POLITICS AND PRESERVATION
One would think that politics and preservation would make very ugly bedfellows, but in my experience the two are so well wed together that at times it can be difficult to determine any difference between the two. If you know me you know I am not one to shy away from political debate on any side of the aisle. In fact I welcome it and truly enjoy the many heated discussions that I have had with those of like and opposing minds. But when you throw Architecture and Preservation into a political arena…..well, lets just say I get “passionate” quickly.
In 2014 I was accepted as a new commissioner to the Little Rock Historic District Commission, which is a 3 year appointment. This is a seven member board and one position is reserved for a licensed architect. I’ve spent the last several years working in Historic Preservation and so I was recommended for this position by my boss at the time and I am very excited about the next 3 years. That being said, I have recently taken position as chair of the Preservation Implementation Committee (affectionately called PIC for short – I abhor acronyms), which is a committee outside the HDC. There are a number of goals for this committee, which is comprised of HDC Commissioners, city officials, preservation advocates and citizens of the district, but the main focus is to review the existing preservation implementation plan and identify recommended changes to more effectively encourage preservation and rehabilitation of our existing buildings as well as to encourage and incentivize the infill of the many vacant lots scattered through our downtown neighborhoods. As you can imagine this can be a volatile issue and we have many interested participants with as many differing views on the best way forward.
In conjunction with this new committee the City of Little Rock has hired a consultant to review our existing design guidelines and help us to propose changes, which the HDC will vote on, that will have a significant impact on the ability of those who would like to develop new projects in the district to do so in a style other than what is sometimes termed as “Replica Lite”, or modern recreations of styles that are native to a particular neighborhood. Last evening the consultant gave the first of several presentations to the Historic District Commission on their preliminary findings after reviewing our existing guidelines, surveying the existing contributing structures as well as past infill developments that have been done in and immediately adjacent to the district. I wish I had a copy of this presentation to share, but it should be a matter of public record soon. The goal of this first presentation was not to present any particular opinion but rather to simply relay their findings and offer guidance in moving forward based on public comment as well as a sense of the direction the Commission is leaning.
This is where I got “passionate”, a.k.a. loud, in expressing my opinions. Now, in case it isn’t clear, I am an avid preservationist. I love working to preserve our architectural heritage for future generations and advocating for stronger policies to accomplish this. HOWEVER the attitude of your average preservationist is that our historic districts are static and that any new development must reflect the contributing historical styles of that district. In other words nothing contemporary or modern because it “doesn’t fit”. The irony here is that we are effectively leaving nothing that will be worthy of preservation in the future. And this is a problem. We have so completely limited our view of preservation to extend only to what is currently “historic” with no eye to the future preservationists who will be turning their eyes back to our generation and our architectural record. What a very depressing day that will be.
During a recent board meeting one comment in particular from a citizen struck me profoundly and sparked the desire to write this post. The comment was that they were not in favor of new contemporary development because they felt it would damage the historic charm of the district. I have to attribute comments like this to a lack of knowledge, or an ignorance to architectural history, because the “charm” of historic districts like those in Little Rock and other cities all over the United States is precisely due to the eclectic collection of styles from multiple periods in time such as Victorian, Queen Anne, Italianate, Craftsman, Vernacular, Foursquare, Greek Revival, Colonial and others. Now, you can not tell me that a 1930s Foursquare built next to a 1870s Italianate is “appropriate”. They don’t belong. In fact the two are direct contradictions to one another. Italianate is very ornate with very tall first floor windows, high pitched gable roof, decorative brackets, gable vents, large porches with ornamental crestings and elaborate turnings. Foursquare, in contrast, is very simple and unadorned with a wide front porch, smaller proportioned windows, and very symmetrical with low sloped hipped roof and dormers. Yet it is this juxtaposition that citizens view as creating “charm” in a district. Is it such a stretch to suggest this “charm” would only be strengthened and heightened by the addition of contemporary urban infill that is respectful of proportion, scale, material, color and setbacks? After all, when each of the styles mentioned above were in style they were considered the contemporary fashion of that day. They took advantage of the craftsmanship and technology of the day to create new, modern architectural forms that we now treasure and work tirelessly to preserve.
When we look back in 50 years, what will be the architectural heritage that we leave the next generation? If you look around right now we aren’t leaving them anything but a lot of vacant lots, and the new developments that do go up in our districts are such a bland melange of incorrect styles and details that will leave most architects trying to claw our their own eyes. There is certainly very little worthy of preservation. We can do better. We have to do better. Our cities and future generations deserve better. We must preserve yesterday while also building for tomorrow. The two are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary and necessary.
Note: All views and opinions expressed here are my own and are in no way a reflection of the attitudes or opinions of the Little Rock Historic District Commission. All matters discussed here are a matter of public record.