The term historic preservation and other words associated with this concept gets thrown around quite a bit these days with respect to “renovating” and reusing old, with a bulk of public interest coming for the plethora of television shows on HGTV and the DYI network. Sometimes it’s in the proper context, and other times it is not. It is time to discuss exactly what historic preservation is within its proper context. So what exactly is historic preservation?
First, let’s look at the textbook definition….
According to the National Park Service,
“Historic preservation is a conversation with our past about our future.”
This is the most accurate definition of preservation as it is used practically today. It provides citizens with opportunities to ask, “What is important in our history?” and “What parts of our past can we preserve for the future?” or even furthermore “What parts should we preserve for the future.” While the answers to these questions with goals in mind have been debated, and continue to be debated through the years, the disciplines remain the same. Peering into the past allows people to look at their own history, as well as the history of others, through a different and lens and facilitate the conversation to ask what is important and what we can appreciate and learn from our history. Simply put, “Historic preservation is an important tool for us to transmit our understanding of the past to future generations.”
The goal of historic preservation
The goal at any level, is the identification, evaluation, physical preservation, and interpretation of historically and culturally significant places. Sometimes historic preservation involves celebrating events, people, places, and ideas, and other times it involves recognizing moments in our history that can be painful or uncomfortable. The past is, after all, a foreign country.
Now what does this mean? Well, sadly, not everything can be saved. That’s illogical and impossible. Even in the 1800s, long before the preservation movement began, earlier structures were razed or modified drastically with the change in architectural tastes. There was even a point in the 1950s and 1960s where beautiful Victorian structures were viewed as outdated and were razed at alarming rates. Various criteria and considerations have to be given to historic buildings, which can then be evaluated on their uniqueness and significance within the bigger picture of our built environment. Being old doesn’t necessarily translate as being historic. This in turn ultimately means that not all buildings are worth saving and preserving. One must consider the integrity of historic fabric within these structures and evaluate them accordingly. This is not a precise discipline, and it is one that preservationists sometimes disagree.
Architecture is considered the most fragile of all of the arts considering its very nature. Compare it to a poem or a painting, usually not exposed to the elements, which can stand the test of time. The unique character-defining characteristics of a building are not just a glimpse into a specific period of building history, but they are also representative of a culture and society in which they were built. Each region has its own vernacular take on building design, and each architect and builder was essentially an artist, leaving their canvas to display for years to come. It’s also a given that historic structures were also built with hearty materials, much of which is not present in today’s construction.
The scope of historic preservation
The scope today has expanded significantly beyond its original goal of saving the homes of prominent early Americans. What once was a niche field, those that consider themselves preservationists today can be found in architectural firms, city planning offices, historic sites, contracting companies, or working for historic preservation non-profits. There is even a niche market on television networks that has quite a following across the globe. While there is not always a consensus on appropriate historic preservation implementation across the board, preservationists appreciate the importance of our built environment and are committed to saving these valuable resources for future generations.
Ultimately, the purpose of historic preservation is to encourage the general public to integrate the past with the present and the future with a sort of conservation of cultural identity. For some its a job and others a passion. For me and most that work in preservation, it is both.