PRESERVATION: THE NEXT 50 YEARS
Looking at the history of preservation over the last 50+ years in this country, we have a clear understanding of where we started, what the driving force was behind such landmark legislation as the NHPA and how it aided in the successful salvation of so many historical treasures that we still enjoy today. It was a rocky start and one that was reactionary only in it’s original form. But luckily we had men and women in positions of influence at the time who understood that history and historic preservation are not static, but rather fluid and ever changing. We can not and should not stand still in our work to preserve the past while allowing today to one day be expressed in future preservation efforts. So where does that take us? What will preservation look like in 50 years?
In order to get a handle on this question we have to first come to a right understanding of what preservation is and what it is not. Preservation organizations across the country agree in a classical definition of preservation. By that I mean “preservation”, as the word implies, is to preserve something that already exists. Preservation is NOT the manufacturing of historical architecture. In reading through several design guidelines publications from other cities (because I’m insane and obviously have nothing better to occupy my time with…..sarcasm) I came across an interesting line of text in the New Orleans guidelines, of all places. You would think that a place like New Orleans, with such a rich architectural history and much of it still on display even after the devastation of Katrina, would have more restrictive guidelines for new construction. But you would be wrong. As I read through the guidelines I was pleasantly surprised to see that contemporary new urban infill was not just allowed but seems to be encouraged as long as a level of sensitivity to existing architectural context is shown. And where someone might want to mimic or emulate a past historical style you find this sentence: “In cases in which a property owner prefers to construct a reproduction of a historic building type or style, the HDLC requires that all dimensions, profiles, details and materials match the historic building type or architectural style being duplicated exactly.” – City of New Orleans HDLC – Guidelines for New Construction, Additions and Demolitions, Page 5.
Now, I don’t know about you, but this to me is pretty strong language to be found in district guidelines. It puts a tremendous burden on the property owner to prove via their application that the “dimensions, profiles, details and materials match the historic building type or architectural style exactly.” All of the preceding guidelines within this section refer to general criteria such as scale, setback, site coverage, rhythm, spacing, etc. These are concepts that applicants must demonstrate within their design that do not show favor of any one particular style or genre of architecture, but instead allow a maximum flexibility bounded only by the existing context that will dictate the essential character of a new building. And the character of a building has nothing to do with it’s style.
Ok. I think that horse has been beaten beyond death. We all understand what preservation is and what it is not. We understand that our neighborhoods are not static and have not been created in a vacuum, but rather evolved over time and are very eclectic in their representation of architectural styles. That brings us back to our question – What will preservation look like in 50 years? Preservation, as an economic and community force, can not sustain itself. Our historic neighborhoods, while beautiful and charming and in many cases vibrant, will not stay that way indefinitely without fairly consistent new development to drive them forward. If we can not move beyond individual personal feelings on something as frivolous and temporary as style then not only will we have nothing representative of our place in time but we may also have nothing left of what has already been preserved. When a neighborhood can not sustain itself, when it can not attract new blood and new business, then eventually property owners will either move or pass on leaving no one behind willing to continue. Buildings fall into disrepair and eventually are torn down to make way for some new iteration of what someone thinks a neighborhood should be. Without forward momentum the past will die.
What do you think preservation will look like in 50 years?