the destruction of the past—is inevitable, and that those who resist “change” (which is seldom natural but almost always the result of intervention by governments or unaccountable corporations) are musty relics, doomed to extinction or, even worse, irrelevance.

To raze an edifice made venerable by time and life is as grave an act of desecration as toppling a tombstone. Nitwit teenagers, fired by booze, occasionally run riot through the Old Batavia Cemetery, kicking over markers as thoughtlessly as a mower scalps grass. They are, in effect, spitting on our forbears, but haven’t they had the best teachers: us? We removed the capstones, we kicked out the fundament, we erased the signs and markers that our ancestors had so carefully constructed for their heedless posterity. Wasn’t urban renewal—or “slum clearance,” as it was known in some cities, the racist implication being that the blacks and Italians would be swept away on a broom of federal dollars—merely the grown-ups going on their own headstone-toppling rampage, in broad daylight no less?

If you believe, as I do, that the dead are with us always, then preservation is the joyful duty commanded by love and piety. It enriches us as it honors our ancestors. A building carries within the ghosts of all who have walked its floors and run its stairs. Someday we, too, will be footfalls, grateful to those who preserve our old haunts.