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Preserving Historic Context

By Clem Labine

There's been a decades-long debate about problems created by non-contextual design of additions and new construction in historic areas. New Traditionalists generally agree that current interpretations of the Secretary's Standards by governmental bodies are the driving force behind radical design that is compromising the historic character of our nation's older communities. (See Traditional Building, Roundtable, February, 2011.) But it often feels like we're merely talking to ourselves; little has changed at the grass roots level. Now, suddenly, there are glimmers of hope that things may be changing . . . slowly.

One recent bright spot was the annual symposium of US/ICOMOS in Washington, DC. With the theme of "Respecting the Value of Context," the conference program examined the unfortunate impacts resulting from the Venice Charter and misinterpretations of the Secretary of Interior's Standards. Ronald Lee Fleming, FAICP, and Secretary of US/ICOMOS organized the panel in the hopes of pointing a new way forward.

As one of the panelists, I presented a critical appraisal of the mischief done by simple-minded interpretations of Standard #9 in New York City. The Standard's dictum that "new work shall be differentiated from the old" has been widely interpreted as license to insert any grotesque fantasy into urban fabric – as long as it's different. Many of the non-contextual projects I cited were done with the blessing and/or prompting of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Warren Cox, a founder of Hartman-Cox Architects, Washington, DC, gave a similar presentation showing unfortunate applications of the Secretary's Standards. He also showed examples of additions and new infill in historic areas done in a sensitive manner that preserved the character and context of the neighborhood.

John Sandor, architectural historian with Technical Preservation Services of the National Park Service (NPS), gave a presentation and played a constructive and key role in the symposium. He received close attention because he has over 20 years experience in interpreting and applying the Secretary's Standards in state and federal programs. Among the salient points he made were: (a) The Secretary's Standards were originally written to address rehabilitation treatments for individual structures and were NOT intended for management of historic districts; (b) Technical Preservation Services has attempted to address some of the contextual concerns raised by New Traditionalists by revising Preservation Brief #14 dealing with additions to historic buildings.

The most important change to the Brief are new images showing additions the NPS sees as architecturally "compatible" with original buildings. (And, indeed, the examples shown are more sensitive and deferential to the historic originals than in previous versions.); (c) Sandor also noted that the Standards are not prescriptive and don't attempt to dictate any particular architectural style.

In the Q&A session that followed, Sandor said he doesn't see any pressing need to modify the Standards because if they are read carefully it becomes clear that they do not prohibit sensitive additions in traditional styles. A commenter pointed out that "read carefully" is the nub of the problem: At the grass-roots level, many well-meaning members of historic district boards have neither the training nor inclination to dig into the subtleties of compatible or deferential new construction. It is much simpler – and easier – to seize upon the phrase ". . . shall be differentiated from the old" and simply green-light a vividly contrasting Modernist design.

If the Standards were not intended to guide administration of historic districts, and if Standard #9 is potentially misleading because of its emphasis on "difference," then what can be done to guide local officials on additions and infill projects? The most forward-leaning presentation at the Symposium was given by Steven W. Semes, associate professor of architecture and academic director of the Rome Studies Program for the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. In what was probably the most cogent remark of the entire Symposium, Semes noted wryly: "The Standards understandably prohibit any attempt to deceive us about what is modern and what is historic, though in my view the danger of such deception is greatly exaggerated. Does anyone really think that architectural forgery is a major problem in the world today?"

Semes suggested that one way to provide guidance for managers of historic areas would be to modify existing language of Standards #3 and #9 to bring them in line with contemporary theory and practice. Here's the clarification he proposed:

#3: Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, use, and building culture. Interventions shall not obscure perception of the historical development of the site, and interpretive materials shall be available to assist the public in understanding the site's changing character and significance over time.

#9: New additions, exterior alterations, or new construction shall be sympathetic to historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work may be in any appropriate architectural style but must be:

Deferential toward the historic fabric in terms of massing, scale, materials, and architectural features to protect the cultural significance of the site;

Identifiable as such so that, aided by suitable interpretive materials, the historic resource may be distinguished from new construction; and

Harmonious, avoiding unnecessary contrast with the historic fabric in form or material, to maintain the integrity and character of the site and its context.

The major point of agreement emerging from the Symposium was that the Secretary's Standards were not designed to impose alien Modernist intrusions on historic districts in the name of "differentiation." Unfortunately, few in preservation and architectural design understand that. Clearly, a vigorous communication program – probably starting with the state SHPO offices – is needed.

The revision of Preservation Brief #14 is a good start. But what are really needed are guidelines or a manual of best practices for historic district administrators. Let's just hope we don't have to wait until the next millennium for this to happen. TB



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