The Evolving Field of Historic Preservation, Part II

David P. Wessel



One of the nuances that preservationists—especially conservation specialists like myself—love is when history and art meet. These situations provide all kinds of conundrums. Sometimes, the presence of historic art dictates a change in the current use of a building to give precedence to the artwork. Sometimes, the need to preserve the art must be balanced with the need to support the building’s primary purposes. And sometimes, the very nature of the art challenges our notions of what preservation is.


San Francisco, like a lot of other cities, has a number of buildings that date back to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) era. During my career, we began to see these pieces of architecture as historic and worthy of preservation. San Francisco’s Aquatic Park Bathhouse was built in 1939, begun by the Federal government as a WPA project and later taken over by the city. The lobby features an undersea-themed mural by artist Hilaire Hiler, and the main entrance incorporates an exterior bas-relief by the well-known African-American sculptor Sargent Johnson.


For a time, the building was a casino for wealthy San Franciscans. It housed troops during World War II. Later it housed the city-owned maritime museum and, in a space on the lower level that originally contained a hamburger stand and other concessions, the country’s first senior center. The building is now returning to its original use as an event and recreation venue. But the senior center is now part of its history as well. That later layer is also being preserved, in part because the new use fit so well within its original use. Now that the original murals have been restored, it’s clear that the spaces don’t function so well for exhibiting a few pieces of shipping heritage. In this case, the building’s original purpose tells us what is probably best for it. And given San Francisco’s economy, there is no shortage of demand for event spaces!



A historic building with more inherent complexity in its various uses is the landmark Coit Tower in San Francisco, owned by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, whose stated mission is to provide enriching recreational activities, maintain beautiful parks, and preserve the environment for the well-being of the community. The fees paid by visitors to ride the elevator to the top and look out over the city help the department’s budget.


The WPA-era murals at the base of the tower, which depict the harsh realities of the Great Depression, become more relevant every day, given what is happening in terms of income equality. In addition to being a popular recreational tourist attraction, Coit Tower is also a museum with a very significant cultural resource. But the recreation and parks department is not in the business of running museums. The preservationist has to be an advocate for not only the client, but also the building, balancing the demands for recreation, revenue, and cultural preservation.


At 500 Capp Street, I was asked to work with architect Mark Jensen on preserving artist David Ireland’s selective preservation of his own historic house. Here, the challenge is not to preserve a historic home, but rather to preserve the evidence of decay that interested the artist who occupied the residence. The home is the canvas. The art is the cultural resource. How did David Ireland interpret history? One thing he did was strip the walls down and put urethane on them. We have to know which urethane he used to know how to preserve his idea. This is a physical manifestation of his thinking. We can study the physical properties of his creation, but will we really know what he was thinking?


500 Capp Street


Perhaps a more extreme example is when I was called in by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to help stabilize a sculpture that consists of the destruction of an old house. Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Splitting: Four Corners” consists of four corners of a house that the artist sawed apart in 1974. Interestingly, the two-story house in Englewood, New Jersey, was slated for demolition, so it’s not as if the artist destroyed a historic landmark. These four corners are the only physical remnants of the house that remain. He thoroughly documented his disassembly of the house through photographs.


But what I think Matta-Clark is getting at is memory. A home is central to most people’s sense of personal history. When confronted with pieces that may have gone unnoticed during its existence—the four corners—what might an inhabitant remember? Or not remember? Likewise, when confronted with carefully restored murals, adobe that was never exposed, or wood that was whitewashed, what narratives are we layering onto the space?


In the field of preservation, we are working not simply with buildings, but also narratives. Every work of art also offers its own narrative, of course, which is subject to interpretation and affected by the passage of time and by changes in the culture. And preservation itself has its own evolving narrative. The more we understand the intersections of these narratives, the more complexities we see. That’s one of the beauties of working in this field.


Third photo courtesy of ARG Conservation Services.

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