The author of one of my bibles, The Future of the Past, is Steven Semes, the Notre Dame scholar whose thinking pops up on this blog a lot. In 2014, he was named chairman of the new graduate program in historic preservation at ND’s school of architecture, and I am hopeful that his curriculum will reflect the wisdom of his 2009 book. Primarily, it argues that preservation should protect, maintain and augment the character of historic buildings and districts with a mind to retaining their original beauty and harmony.
For decades, preservation organizations have mostly lost focus on that goal.
Semes replied reassuringly: “The new MSHP degree program is more or less premised on the viewpoint of the book.” He added that its “viewpoint turns out to be increasingly mainstream.” He then described what he meant at some length, listing items of news of which I’d been unaware.
Most international bodies and charters setting up principles for historic preservation have, in spite of the modernist turn of their interpretation, for decades, by most theorists and practitioners, “pretty consistently called for harmonious new development in historic settings. … None of them are ringing endorsements of classical/traditional architecture, but an overview of the literature reveals that modernist contrast is not in any way mandated, nor is traditional work prohibited.”
A main exception is the Venice Charter, which is usually interpreted as supporting a modernist call for “contrast” in adding to historic buildings and districts. Some of Semes’s research has lately examined mistranslations in the charter. He writes:
That line in Article 9 about new work needing to “depart from the original composition” and “bear a contemporary stamp” is a mistranslation from the original French text. It doesn’t say that at all. In any case, the idea of “departing” from the composition violates two other articles (6 and 13) in the same Charter. Hence, the modernist interpretation is wrong.
Semes also shared news of positive evolution in the thinking of upper echelons of the American preservation movement.
Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, received a standing ovation after her talk at the Congress for the New Urbanism in Seattle last month. Her book, The Past and Future City, is a tribute to Jane Jacobs and the New Urbanists, bringing a strongly urbanist viewpoint to preservation – I would say almost for the first time at this level. There is more emphasis on preservation as a means of community identity and empowerment, and the old modernist-contrast school of thought does not advance that viewpoint very well.
Semes also notes that
[T]he recent statement “Preservation for People: A Vision of the Future,” published by the NTHP, calls for reform of the Secretary [of the Interior]’s Standards. I think things are changing fast and our program [at Notre Dame], once it is fully under way in the coming years, will be riding and leading a wave that is already in progress.”
This is very good news.
The standards for rehabilitation of the Secretary of the Interior are principles that must be followed to qualify for federal preservation grants. Over the years, the standards, administered by the U.S. Park Service, became de-facto guidelines for preservation at the state and local levels, but are frequently misinterpreted as mandating modernist contrast in additions and infill. With that phenomenon in mind, the standards were partly rewritten two decades ago to make such misinterpretation more difficult, but the phenomenon persists, and new language for the standards is being formulated, with Steve Semes in the midst of the proceedings.
The modernist demand for “contrast” reflects a concern that the alternative of “fitting in” will degrade the authenticity of historic districts by fostering confusion as to what was built long ago and what was built yesterday. Such concern, however, privileges matters of curatorial interest over the public interest, which is in the continuity of architecture and urbanism whose preservation arises, in the first place, from a love for their beauty.
Shown in a model on top of this post, a circa-2000 modernist addition was proposed to renovate the Masonic Temple (left, 1929, never completed), in Providence, as a hotel. The modernist addition had garnered the support of almost every preservationist organization in the state, none of which could bring itself to support a traditionally styled solution to the hotel’s need for more rooms. The Park Service rejected the developer’s request for federal historic tax credits, causing Rhode Island’s governor to throw up his hands in frustration and urge that the temple, which had stood unused for seven decades, be demolished. At the last moment, Sage Hospitality, of Denver, a developer willing to erect a more traditional addition, and of much lesser height, rode in on a white horse to save the temple. The hotel project was completed in 2007 as the Marriott Renaissance, pictured below adjoining a historic state Veterans Memorial Auditorium (right). Nevertheless, when the finished project received a host of well-deserved awards, the preservationist community here basked in the glow, forgetting its deplorable role in the building’s close brush with demolition.
All preservationist organizations, public and private, at the state and local levels, should pay close attention to news emerging from the movement’s leading theorists, including the National Trust. Decades of error that have eroded the character of American cities can and should be corrected to return preservation to its roots – and to what no doubt are the expectations of members who support the good work of preservation societies.
Click for more information about the Master’s Program in Historical Preservation at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture.