Sunday, September 28, 2008

“A Tour of My Losses: A Quarter Century of Preservation in Washington”

Lecture by Sally Berk*

The National Trust for Historic Preservation - Latrobe Chapter

On Tuesday September 23rd 2008, Sally Berk* gave a moving lecture of personal reflections on her life over the past 25 years as an historic preservation activist. She shared her personal principles of architectural preservation. At the end of her lecture Ms. Berk issued a challenge for others to continue her work in historic architectural preservation (for she is retiring) and a plea to support efforts to preserve St. Martin’s Convent and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

Preservation is good business.
Preservation building work constitutes 50% of the building efforts in Washington D.C. and accounts for a financial contribution that is equal to that of new construction ($9.5 billion dollars for preservation and $9.5 billion dollars for new construction).

Preservation is about managing change and not about preventing it.
Change is inevitable. It is wiser to learn how to manage change and have an active and guiding hand in that process than to attempt to thwart it and lose the opportunity for melding preservation and change.

Preservation is about continuing the historic context.
The background of an area in terms of its legacy (such as music, the arts, and commercial buildings) lends a hand in contextual historic architectural preservation of that area.

Preservation is about respecting the historic context.
The juxtaposition of new construction that does not respect the historic context of the building or the area diminishes the historic legacy of the properties.

Preservation is not about copying history.
Some areas of the city that are generally thought of as “historic” have sanctioned new construction that mimics 19th Century architecture, thereby becoming a caricature of their past. Historic replication is not a substitute for historic preservation.

One should be able to read the layers of the city.
As one walks through any city, one should be able to read the layers of the past as each new era’s unique style of architecture is graciously interdigitated with that of the past. Each layer should be recognizable and appreciated for its era’s contribution to the overall gestalt of the building or collection of structures.

“Demolition isn't the only threat to historic sites. Equally threatening can be alterations, additions and new construction that comprise the iconography and/or integrity of the site. The preservationist, therefore, has the responsibility of managing change to the historic artifact. Writing a landmark nomination and obtaining historic designation are only the first steps in an ongoing process that can be controversial and contentious -- and sometimes with luck -- enormously rewarding.”

F Street Lament, Michael Berman, 2000

* After twenty-five years of preservation activism, Sally Berk has a long list of rewarding, vexing, and in some cases, unresolved preservation efforts to her name. Ms. Berk, who holds an undergraduate degree in architecture from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in preservation from The George Washington University, also served as president of the DC Preservation League from 1995-1998.

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