News for preservationists

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Proposed circa 2000 addition to Masonic Temple, in Providence, nixed by U.S. Park Service, risking demolition of building at left, later renovated as a hotel with traditional addition.

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.

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Marriott Renaissance Hotel (left) after its completion in 2007. (Goldstar)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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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4 Responses to News for preservationists

  1. Pingback: Changing cities in China | Architecture Here and There

  2. Steven Semes says:

    Thank you, David, for this post and for your kind comments about our new graduate program in historic preservation at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. As a specialization in the architectural field that emphasizes the role of design in preservation, the curriculum is open to those with previous degrees in architecture or interested in pursuing one. Those who would like to know more are invited to begin by consulting the webpage at https://architecture.nd.edu/academics-programs/graduate-programs/ms-historic-preservation/ or they may contact me directly at semes.1@nd.edu. Best wishes for the summer!

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  3. Thank you, William. I wrote a column in the early ’90s asking why a plaque stating the date of an addition was not sufficient to take care of the authenticity problem. Ever since, I’ve never heard a plausible reason why not. By the way, I will go to my post and add a link to Amazon for Steve’s book.

    Coincidentally, I just moments ago received a note from Professor Khan at RWU, whom I had asked (along with Dean White) whether RWU would be willing to host a book event for my book,
    “Lost Providence,” which comes out Aug. 28. He said their schedule was booked through next winter. I said spring were fine. So we’ll see what happens.

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  4. William S. Kling says:

    Wonderful column, I will have to check out Mr. Semes’ book. I am reminded of when, after getting my degree in Historic Preservation from RWC in 1979, National Trust rules were that additions/modifications should contrast so as to be obviously not original, not necessarily to poke one in the eye. Replacing a front stoop (probably rebuilt 1960’s) and rear deck (c.1970’s) on a mid-19th c. Greek Revival, the owner and I agreed on semi-Victorian with mahogany porch boards, and I chiseled the date into the pressure-treated underpinnings just to make sure. Happy summer, David.

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