The Evolving Field of Historic Preservation, Part I

David P. Wessel



When I started working in preservation, the field was marginalized. Few people were interested, and it was perceived as a kind of stepchild of the architecture profession. But over the last few decades, preservation has gone mainstream. It started with big battles like the ones over Penn Station in New York and the City of Paris and Fitzhugh Buildings in San Francisco. Celebrities like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Daniel Patrick Moynihan advocated for preserving the country’s architectural heritage. At the national level, the National Park Service codified the approach in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Local communities designated their own landmarks, and local agencies started rating buildings. Those standards became the standard. The U.S. government initiated a tax credit to create an incentive for private developers to save historic structures. This kind of government subsidy had tremendous impact because it affected the bottom line. But what created the most impact were changes in the culture and the marketplace itself.


For several decades, consumer demand and the relative low cost of fuel resulted in shopping malls being built across the country. These regional centers often decimated small towns and their historic buildings. While the efficiency of distribution and of automotive transportation made malls popular, their resulting homogeneity also spelled their eventual doom and sparked a demand for authentic historic environments.


First there was consensus about significant historic landmarks. Then people wanted historic places. In some cases, this meant accommodating the car. Pasadena is a great example of that model. There are some significant landmarks, like the city hall and the library, that everybody treasures. So downtown Pasadena built a number of vertical parking garages off its main street and restored its many minor historic buildings. These modest buildings as a group created a historic place or, as we now call it, a historic district. The concept caught fire: that modest individual buildings could, when grouped with others, result in a significant historic resource. This movement from treasuring a single dramatic landmark to valuing a destination made up of modest structures was significant in the history of the American preservation. The definition of preservation continues to become more and more nuanced and at times even philosophical.



Over time, the architectural practice called preservation became a commodity: “tick the preservation consultant box.” But historic sites and cultural resources do not represent only one point in time. They are a collection of experiences. How do you save those collections and let them live on and even continue to collect memories? We need to question what some of these standards mean in an evolving preservation culture. What is the best way to respect the original architecture or understand the meaning of the cultural resource?


We are constantly asking ourselves what the appropriate solution is, especially when we are adding onto a historic campus or estate. At Filoli, a property in Woodside owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, we designed a visitors center that complemented the original Georgian style. But at the new Huntington Education and Visitors Center in San Marino, we determined that the large new building should foreground the extensive gardens and the two historic structures, not reflect the details of the original structures. And when we added onto a small historic firehouse in San Francisco’s Presidio to accommodate modern firefighting equipment, we were inspired by existing forms and volumes, but our resulting design was almost modern. With historic buildings, each situation demands its own solution to carry on the life of the building.



On Russian Hill, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks department owns the Fay House, which has a garden by noted landscape architect Thomas Church. Currently, the park is open to the public, but the house is not. What is the best recreational use for the house that does not destroy it? This is where nuance becomes so important. Everybody agrees on the value of the historic site, but how best to define and share that value in accordance with the owner’s mission? Which aspect of the property takes precedence when there are limited resources? Sometimes it has to do with revenue generation, or community support, or political will—as well as the ability to balance these and find a reasonable compromise.


With preservation so widely accepted, there can also be a misinterpretation of history. It is not so much about what actually happened as what happened in recent collective memory. For example, most people think of San Francisco’s Jackson Square historic district as full of historic brick buildings. When Levi’s Plaza was completed in 1981, HOK used brick facades to emulate the nearby warehouses. But the truth is that many old brick buildings in nearby Jackson Square were originally covered with some kind of plaster. We are dealing with a similar situation in Monterey, where adobe structures were covered in adobe mud or plaster. Because the plaster has often been removed in the last few decades, most people think the original buildings were just adobe blocks. We had a dramatic situation with Doc Ricketts’ Lab, the modest wood building made famous in John Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row. We had to remove the siding to seismically upgrade the building, and we chemically analyzed the wood. It had been whitewashed. You can see this in an historic photograph too. But living memory says it was uncoated and weathered wood. So we were asked to return it to a later historic state—one most people living today can remember.


The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards have four areas: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. Our first job is to decide which set of standards applies to a specific project. Then we have to listen carefully to what the client is saying—and not saying. And then we listen to the building, what it tells us and what it doesn’t. Each layer of change tells us a story, if we are patient and experienced enough to unearth it. Some layers add history and meaning, while others take them away. We want to hear what history teaches, but we also want our historic and cultural resources to be useful now. There are lots of rules in preservation. But a solution comes down to experience, to subjectivity, to the nuance of the story as it was written, and to some degree how it might be written in the future. Stewardship takes place over a continuum of time.

The Evolving Field Of  Historic Preservation, Part II

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