Traditional Building Portfolio

After the Roundtable:
Moving Forward in Preservation

By Steven W. Semes

During the Traditional Building Roundtable last October in Chicago, John Sandor, Architectural Historian in the Technical Preservation Services branch of the National Park Service, shared his viewpoint as a representative of the federal agency that produced and currently oversees implementation of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation. His remarks open up new avenues for discussion that we should pursue energetically.

For example, he pointed out that the Secretary's Standards (especially Standards Three and Nine), were originally written to address rehabilitation treatments for individual structures and were not intended to govern the management of historic districts. This is an important clarification because, in the decades since they were first published in 1977, the Standards have become a de facto national preservation policy as many state and local authorities have adopted them for their own use. Consequently, the Standards are often applied in cases involving resources, purposes and constituencies far different from those the original authors of the Standards had in mind. While the Standards have served well to promote and guide the preservation and rehabilitation of thousands of individual structures in the United States, their success in guiding new additions to those structures or infill construction in historic districts has been more mixed.

Seeking to move beyond the rhetoric of "differentiated…and compatible" enshrined in Standard Nine, John Sandor suggested that it is more important that additions to historic properties – and by extension new buildings in historic districts – be "deferential" rather than "differentiated." Given the purpose of the NPS grant and tax-credit programs for which the Standards were written, such deference is a reasonable priority.

Maintaining the visible primacy of the historic resource requires that new elements not upstage it, either by presenting excessive visual contrast or by being so large as to overwhelm the original setting. This argument places the emphasis where it belongs: It isn't about style; it's about character and intent. Deference removes the presumption of contrast and emphasizes "fitting in" rather than "standing out." Such language in the Standards would help to prevent projects which might otherwise undermine the character of our historic places.

But while a commitment to deference might preclude "transgressive" Modernist interventions claiming to be compatible on purely abstract grounds, it runs the risk of reducing the new design to mere inoffensiveness. The banal "background building" or unobtrusive addition to a landmark structure might be appropriate in some cases but cannot be elevated as a universal model if preserving the character of the setting is our aim.

Often the new is called upon not only to avoid upstaging the old, but to join it as a confident new neighbor. This requires tact as well as deference, as demonstrated in the addition to the Carhart Mansion on East 95th Street in Manhattan or the new Ralph Lauren flagship store nearby at Madison Avenue and 72nd Street. Both of these are deferential, both pass the "first glance test" of compatibility, and both also reward closer inspection. The secret of their success lies in their use of compatible styles and materials, rather than simply compatible volumes or massing.

In these cases, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (which approved these new buildings, neither subject to NPS review) exercised judgment considerably more discerning than is often shown by local authorities elsewhere, or by the local preservation groups that opposed the decision, or even in a number of the Commission's own previous cases. Many well-meaning citizens serving on local preservation commissions find themselves ill-equipped to make just these kinds of aesthetic judgments, and the NPS has not yet addressed the questions that John Sandor and many others have raised. So far, the NPS has released a new edition of its Preservation Briefs #14 including new illustrations and a broader range of examples. But if the Standards were not intended to guide the management of historic districts, and if the criteria of Standard Nine are potentially misleading because they put too much emphasis on "differentiation," where are local authorities to go for guidance on additions and infill projects in districts?

We can find examples of the needed leadership in non-governmental agencies like the Green Buildings Council or the Congress for the New Urbanism, both of which have succeeded in changing the way we think about a range of important issues. Just as the LEED standard allows us to measure sustainability in new construction and the transect and form-based codes have transformed land use and urban design practice, a similar consortium of professional, academic, public service and citizen interests could take the lead in redefining preservation goals in the United States today.

Such a body would survey the field of new architecture in historic settings, including additions to structures and infill construction in districts, define "best practices" in general terms, and identify examples that can serve as models for others to follow. The product of this effort would supplement the Secretary's Standards, supplying the guidance and exemplary models that would be of most use to preservation commissions, project sponsors, architects and planners, neighborhood activists and other groups. Conformance to the recommendations would, of course, be voluntary but, as in the case of LEED and the SmartCode, once the field recognized the value of the new standards, conformance would probably become widespread.

It would be best if the NPS exercised leadership in this area, but the other natural constituencies for such an initiative include the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, university programs in historic preservation, architects and urban planners recognized for their sensitive interventions in historic settings, the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, INTBAU, and representatives of "grass roots" preservation groups from diverse communities. An appropriate institutional sponsor or initiator would be helpful. Anyone interested in joining this effort, please let us hear from you.  TB


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