Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Which building has to die? Which building is allowed to live? Why?

Architectural life support

In the classic car business, provenance and originality are everything. A highly original and well-maintained car may not look as “pretty” as a fully restored “trailer queen” yet in many ways its intrinsic value is so much higher to discerning buyers. So it is with buildings.

Is it imperative to preserve a badly decayed building that is already almost entirely destroyed by neglect? Or is the promise of a reconstructed “Disney Land replica nod to history” sufficient justification to destroy it? That is a question that continuously faces the Historic Preservation Review Board in Washington D.C. It’s very difficult to know precisely the “right answer” which is why periodically difficult cases are referred to the Mayor’s Agent as the ultimate judicial higher authority with binding legal authority. 

Of course once a building is reduced to a pile of bricks, by definition, it is no longer a building but simply a collection of old building material that can be reused in one way or another.

What is the “spirit of a place” and how does a particular building contribute? The author has come to the personal conclusion that in many ways, the decision making process in the restoration and preservation of old buildings has many parallels with classic car restoration. There are several critical influencing factors. 

2300 block of Connecticut Avenue NW
That said, given sufficient money and expertise, anything can be restored whether it is a car or a building. The hanging question is if it is worthwhile. When something is “one of a kind” or a very rare example by a famous architect or carmaker, it may be worth saving because of its sentimental and intrinsic value. Maybe an historic event happened in the building or perhaps the car won a famous series of races or was owned by someone famous.

If a building or a classic car has been looked after over the years and remains solid, there is really no reason not to reclaim it to former glory. If a building is a member of a collection of similar properties and is in good shape (especially if it is protected by designation in the National Register of Historic Places) there are arguably even more good reasons to restore the building. One would never break up a priceless service collection of china.

Much of the historic preservation decision-making process (as with cars) depends greatly on the life the building has led. Has it been abused? How much structural damage has occurred? Has it been neglected for years? Has it been modified beyond recognition? What is its contribution to the immediate area?
This was a cheap car to begin with (now approaching scrap value). The hourly basic restoration cost is the same for this car as it is for a high quality marque such as a Bentley or Aston Martin, yet after it is all done, the final value of the car will still be very low and cannot possibly justify the expense.

Is “replication” respectful or just a sop to the battle cries of preservationists as a small price to pay for their ultimate and self-regulating end goals written by them and to which they then become “obligated” to enforce? There are few clear guidelines in this rather murky area and each case will probably continue to be judged on an opinion-based foundation rather than by a matrix of scientific principles influenced by past judgments and reflection on the long-term outcomes of those judgments.

Incorporation can be elegantly accomplished and is always preferable to replication

In many instances, the mews of London that are so charming are 100’s of years old. However, there are important differences between London and Washington.  The London mews buildings (former stables) have usually been in continuous use and therefore maintained. Limited to the center of the city they have represented affordable housing to many, occupied by ever ascending waves of affluent occupants.  Washington D.C. in contrast experienced massive urban flight 60 years ago, plummeting from a population of 800,000 to 500,000 and was “architecturally unstable” from a preservation point of view.

Today Washington DC is experiencing a phenomenal surge of growth and renewal.
Sadly however, many buildings that have languished, been abused or abandoned during the long period of urban decay, have died an ignoble death due to either neglect or lack of protection. These small buildings are the fascinating faces of past lives, reflecting thousands of day-to-day human interactions that continue to speak to us. Maybe in this increasingly walkable, “green,” “smart growth,” city we can all slow down a bit and take some time to listen to their voices and their stories a little better.


Anonymous said...

So reassuring to know that I have kindred- well said and perhaps more " palpable" than inflammatory mud slinging - these buildings should be preserved or at a minimum be engaged with their forebears-

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your well-written appreciation of the old buildings and an analogy to old cars.

Very well written and adds clarity, vision, and possible second chances, or third for old buildings that didn't have the care such had in London and other parts of England. Quasi catch-up time. You still express a passion, but perhaps somewhat more philosophical.