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"To erect a triumphal arch such as the Arch of Constantine using fragments taken from the Arch of Trajan was neither a restoration, nor a reconstruction: it was an act of vandalism, a resort to barbarian plunder."
– Eugene-Emmanuel Violet
le Duc, 1854

 

 

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The Salvage Dilemma

By Elizabeth Corbin Murphy, FAIA

We all know that preservation of the built environment is the ultimate in recycling. But while those in the conservation and preservation fields have had trouble convincing the "greenies" that preventing historic building materials from reaching the landfill en total may be more significant than saving one or two BTUs, a surprising phenomenon has occurred: pieces of historic structures, valued by the average citizen, have become readily attainable.

New methods of marketing, such as the internet, have allowed this once-restrained process to blossom. In his recent book, New Spaces from Salvage, Thomas O'Gorman writes that using reclaimed architecture is "unique" and "adventurous." More importantly, he proclaims that this practice is "big business, and getting bigger all the time." The implication therein is that use of architectural salvage has become mainstream. It is important to note that the use of salvage is not a new phenomenon. One premier example is the Arch of Constantine, which was built in 315 A.D. using pieces taken from the Arch of Trajan. Between 1450 and 1464, marble from the Roman Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater) was used to erect portions of St. Peter's Basilica; fallen pieces of travertine were also used to build the Chancellery, the Farnese Palace and the Senatorial and Conservatories Palaces. In 1664, travertine from failing arches was removed and reused in the Barberini Palace (every Roman knows that "what the barbarians failed to do, the Barberinis did"). Even Cathedral de Santa Maria in Pisa sports medallions cut horizontally from columns pulled out of Rome. Does the tower lean because of all the used parts?

Closer to home, one can find Stockbroker Tudor homes of the early-20th century where many of the architectural features were purchased as opposed to crafted at the time of construction. Vacations to Italy, France and England have long afforded the wealthy wonderful shopping opportunities for items that were not available "off the shelf." Salvaging has become a highly accepted practice as plaster ceilings, marble fireplaces and even entire rooms have traveled across the Atlantic (and sometimes the Pacific) Ocean to become integral parts of new American homes. Does anyone worry about the house of origin? Was it a baronial conquest – to the victor goes the spoils?

The practice of using European ornamental features in the United States has often dictated the design of new homes. The admiration of these beautiful pieces has restricted the proliferation of "modern" design among those who can afford the import. It is rumored that architect Marion Mahoney had a disagreement with Clara Ford over a modern fireplace design at Fair Lane. The imported pieces and imported styles prevailed. A more recent example – and a shining (literally) example at that – is the contemporary building built for Lloyd's of London and dedicated by HM The Queen in 1986. Designed by Richard Rogers, the building is well conceived and complete, except for the boardroom. Here, the 1763 Adam Room, stylistically incontinent, is inserted. One might argue that the Adam Room is a museum piece for all to experience as within the walls of a contemporary museum, yet the building and the collections are not open to the public. One can only contemplate the scar that remains in its original context as the Adam Room serves as the personal salvage collection of the board.

Don't presume that the practice of salvaging has always been viewed as acceptable. As early as 1854, Eugene-Emmanuel Violet le Duc stated: "To erect a triumphal arch such as the Arch of Constantine using fragments taken from the Arch of Trajan was neither a restoration, nor a reconstruction: it was an act of vandalism, a resort to barbarian plunder." And hence, the debate is fueled. Okay. So what seems to be the problem?

Design integrity has been assaulted and the salvage business is burgeoning. Rather than being restored or rehabilitated, many valuable historic buildings are being raided for salvage – and these parts often don't impart value to the new structure. "What can you tell about a chicken from a nugget?" asks Lauren Pinney Burge, AIA, a partner with Chambers, Murphy & Burge Restoration Architects of Akron, OH. "What can you tell about a building from its parts?" If one were to roast a whole chicken, one may still see the form of the chicken, hence the preservation of some design integrity. When the chicken is ground and reformed into regular sized and shaped pieces, it is no longer possible to recognize that chicken – an absolute loss of design integrity.

In terms of the currently regulated aspects of re-used building parts, the Secretary of the Interior's Standards preclude the use of any element that would allow a false sense of age or an altering of the stylistic integrity of an historic structure. Yet since the standards only regulate projects that utilize federal funding, many projects are without guidelines to preserve their historic or architectural significance.

Often a significant structure, recognized for its uniqueness, is bulldozed because it is old and its "cool" parts are incorporated into a new building under the guise of preservation. Perhaps this is merely an attempt to trophy the "cool" and to avoid the responsibility of synthesizing good design and recycling into the entire structure.

One such example is the Memorial School in Cleveland, OH, which was built in honor of the 175 children and one teacher who lost their lives in the Collingwood fire of 1908. The Memorial School was the first to incorporate a plethora of safety features to protect children from fire. The Ohio School Facilities Commission has determined that this historic school must be replaced, but it will also accept incorporating the decorative architectural elements into a new Memorial School. A few of the stone, brick and terra-cotta panels will be inset in the new colored concrete block building. Instead of a brilliant, refurbished and restored Neoclassical memorial to the victims, Cleveland must accept a memorial to the memorial.

The residential, adaptive-use residential and commercial markets for salvage material have burgeoned. Decorative, and sometimes structural, elements are sold, borrowed, salvaged and even stolen. Buildings appear with salvaged materials that are disproportionate to the rest of the structure or with decorative elements that are not at all complementary to the current style of the building. These issues are not just matters of poor taste. Because the built environment is a reflection of the culture in which it was built, the improper use of salvage tells an improper story.

Throughout the centuries, individual building owners have been selling their own parts as they attempt to meet the financial responsibility of caring for aging masterpieces. Pillaging progress is noted through the 20th century by watching the skilled and artful shopper. The magnificent urban department stores had whole departments of decorative items from historic structures. One may search the not-for-profit groups (often, ironically, historical societies) that rely on their architectural salvage businesses to fund their programs. Salvage warehouses and antiques markets are the for-profit equivalents.

Where does the skilled and artful shopper go now? The World Wide Web. By going online, one can now purchase a 16th-century limestone mantel from England (salvaged once in England and once again in New York). Entire rooms are also available and can be shipped anywhere. "Help save American heritage and earn cash! We pay a finder's fee for quality architectural salvage," boasts one website. "We offer the service of consultation and removal of these precious items," boasts another.

Not all of these businesses are legitimate. A New York Times article from last fall tells of a displaced New Orleans photographer who went home to work on his house only to find that his cypress ceiling beams had been stolen and his roof had subsequently collapsed. Volunteer architects and contractors assisting the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans had to remove a proliferation of signs offering money for decorative building parts.

Other examples of illegitimate salvaging include the bowling pins that were stolen from one of the first residential bowling alleys ever completed by Brunswick. They were advertised on the internet and the price was so high that the director of Fair Lane could not afford to buy them back. Chandeliers from Grand Central Station that disappeared during restoration reappeared on the internet – for sale. The FBI followed an advertisement on the internet to a person's home to claim a piece of the Statue of Liberty. Where does it go from here? The problem is escalating, and those of us in the fields of conservation and preservation are searching for solutions.  


Elizabeth Corbin Murphy, FAIA, is a partner at Chambers, Murphy & Burge Restoration Architects, Ltd., in Akron, OH, a firm dedicated to preservation and restoration technology and design. She is also past chair of the Advisory Group for the American Institute of Architects National Committee on Historic Resources.

 

 

 
 

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