February 05 2014

Horrible Historic Preservation in 3 Easy Steps

Historic preservation has come a long way from the protesters in front of the old Penn Station in New York, and today it also focuses on issues such as placemaking and the revitalization of neglected buildings and neighborhoods. However, when it is done badly, historic preservation can hinder development and even unintentionally destroy what it aims to protect. Here are three misguided approaches to historic preservation, and some ways to prevent them.

1. Just fix it up it…you don’t need to find a new use for it.

Many historic structures, like private homes and institutional buildings, continue to be used because they still serve their original purpose well. Others are abandoned when maintenance and renovations become too expensive, when they become outdated or no longer suit people’s lifestyles, an example being the twentieth century movie palaces. Sometimes the key to preservation is to find a new use or a new public, perhaps in a way that retains the memory of the building’s original use. In Boston, for instance, this approach was used to revitalize Quincy Market. Transformation and adaptive reuse is easier for some types of buildings such as old factories, which in Boston and other cities have been successfully converted into apartments and artists’ studios. Cities and buildings are not static, but flexible and dynamic, and should be allowed to change and adapt to new contexts.

A city that is constantly transforming: Lima, Peru

However, is it more important to preserve the building itself, or the original use? What happens when a building can no longer fulfill its original function, and when existing laws restrict transformations and new uses? Some years ago in Miraflores, Peru, the palatial Marsano house was hastily demolished before it could be designated a historical landmark. On the other hand, the beautifully preserved Garcia Alvarado house survives, but no longer as a private home. Today, Miraflores is not a quiet town of ranchos, but a dense, bustling city of tall, modern buildings. Flexibility, new uses, and adaptive reuse, not necessarily protective laws, have been important in preserving much of Miraflores’ architectural heritage.

An early 20th century rancho house in Miraflores, Lima, Peru

2. Only the most beautiful, oldest, and beloved buildings should be preserved

Modernist buildings are often regarded as ugly and sterile, and face significant challenges for preservation and adaptive reuse. Boston City Hall, for instance, inspires both admiration and proposals to tear it down. However, we often fail to consider that many of today’s historic buildings and architectural styles were once considered unremarkable and even ugly. We cannot assume that what we consider “ugly” today will always be considered so. We may just end up destroying tomorrow’s historic architecture.

Boston City Hall

 3. Ignore the real-estate market, existing laws, and what the city wants and needs

In Lima, where demand for housing, office and retail space in the most desirable neighborhoods have increased the value of the land, old houses are constantly being replaced by new buildings. However, what happens when developers, government, property owners, and preservation advocates do not have a conversation? In Barranco, these conflicts were brought to light over the construction of an apartment building on the gardens of the historic Dasso mansion, which spilled into the cliffs, which are protected by law. Historic preservation is also about politics, property rights, control, privatization, appropriation, and public space. Ignore these issues at your own risk.

An old house in Miraflores, Lima, Peru gets demolished

What are the challenges of historic preservation in your own city?

Credits: Images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources.

Rosabella Alvarez-Calderón

Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon hails from Lima, Peru, a vibrant and noisy city with a rich history, ancient archaeological sites, Colonial churches, old art-deco cinemas, sprawling shanty towns (often decorated with posters in neon colours advertising a chicha or cumbia concert), glass skyscrapers, and a colorful public transportation systems that requires a sense of adventure, an instinct for navigation, and very short limbs to use successfully. She is a professional archaeologist who spent several years working in prehispanic and historical sites both in Lima and in northern Peru before coming to the United States, where she obtained a Master in Design Studies degree, with a focus on Critical Conservation, from Harvard University´s Graduate School of Design. She is currently based in the Boston area, where she combines her background and interest in archaeology with the study of how cities are formed and transformed, the nature and use of public spaces, adaptive and transformative reuse, and how can a city´s historical footprint, buildings and open spaces contribute to creating a sense of place and to inspire new urban design. Rosabella also enjoys exploring Boston and nearby towns on her beautiful 1975 blue folding bike and thinks of herself as “an archaeologist of the modern city”

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 at 9:13 am and is filed under Community/Economic Development, Government/Politics, History/Preservation, Housing, Land Use, Urban Development/Real Estate. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


One Response to “Horrible Historic Preservation in 3 Easy Steps”

  1. george thomas Says:

    Great stuff!! and I recognized the bike. Frank Furness was thought to be the maker of the ugliest architecture ever designed – and of course we now mourn all of his best demolished buildings. Boston City Hall is emblematic of the best architectural thinking of its time – breaking away from the glass box minimalist package of Mies to express all of the varied functions in its distinctive window openings — it might help to have some neon arrows -mayor’s office here, etc.
    When life changes cities change – and existing buildings and patterns often need to be replaced to serve new issues.

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