Parsing historic and historical

John Carter Brown Library, in Providence, with 1990 addition at right. (Photo by David Brussat)

John Carter Brown Library, in Providence, with 1990 addition at right. (Photo by David Brussat)

Many older cities greet drivers with highway signs that say, for example, “Entering Historic Providence.” The capital of Rhode Island was founded in 1636, and the state’s youngest municipality, West Warwick, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013. Every city and town here may lay claim to being historic. But what brings tourists to “historic” places is not history but the quality of being “historical.”

Original 1904 John Carter Brown Library. (Photo by David Brussat)

Original 1904 John Carter Brown Library, facing Brown’s College Green. (Photo by David Brussat)

JCBL, George Street elevation. (

JCBL, George Street elevation. (

JCBL, rear elevation. (

JCBL, rear elevation. (

JCBL, rear elevation. (

JCBL, rear facade. (

JCBL, George Street facades. (Photo by David Brussat)

JCBL, George Street facade. (Photo by David Brussat)

JCBL, front facade. (Photo by David Brussat)

JCBL, front facade. (Photo by David Brussat)

Most people don’t visit great old cities because history happened there. They don’t visit Paris because Marie Antoinette was beheaded there, or Rome because Emperor Nero fiddled while it burned. They come because Paris, Rome and other great cities are beautiful. And as it turns out, their beauty, while historic, is more precisely historical.

The layers of meaning that separate history from historic from historical, when peeled away, come down to beauty. Because history happened, the places where it did so are revered by local citizens, who exert greater diligence to maintain those places and to make sure they survive. For the people of a historic city, venerating their sacred places amounts to venerating themselves, honoring their role in preserving history. But of course they are not preserving history itself, they are preserving the sense of history, the historic, which is to say, the historical. History = historic = historical = beauty.

The pressure persists in a great city to preserve, say, a historic building like Notre Dame or the Pantheon, and that pressure spreads to nearby buildings, and to the surrounding district, and to the broader city. But by then it has dissipated, and in the name of progress and economic development city fathers allow new buildings decidedly ahistorical (or anti- historical) in appearance to be built. If a certain basic intelligence and self-preservationary instinct prevails, these ugly buildings are shunted off to La Defense or other such suburban enclaves. Alas, this sensibility is difficult to maintain and was defeated decades ago in some of the greatest cities, and remains suppressed in most. The fate of London springs to mind, of course. But the effort to revive it everywhere is among the most noble of human endeavors.

In Providence, where poverty more than pride has kept built beasts at bay, the examples of this revival are few. Perhaps the greatest is on the Brown University campus, where the John Carter Brown Library was completed in 1904, designed by the same firm that built the John Hay Library of 1910 (for a photo essay on the Hay, see my recent post “Garden party in Providence?“). The John Carter Brown expanded in 1990. Its addition, designed by Hartman-Cox, actually fits in. Walking along George Street, most passersby hardly notice that it is new, and if anyone told them so they’d probably be astonished that the library’s board of directors did not summon the usual alien space ship instead.

To feel a sense of awe at the beauty of a new building is a rare sensation indeed!

And yet anyone interested in looking will notice that the addition steps back in numerous ways to let those who care know that the original and the addition were built at different times. But the fact that the addition doesn’t jolt you into awareness of its newness puts the noses of some people in the design community way out of joint.

I wonder if there are any architectural historians working at the John Carter Brown who embrace another word rooted in the word history. I refer to “historicist.” Those marinated in modernist archibabble use the word historicist to condemn new buildings that look like old buildings. “They copy the past!” “They should reflect their era!” “They should not be allowed!” Historicism is the theory that modernists use to block new traditional buildings. So there is nowhere a level playing field for major commissions between the architecture of the past half a century and the architecture of the past 25 centuries. That a city hall should look like a city hall, a bank like a bank or a church like a church is deemed the most rank heresy by conventional architects and city planners today.

This is why most people are turned off by the built environment. Ignoring it is a defense mechanism so ingrained by now that the design of new buildings rarely emerges as a public issue. Reviving the sensibility that creates beauty in the places we live requires shaking the public out of its understandable reluctance to participate in the design of their own cities and towns. The built environment should have as many defenders as the natural environment.

If this does not change, even the most beautiful municipalities will have to remove the highway signs that welcome people to their “historic” cities and towns. The architectural theorist Leon Krier pegged the truth in his cartoon below. Beautiful places build on their strengths. Ugly places kick their few strengths in the shin. A balance should be sought. Under the conditions of balance, I’d wager that beauty wins out, and quite swiftly.

“True Pluralism,” by Leon Krier. (Courtesy of the artist)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Architecture Education, Architecture History, Development, Preservation, Providence, Urbanism and planning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Parsing historic and historical

  1. Steven Semes says:

    David, without taking issue with your basic statement, I do think there is a valid distinction that should be retained between “historic” and “historical.” The first adjective means “history-making” as in a place or event that was a turning point or, in some way, makes us more aware of history per se. The second one simply means something that truly happened, as in an event that is documented as having occurred or the “search for the historical Jesus.” We call them “historic places” because they are significant, not simply because they “have come down to us in history.” To be “historic” implies a judgment as to the place’s importance, either for “historical” or “artistic” reasons. “Historic preservation” means the conservation of this significance, not just evidence that such and such happened to have happened. Current debates in the field are, as I see it, made more difficult because people have lost sight of this distinction, so they think that “historic preservation” means that every hole in the ground must be preserved if it has been there 50 years. That misses the point that preservation is for the purpose of acknowledging the importance of some, but not all of the “historical” built environment. It is the choices we make as to which aspects of that environment to preserve that shape the cities and landscapes of the future. Best wishes.


    • Steve, you are right of course, and I’m glad you have reminded readers of the primary difference between the two words, and of its importance, and of what we lose by neglecting that difference, which I certainly should have mentioned. But I am always eager to get to my main point, overeager sometimes, and hop over basic points that are elementary.


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