Thursday, March 4, 2010

EDITORIAL: Balancing the Preservation of Historic Homes and Districts Against Freedom of Choice


Author Stephen King once wrote that some people would buy a bag of manure as long as it was an old bag of manure. The obvious inference was that sometimes people overvalue things just because they're “antique”.

I'm sure there are people who feel the same way about the various preservation societies and historic district commissions that now regulate ownership of historic homes in America's cities and towns. However, I'm not one of those people.

I remember when my husband and I were looking for our first house, we found a beautiful old Colonial in an historic town. The house was over 350 years old. You could literally see the evidence of the home's age: Deep window seats with paneled inside shutters; a hearth that took up one whole wall; even an old root cellar that had once hidden runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, there was also an unattractive (though spacious) addition to the house that was clearly done in the late 1960s or 1970s and which clashed badly with the original house style. It was sad to see that the architectural integrity of this house had not been preserved or protected in its entirety. We didn't end up buying that house, but I do remember that we had determined that if we were to make the purchase, the first thing to be done would be the demolition of that addition.

Oh, I admit there's a small part of me that feels it's somehow “un-American” to tell people what they can and cannot do to their own houses, right down to the style of mailbox they can have; that the price paid for an historic structure includes the somewhat disturbing subordination of personal will and design preferences to that of the outside world.

However, there's a far bigger part of me that firmly believes in the imperative of preservation of our historic buildings and homesteads. From a practical perspective, restoring and preserving the historic districts in America's cities and towns aids in raising property values. Moreover, some states offer significant tax credits and low-interest loans for renovation and preservation of historic homes listed on the National Register.

Far more important, however, is the fact that once you destroy a piece of history, you can never replace it. We've all heard stories about the widespread destruction of amazing historical structures hundreds of years old in wartime Europe or the destruction of Imperial Russia's distinctive architecture that symbolized Russia's rich pre-Revolutionary history. It leaves you with a hollow feeling, a loss of something beautiful and irreplaceable.

In this country, it was not long ago that there was an all-too-frequent habit of demolishing the old to make way for new construction. With the tunnel-vision mindset of a “throwaway” society, urban decay in particular was reason enough for use of the wrecking ball. Today, we are seeing fewer and fewer such examples due to the relatively recent formation of historical preservation societies and commissions, in addition to enactment of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's United States Rehabilitation Standards. And that can only be a good thing.


To be sure, there are aspects of “preservation codes” that give me pause and make me wonder how much is too much. After all, everything from paint color to external light fixtures to gutters, chimneys and fences is subject to town scrutiny. Still, it's understandable. Small changes to a building's historical features at some point will erode the integrity of the original design, until it becomes just an artificial facade or replica pretending to be an authentic piece of the past.

The question is, at what point (if at all) should the past bow out gracefully and give way to modern styles, preferences and conveniences? After all, even historic homes themselves often have mixed, or “eclectic”, features, as the original homeowners throughout the decades and centuries have modified their exteriors to more closely mirror the styles of the day. Today, a homeowner of those same homes would not be allowed to make such modifications, at least not without a “Certificate of Appropriateness”, and probably not at all.

Furthermore, over one-half of the land in cities like Newport, Rhode Island is designated as part of the “Historic District”, leaving a limited amount of room for architectural innovation. While protecting our past, it's important that we not turn our living, breathing cities into museums, either.

In the final analysis, what is worth preserving and what is not is open to a lot of interpretation. Is something worth saving merely because of its age or do aesthetics form part of the equation? Is a post-War ranch from the 1940s or a 1960s Cape Cod style house worthy of preservation merely because they define a particular era in architectural history? If not now, how about in one hundred years? Two hundred? Is there a point where new construction becomes tomorrow's historic treasure? To be honest, I really don't know the answer to that. But I do know that there must be a place where we draw the line and respect diversity and freedom of choice.


For me, one definite place for drawing that line is at the increasingly popular development of planned communities like Celebration, Florida. It may be argued that such communities are establishing the standards now for future generations, and that while historic preservation societies throughout America are safeguarding the past, towns like Celebration are nipping the erosion of its “neotraditional” style in the bud before it can take hold.

However, here's the flaw in that argument: Historical societies and their associated regulations are designed to preserve the character of homesteads and buildings that reflect their importance in history. Part of that character is the unplanned imperfection of truly old buildings: The wavy appearance of “bulls-eye” glass panes in the windows, the slightly askew and uneven nature of the clapboard siding and the lintels cresting the paneled wood doors. Such “flaws” are like a fine patina, telegraphing the human hands that were at work centuries ago, along with the passage of time. Also, the very diversity of historic districts tells the story of that city's and America's architectural history through the ages. They cannot be duplicated, no matter how often replicated, because they are uniquely original snapshots in time.

In contrast, the hefty “Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions” that informs a town like Celebration protects the appearance of a perfect but artificial facade far removed from the human touch, a movie set of small town America. It's no more real than a tableau from Disney's own “Pirates of the Caribbean” thrill ride.

And to my mind, if you're going to restrict people's freedom in designing their homes, there needs to be a more compelling reason than that of mere conformity for conformity's sake. Now that is un-American.

Just my (humble) opinion. What say you?

Inset photograph: Entrance to Honyman Hall, Trinity Church, Newport, RI.
Copyright 2010 - All rights reserved - Pamela Yeaton

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