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Most people do not know or care that the tower at Independence Hall was built almost 100 years after the building, carefully following the design principles of the original and creating a seamless addition. Would this kind of design have been approved today? Photo: John Cluver

 

Opinions

Preserving Tradition

By John H. Cluver

It is time for historic preservation to fully embrace traditional architecture. While on the surface this may seem like a contradictory, or even silly, statement, those who have ever attempted to put an addition onto a historic building or to design a new house in a historic district have acutely experienced the biases found within the preservation community against the continued practice of the very type of architecture that they are striving to protect. In a quest for a level of historical purity that is noble in intent but flawed in practice, we are finding ourselves in situations where we are in danger of eroding the very thing we are trying to protect – namely, the historic character of the building or district that we find so wonderful.

Preservation as it is practiced today is a relatively new phenomenon, at least compared to the history of building and architecture. Most will trace its roots back to the mid-19th century, and to the efforts of Ann Pamela Cunningham and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association to stop the destruction of the home of George Washington. Their success led to a growing appreciation for protecting our national treasures, and over the next century, countless buildings, parks and neighborhoods were saved from uncaring demolition in the name of progress. The first half of the 20th century saw the range of preservation activities expand beyond iconic buildings to include historic districts and vernacular structures, slowly at first, but then with an increasing scope and momentum as the 1950s and '60s saw rapid declines in some of our oldest, and most historically rich, cities. By 1966, the modern preservation movement had been born – rehabilitation standards were created, commissions and review boards were formed and valiant battles were fought to prevent the heavy-handed intrusions of highway building, urban renewal and modernization. More recent decades have seen further focus on issues such as the economics of reuse, the relationship between sustainability and preservation and issues related to preserving the legacy of mid-century Modernism.

During the course of this evolution and expanded scope, however, something very important was lost – namely, a respect for the traditions that created the very places that we were willing to lay down in front of bulldozers to protect. In the course of defining a building as historic, we somehow transformed it from part of our living, breathing present into a museum piece from the past. It became something to be preserved – documented, labeled and put on display with a sign that said, "Do not touch!" Not literally, of course, as the preservation movement did a wonderful job of encouraging owners to find new uses for old buildings and to modify old buildings to meet the needs of today. Instead, this fetish for the past was evinced in an obsession with creating a distinction between the then and the now. Buildings and districts were given "Periods of Significance," a useful tool for identifying what made them special, but at the same time putting a definitive barrier between the past and the present.

Up through the early-20th century, when an old building needed to be changed, expanded, or "modernized," it was done using contemporary practices that were part of the traditional continuum that created the original. It is true that the changes often were drastic, frequently involving extensive changes to or wholesale demolition of something that we would fight for with fervor today. Somehow, however, the knowledge of building traditions that was still in place back then created new work that not only was useful and modern, but was truly harmonious with the original. These newer creations, despite being larger, taller or built with finer materials, not only contributed to the vibrancy and the character of the place, but in fact also resulted in buildings and districts that we have deemed historic and worthy of protecting today. But then Modernist principles became ascendant, and they turned their back to history. We lost our traditions, the continuum was broken, and much subsequent new construction became machine-centric intrusions that disrupted our historic patronage.

While we have rediscovered the beauty and the allure of our historic buildings, it is now time to relearn their lessons and apply them to our modern designs. Since the creation of the Venice Charter and the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation in the 1960s, additions to historic buildings and districts have been obliged to be differentiated from the old. This is frequently understood to be a demand for work that is "of its time." This, in theory, is sound, and of and by itself is not problematic. Architecture has, throughout its history, created additions to buildings that were "of their time," yet remained harmonious with the original. The perceived need to create a clear visual break with the past is a modern artifice that runs counter to the traditions used to create the places that we are trying to preserve.

Consider how additions were made in the past to some of our most historic buildings, and how they would have been received had they been proposed today. The U.S. Capitol was started in 1793 and was an important national landmark by the time of its completion in 1826. The building we see today, however, includes the large Senate and House wings, started in the 1850s, the magnificent dome completed in 1863 and an extension of the east porch around 1960. While this latter addition carefully replicated what was already there, the 19th-century work was built in a manner that is different and distinguishable from that which came before. It still manages, however, to create a seamless whole, because the designs were part of the same architectural tradition – despite being created two generations after the original.

The tower of Independence Hall was built in 1828, replacing the demolished original tower of the then almost 100-year-old building. Despite being built in a different time (and in a different country for that matter) and at a greater height than the original, it feels perfectly appropriate because the architect, William Strickland, chose to design it in keeping with the building's Georgian origins. The distinctions between the new and the old are indistinguishable to most, yet none would dare call it "historicist," as surely would happen should such a design be proposed today. Our only viable option would have been to faithfully reconstruct the original tower, depriving us of the pleasures of the more magnificent and iconic second tower.

The Virginia State Capitol was designed by Thomas Jefferson and built in 1788; the House and Senate wings were added in 1904. This addition blended beautifully with the original, complementing Jefferson's temple to democracy without calling undue attention to itself or feeling the need to emphasize its temporal discontinuity. Had this addition been proposed today, it can be said with a high degree of confidence that it never would have been approved, and most likely would have been dismissed as creating a "false sense of history."

So where should we go from here? How do we regain the ability to add to our historic buildings and districts in a way that truly complements them, while allowing them to continue to grow and evolve and meet the needs of a modern society? The key is to re-engage the past in a dialogue with the present, and to understand that traditional architecture can still be modern. By embracing the common language found in our historic buildings and applying its lessons to our designs, we would again be able to design traditional additions to our districts and landmarks, without the fear that we are somehow diluting our historic heritage in doing so. Instead, by fully embracing our building traditions, we would be able to truly respect our history and create places worthy of preserving in the future.  

 


John H. Cluver, AIA, LEED-AP, is a partner and the director of preservation at Voith & Mactavish Architects, LLP, of Philadelphia, PA. He received his professional degree in architecture from the University of Notre Dame, and a Certificate in Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania. Cluver has worked on a wide range of rehabilitation projects for a variety of educational, commercial and civic institutions, both as an architect and preservation consultant. He is a member of the City of Philadelphia's Historical Commission Architectural Committee, and was recently named Young Architect of the Year by the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA.

 

 
 

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