Heritage conservation is forensic – that doesn’t just mean “crime scene,” it means an argument based on evidence.When we restore buildings, we often talk of “forensic” evidence. Let’s say I was restoring the balustrade above my front porch and I did not have original drawings or even decent photographs of the building. I could look along the wall to see if there were traces of the original balustrade where it met the wall. Forensic evidence. Not exactly a crime scene, but a mystery solved with forensics.
Fortunately, I had both a trace of the original balustrade AND the original drawings, so it is easy to authentically restore the missing feature. The buildings of central Warsaw could be restored following World War II because there were precise measured drawings of them. In contrast, the bizarre argument to restore the 1836 walls of the Alamo has no forensic evidence and very scanty documentary evidence – the walls themselves were rebuilt and dismantled again with months of the battle, and while we can find foundations, we have no accurate idea of their height or appearance.
And sometimes forensic evidence can outweigh things like construction drawings. When examining oxide jacking in Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House a few years ago we found steel shims that had been used to level some of the vast glass frames that form the walls. These would not be discovered from drawings but happened during construction.
Of course, there are other kinds of evidence, and in the old days people restoring buildings often used questionable sources, like when the architects restoring Jane Addams’ Hull House in 1965 used an 1897 painting made by someone recalling the buildings’ 1857 appearance, with a hipped roof. So they built a hipped roof.
The only problem with that was that PHOTOGRAPHS showing a gabled roof existed from the 1890s. Oops.
That’s the house background left. Like I said, Ooops. But this happened a lot in the early days of heritage conservation. I am living next to a mill that we know existed in 1824 and which Miss Ernestine Edmunds – who lived in the adjacent house – painted sometime in the early 20th century. When the architects came to reconstruct the mill in the 1960s, there was only one adobe wall left, some foundations and the painting. The reconstruction doesn’t match the painting.
It seems likely that forensic evidence – the foundations in this case – guided some of the reconstruction, but as to the placement of the water wheel, it seems aesthetics may have ruled over evidence. Arguably the painting itself privileged aesthetics over accuracy.
It is important to recall that international standards for reconstruction were updated in the 1960s and have been again several times since, and today evidence is pretty much a prerequisite. Fortunately, we live in an era when technology is increasingly leading us away from dramatic physical decisions that can destroy evidence, as outlined in my earlier blog here.