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Stewardship, Reconstruction and Preservation in America

By Jona Harvey

When one experiences a beautiful building, the soul flies up. It quietly touches the reverent and imaginative places in our thoughts and connects us with the instincts and longings of the distant past, longings that lie dormant deep within ourselves. How can anyone conjure up a full-blown mental image of a wrecking bar violently destroying one of these evocative treasures, seeing heaps of exquisitely crafted interior and exterior heritage building materials lying in violent heaps, and call it fitting, with no look backward, no ache, and no dismay whatsoever?

We are shocked. We want to know who is in charge. We want to know what the government is doing about this. Who gets to say that an essential piece of architectural history must be destroyed? The answer: private citizens.

You cannot tell a person that he may not destroy his building. He has absolutely no obligation to fulfill any moral or aesthetic goal for his country or for posterity. In these situations, even the most powerful and expert preservation organizations exhaust themselves to save a building, only to discover that, once again, they can do absolutely nothing in the face of protected property rights. Further, the preferred solutions for getting rid of unwanted buildings involve total annihilation, because these are the cheapest methods.

When all avenues for preservation have been exhausted and the bulldozer is on the way, deconstruction/reconstruction is the only viable option to save a building from total destruction.

Man has been relocating buildings and architectural components since medieval times. In fact, the deconstruction/reconstruction solution was built into the very design fabric of timber-frame buildings from their inception. Barns, and even houses, were intentionally built using a collapsible mortise-and-tenon technique. These buildings were meant to be disassembled and reassembled, and they often were. It is a tradition in Japan to deconstruct a complex Shinto temple and reconstruct it in its original spot for no other purpose than the pure intention of honoring and displaying the architectural craftsmanship of deconstruction/reconstruction and the art of joinery.

Economic factors nowadays can play a big role in removing a building to safety. Comprehensive deconstruction services have a significant financial cost. Most often, a building owner has an enormous concern for the fate of an antique building but is constrained from saving it because of economic factors. Their hope to "sell" the building, even for a minor profit, is woefully naïve 80 percent of the time, as a thorough dismantling can be a lengthy, excruciatingly exacting process. The attendant costs for liability insurance, refuse disposal and site disposition are significant financial factors that must be accounted for.

The deconstruction professional, in turn, must be in a position to spend a significant amount of time on all the phases of stewardship that are required for a meticulous dismantling and be able to take on yet another building on a speculative basis and store it indefinitely until another private citizen purchases the building for reconstruction. Deconstruction professionals have taken on the task of saving a significant percentage of the heritage buildings in the U.S. single-handedly. For them it is simply the right thing to do and they're busy doing it. The truth is, they're heroes.

Yet at the end of the day, no matter how far they extend themselves, the rate of successful adoptions is far outrun by the daily loss of antique buildings and their attendant handcrafted building materials and structural antiques. The most insistent search is not for endangered buildings. There are all too many of them. The cry of the moment is for stewards to purchase the buildings so that we can save them. An antique building cannot really be considered ultimately safe until it has been formally incorporated into a project, with an insistently designed intention of 200 more years.

In the U.S., we currently have over 350 authentic, endangered antique buildings – some dating to the 17th century – waiting for adoption. They are in the care of professional deconstructionists and ready to be relocated. This is not the sum total of buildings that are endangered, but only those that have been identified as in need as of January 2011.

There are also antique building materials in hundreds of salvage yards all over the U.S. that have been rescued from buildings that were no longer sturdy enough to bear full reconstruction, and hundreds of architectural antique yards manage all our chimney cupboards, wainscoting and mantels. It boggles the imagination to think how much inventory of the highest craftsmanship, artistry and evocation is orphaned in this country.

The common fallacy of working with architectural antiques involves the execution of a mature design and then looking for artifacts to plug into it. The new philosophy of "design and find" involves selecting from the available universe of antique buildings, building materials and architectural antiques first and then executing an ever-reaching design process, while simultaneously keeping that same design open and fluid and maintaining the search until the comprehensive circle is complete. The inverse process, "finding after designing," reduces the amount of usable artifacts that will fit even a wide range of prematurely fixed metrics to below eight percent. We need exceedingly creative designers to come to the rescue right now.

In the U.S. we are often watching our best slip into the ocean, when it could be prevented. Deconstruction, relocation and reconstruction of antique buildings and their components is a nationally unexamined concept, a silent fringe activity with a very low public profile.

No one who is aware of the current volume of the destruction of architectural heritage takes any aspect of this journey casually. Reconstruction is often decried as being illegitimate and morally wrong in a false comparative equation with in-situ preservation efforts. Reconstruction is, in fact, its own preservation initiative and deserves to be actively articulated and promoted as such by all of the stakeholders who seek to save our architectural heritage. Positive alliances of these passionate, active stakeholders are long overdue. Potential clients for reconstruction opportunities too often think that relocating an original building is unattainable and remote when, in actuality, we have an alarming surplus that needs immediate attention.

Our antique buildings, building materials and architectural antiques deserve the chance for resurrection as in the past. No one had to tell medieval or Colonial craftsmen to "go green." We're better than this.  

Jona Harvey is a principal with Architectural Global Network, which serves as a national source for reconstructible antique buildings, architectural antiques and antique building materials. For more information, go to



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