Elusive ‘why’ of preservation

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Hotel Pennsylvania, in Manhattan. (Wikipedia)

The Hotel Pennsylvania, in Manhattan, is said to be at risk of demolition again and of replacement by a building sympathetic to the current Penn Station. The old hotel, designed by McKim, Mead & White and opened in 1919, is across the street from Penn Station and near the Foley Post Office. The latter, like the original of the former, is also by McKim, Mead & White, the most successful architectural firm of America’s Gilded Age. The hotel’s Café Rouge hosted performances by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and the Dorsey Brothers. It boasted the most longstanding phone number in New York City (PEnnsylvania 6-5000, or 212-736-5000).

None of those facts are enough to cancel the hotel’s doom. Preservation organizations have not rallied to its defense. Its fate depends on whether New York – its citizens and leadership – comes to realize that preservation at bottom isn’t just about saving old buildings but the spirit of the city itself. That means preservation must rethink its raison d’être. Don’t hold your breath.

It is not surprising that preservationists hold so many conferences on what preservation is all about. The Providence Preservation Society sponsored one here last fall, the College of Charleston is holding one there in February, and another will be held by the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, on March 16-18, focusing on how to address those pesky heritage issues.

Preservationists are always wondering what they are all about because for decades preservation has allied itself not with tradition but with the rejection of tradition, not with history but the rejection of history, not with beauty but the rejection of beauty. Professionally and intellectually, the preservation movement now fashions itself rejectionist, and is thrashing around in bed with modern architecture, itself famously, callously, thoughtlessly and inexcusably rejectionist. But most people, including members of preservation societies, are not, and find themselves alienated from goals that they did not sign up for. That is why preservationist organizations hold conferences trying to understand – or pretending to try to understand – the very obvious mission for preservation.

Some preservationists and some of the work of preservation organizations still reflect a respect for tradition in architecture and cities, but most preservationists have gravitated toward a perceived need to defend unsympathetic new construction in historic districts or, in the relative absence of traditional buildings at risk in many cities, a perceived need to save utilitarian structures, including modernist buildings, that hardly anyone outside of their professional circles – including their societies’ members – gives much of a hoot about. Here is a passage from promotional literature about the UPenn symposium:

Concepts of heritage have evolved dramatically in the past 50 years, from the stately mansions of founding fathers to neighborhoods and landscapes, from sites of conscience to the intangible and ephemeral.  Throughout the world, leading designers have embraced the complex challenges of remaking historic places, creating sophisticated ensembles that range from seamless to provocative.

Nonetheless, the basic principles of contemporary design in historic settings, as first codified in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards in 1966, have remained unchanged.  The directives that additions and new construction in historic settings be “differentiated” yet “compatible” remains challenging, controversial–even mystifying—for designers, regulators, property owners and the general public.

Notice the effort to appear neutral as to tradition and its rejection. But you can easily imagine which leg the symposium’s thrill will travel up.

My post from last November looking forward to the Providence Preservation Society’s annual dance around this topic, “Symposium: Why preserve?,” wondered whether panelists would address whether preservation should return to basics. They did not. In Philadelphia they will, at least if Steven Semes has anything to say about it. The author of The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation, one of my bibles, is a scheduled speaker. In Charleston, I am on the schedule, so we’ll have to see what happens.

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, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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.
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6 Responses to Elusive ‘why’ of preservation

  1. Anonymous says:

    Someone should tell the conference organizers at the University of Pennsylvania that W. Brown Morton started crafting the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards in 1976, with a preliminary draft issued by the National Park Service in 1977. The first version of the final Standards were not published until 1979. The NPS’s own web site has the chronology (https://www.nps.gov/tps/standards/history-of-standards.htm), and the history of the Standards have been published in lots of books.


  2. “Preservationists are always wondering what they are all about because for decades preservation has allied itself not with tradition but with the rejection of tradition, not with history but the rejection of history, not with beauty but the rejection of beauty.” – I wouldn’t go that far – but yes – the fad to protect mid-century moderns – strikes me as ironic. The modernists hated history and were the reason HP sprang to life in the 60s. HP has issues – not the least being that when it became “enshrined in law” its focus shifted away from the heartfelt stuff – the why it matters stuff that the disparaged, mostly female pioneers were so good at, to 106 review, tax credits and the incessant focus on economic impact. Its bloodless and it astonishes me how few HP orgs care or are good at teaching and inspiring interest in buildings and things that are old and beautiful – walking tours, lectures, stuff that gets folks out and engaged. We’ve lost a generation – but let’s not blame historic buildings. Understanding fosters appreciation. We have to constantly teach and inspire.


    • William, this is a very thoughtful comment and I agree (with regret) wholeheartedly. For modernists, history was the file cabinet, or trashcan, into which one tossed architecture that was not “of our time” (in their conception). As I said, some aspects of the current preservationist program – holdovers like the tours, lectures and the like that you mention, still respect the tradition. And you are certainly right that it was modernism that posed a threat to that tradition, giving rise to the preservationist movement. Bloodlessness is a good work to describe most current preservationist concerns, and I think they will lose more members as the alien character of those concerns becomes ever more evident. And I certainly join you in warning against placing blame on historic buildings themselves.


  3. Anonymous says:

    Farley Post Office


  4. Anonymous says:

    David, I will certainly make my contribution to the conversation and am grateful to Penn Design and organizer Pamela Hawkes for setting up a diverse panel to look at these questions once again. I’ll be talking about what the decades of ICOMOS Charters and declarations have to say about new architecture in historic settings and–trust me on this–it’s not bad news at all. We just have to get people to read more closely what these documents actually say. Same for the Secretary’s Standards. The problem is not the document’s words, but the mainstream interpretation that turned it into a “rejectionist” prescription. (I like your use of that term.) Stay tuned, and thanks for the mention.


    • Thanks very much, Anonymous. You are perfectly accurate in saying the problem is not so much the language as the interpretation – often, I would add, the purposely misleading interpretation – of the language. For example, asserting to a developer or an architect at a design review meeting that the Secy. of the Interior’s standards phrase “differentiated but compatible” means your design must be “of its time” – that is, differentiation is the key. I’ve actually seen that happen. The developers are always clueless and the architects, who may not be clueless, keep mum. It’s virtually a jobs program for modernists. It is true, though, that the department’s guidelines for the standards could be upgraded to be more even-handed in examples of their meaning.

      I always expend a lot of hope on these preservation conferences but all too often end up tasting ashes. I hope the one at UPenn will be an exception.


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