Preservation in Newport

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Old and new that is respectful of old on Corso del Rinascimento, in Rome. (Steven Semes)

Preservationists have a vital but relatively simple job that has been made more difficult, over the years, by preservationists.

The purpose of preserving a historic building is to sustain the beauty it brings to its setting. How to do this should not be so difficult. The original architect has provided a blueprint; architects should follow that blueprint whenever repairs or additions need to be made. The same principle holds when new buildings are constructed in old settings. The new building should blend into the old setting as well as possible.

This ancient methodology was practiced by almost all architects up through the early decades of the last century. Since then, modernists have sought to disrupt the course of nature, and civilized preservationists have tried to yank preservation practice back onto its sensible historical track.

Steven Semes, a leading architectural theorist and head of the preservation program at Notre Dame’s school of architecture, shared his thoughts on the subject at the Redwood Library last week and led a discussion afterward that touched on examples from the preservation of Newport’s historic treasures.

I’m sure Professor Semes would not agree that preservation, as I describe it above, is quite that simple. But he would surely agree that preservationists themselves have, over the decades, made it more complex than it needs or ought to be. His lecture traced the historic ups and downs of preservation theory and practice as it has shuttled between the lodestars of continuity (good) and contrast (bad).

“I am speaking here,” Semes pointed out early in his talk,

about a visual and physical continuity of buildings and places, not a continuity in social structures, politics, economy, and other human arrangements. Buildings and places change more slowly than any of these, as we can see in looking at Newport, whose buildings, streets, and public spaces have changed uses but remain attractive, even if we live very differently from those who built these places.

He then refers to the “imposed gulf between old and new ways of building.” Note the word “imposed.” This “gulf” did not evolve naturally. Based on dubious historical theories (such as that World War I required a new way of building as well as new forms of rule), architects started discarding the old ways and embraced new ways in the second and third decades of the 20th century, and by 1950 had taken over as the establishment. The first attempt to codify preservation goals and practices came with the Athens Charter in 1931, which, as Semes pointed out, “emphasized the role of context.” He adds that “[i]n 1931, the Modern Movement in architecture had barely begun to be a factor … .” Indeed, H.L. Mencken that same year wrote in The American Mercury: “The New Architecture seems to be making little progress in the United States. … A new suburb built according to the plans of, say, Le Corbusier would provoke a great deal more mirth than admiration.”

The Athens Charter stressed what one Italian signatory, Gustavo Giovannoni, called ambientismo, translated as contextualism – in short, continuity. For example, he widened an old street near Rome’s Piazza Navona to divert traffic. On it he mingled old buildings with new ones of similar massing and style, and in so doing, as Semes puts it, “alter[ed] the specific form of a historical environment without radically altering its character, adapting the historic city to the needs of modern life.”

This sensibility was carried forward in America by Charleston, S.C., which created the nation’s first historic district in that same year. New Orleans, Brooklyn Heights and other cities, evidently including Newport, followed suit. John Tschirch’s masterful “Mapping the Newport Experience” suggests that the 1960 Tunnard & Harris report pushed back against urban renewal. It was commissioned by the Preservation Society of Newport County, founded in 1945 to protect the City by the Sea from the forces of contrast.

Meanwhile, however, back in Europe, founding modernist Le Corbusier had in 1925 proposed the demolition of central Paris, to be replaced by towers, parks and highways. Giovannoni’s effort to continue Italy’s ambientismo was reversed by planners employed by Benito Mussolini. Architectural historian Giulio Carlo Argan and the minister for public instruction, Guiseppe Bottai, overturned the earlier emphasis on continuity, arguing that it represented, in Argan’s words, “a double falsification with respect to both the ancient and the recent history of art.” That is, continuity required faking the past and imposing a false era on the current era. They sought a clear differentiation between what was built anew and what remained from the past.

That attitude prevailed in 1938, and in essence it was a prescription for the eventual elimination of all architecture prior to the supposed modern age. Thankfully, at least in Italy, Giovannoni’s ambientismo was reinstated after the war. All of the documents and controversies described by Semes in his lecture last week revolve around this dispute, and for decades it was the modernists who were winning, partly by purposely misinterpreting the language of earlier charters, treaties and such. Regarding such tomfoolery in the use of the Venice Charter of 1964, Semes says:

The misinterpretation of Article 9 results, in my opinion, from a deliberate misreading of the text by those, following Argan and [author Cesare] Brandi, who want to promote the opposition of historic and contemporary construction for ideological reasons.

We who attended Semes lecture saw this regrettable attitude in action during the question session when a listener challenged Semes’s suggested changes, drawn on a napkin, for a community center to be built by Trinity Church next to Queen Anne Square. In “Opinions differ when contemporary meets historic,” Newport Daily News writer Sean Flynn describes the moment:

The building was designed to look more modern from the side facing Queen Anne Square, but more like a traditional Colonial home from the side that would face Mill Street. “We did not want to build a fake historic building,” Rev. Anne Marie Richards, rector of the church, said at the time. “That would not have received approval from the Historic District Commission.”

But Semes was critical of the horizontal lines on the modern side of the proposed community center, and instead proposed a new façade with four columns, introducing vertical lines. … “We don’t think there should be thick columns on the façade of what should be a welcoming center,” Richards said. “We don’t want to put up barriers. We are a very different organization from when the founders built the church in 1726. There should be spaciousness.”

Flynn’s story has a fuller version of the discussion, but the takeaway, in my opinion, is the language used by Reverend Richards to suggest that Semes’s proposal (see images below) would have been inauthentic (“fake”), that the columns proposed by Semes would be “barriers,” and that a building must look modern in order to be useful in modern times (“We are a very different organization …”).

Surely the commission would have felt obliged to reject something called a “fake,” but maybe not something described as “inspired” by the church or something expressing continuity with the historic context of the square. Her remarks reflect the obviously false idea that a design that respects the past cannot serve the needs of the present. And Richards may be the first person in history to have asserted that a colonnade could be perceived as a barrier!

The point is that Richards was speaking not the language of design but the language of ideology. My guess is that her own modernist tendencies had already been put aside by the Trinity board, and she was worried that the design might continue to evolve toward continuity, that is, something the public might favor. So she spoke out to protect the remaining modernist portion of the design facing the square. (It seems to me that a building design that features two different and opposing styles on two different sides of the same building declares its inauthenticity from its rooftop.)

In any event, the Trinity board should make a choice, and that choice should reflect what it believes would be preferred by church members, not church officials, local elites, or the editors of architecture magazines.

Architecture is less about time than about place. If being about time means that only modernist buildings are appropriate for the cusp of the future – which will soon be an artifact of the past – then Newport and indeed the rest of the world is in trouble. So it is a very good thing that recently, as Semes so eloquently informed his audience, sense seems to be making inroads against nonsense, at least in the field of historic preservation.

(To see the design of the Trinity community center to which Steven Semes was reacting, click on the Newport Daily News website, which has the image right on top. I have not yet secured permission from Trinity or Northeast Collaborative Architects to use it.)

[Steven Semes will be speaking on the same topic in Boston on Monday, Nov. 19, at 6 p.m. in the Boston Athenaeum. The event ($25 members/$30 public) is sponsored by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.]

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Community center at Trinity as proposed by Steven Semes. (Drawing by Steven Semes)

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.
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