Adele Chatfield-Taylor will speak at tonight’s annual meeting of the Providence Preservation Society. It will be at 5:30 p.m. this evening in the Providence Public Library. Last night, trying to finally decide whether to attend or to train up to Boston for a chapter board meeting of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, I listened to C-H’s speech accepting the 2010 Vincent Scully award at the Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
I will be at the PPL tonight. Chatfield-Taylor’s talk was marvelous. For a quarter of a century she headed the American Academy in Rome, headquartered in a mansion designed by McKim Mead & White for the Academy. She was a force for decades in American and international preservation circles. Her talk was a string of pearls on the subject, primarily, of historic preservation.
Although she herself at 70 remains a paean to the preservation of personal pulchritude, one of her overriding concerns was for the patina of age in buildings, which she said should not be blasted away by the desire to spend as many millions as possible putting a gloss on faded beauty. Preservation need not be so ambitous, and she noted that we often lose more than we suspect when we restore a building with too much vigor. Some of my favorite cities – such as Rome, Venice and New Orleans – are famous for respecting the process of growing old. They are cities down at the heels, to a degree, and that is good. Her words reminded me of why. Here is a passage from Chatfield-Taylor’s discussion of age in architecture:
A continuing worry for some of us was that once a building was rescued, those in charge seldom considered anything but a full-blown, multi-million-dollar restoration or reconstruction as a way to preserve it. And to this day it is, more or less, our favorite model of what to do. There were reasons for this – building codes, a lack of architectural elements available that fit old buildings, etc., etc. – but there was always also, it seems to me, a psychological factor, which was that as a culture we were still threatened by anything old. Old people, old buildings – that actually look old. We can accept old buildings that look brand new, but as a society we do not do well with things that are faded, wrinkled or decrepit.
Chatfield-Taylor made no mention, except perhaps by implication, of insensitive modernist renovations of or additions to these old buildings. Her speech contained no direct expression of dismay regarding the sort of architecture that has filled the space between beautiful and historic old buildings in the past half century. Yet much of what she said can hardly occupy the same sensibility with an approval of such things. Sure, one can shoehorn the lines into a text, but not speak them with authenticity.
So I will be interested tonight to hear what she has to say about preservation in Providence – which seems so concerned with saving Brutalist structures like the Fogarty Building and the Produce Terminal, and expresses so little interest in assuring that the spaces between the buildings PPS has saved are filled with new architecture that respects their setting and might be worth saving a hundred years from now (if they last that long).
Chatfield-Taylor said that “knowledge of Rome must be physical, worked up into the brain through thinning shoe leather. When it comes to knowing, the senses are more honest than the intelligence.” I would say that the senses are often more intelligent than the intelligence, so to speak. This is why people prefer the sort of buildings that historic preservationists used to devote most of their energy to save. That preference turned the antiquarian roots of preservation into the mass movement of today. Preservationists in Providence should keep that in mind as they listen tonight.
(Reservations are free but require registration via the Providence Preservation Society.)