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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
Arch-i-text: The question of preservation

I freely admit to having a passion for collecting thoughts, ideas and concepts expressed in the written word. I delight in reading and periodically rereading particularly insightful books and articles contained within a collection gathered over the past 50 years.

This past weekend I spent a few hours in my digitized archive of old journal articles gathered in a folder I’d named “Limits to Heritage Preservation,” rereading a series of academic opinions around the issue of what criteria a city or town should apply to determine whether a building should or should not be saved.

The consensus position among these authors was that simply because a building is old does not constitute a good acid test for preservation. The author of one of these articles suggested that if such were the case, 50 years in the future, every surviving unaltered Walmart store would be considered a treasured heritage building.

Now, while none of these authors discounted age as a factor in the preservation equation, every one of them were of the opinion that it was only one consideration.

Another one of these considerations could best be termed as “significance.” In other words, does the building speak to our shared historical experience in a fashion that illustrates the time, place and social context prevalent when it was constructed? Further, is that illustration sufficiently unique and demonstrative?

And, even if a building meets these criteria, is its particular illustration worthy of preservation?

To use an extreme example, I doubt we could find a single proponent who might suggest any one of the “Indian” residential schools as a potential candidate for preservation. That said, scattered across Niagara-on-the-Lake are surviving examples of the “Help Houses” (see my June 23, 2021, column) which, despite their modest form, are absolutely “worthy” as a positive reflection of the socio-political-economic platform that allowed the town to survive through most of the 20th century.

Then we have the “association” consideration, referring to an established connection between the building and one (or more) individual(s) who participated in a historical event(s) or had a lasting influence on the society in which they lived. Note that the association cannot be minimal and/or transitory, such as the oft made claim in the U.S. northeast that “George Washington slept here.” It must be either the site of a pivotal event or have a direct linkage of some reasonable duration.

Adding to this list, one must consider form. That is, whether the architectural style or building form (in vernacular builds) is distinct and representative of its type in the historic context. Bluntly, a shack built in 1890 and remaining unaltered over the intervening decades will still be a shack in 2021.

Finally (in this article), is the question of function. Sadly there are some buildings that have outlived their usefulness and cannot be repurposed or be subject to adaptive reuse.

As the architectural historian Harry Sanders said, “Heritage must contribute something or it only serves itself. Without function, it is merely form …”

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