Most of my four decade career in heritage conservation has followed the arc away from the preciousness of the museum and toward what my old friend Randy Mason would call “values-centered preservation” – what the new generation calls “human-centered.” Yet the old stereotypes persist. Last Thursday I again heard that preservation meant you had to use the same kind of wood and you had to use only certain paint colors. Fortunately, many in the room realized those two statements were not true in almost every situation, so I did not have to explain it alone.
Twenty years ago I presented my first illustrated rant about restoring and replacing windows. It is the one arena where I exhibit preciosity, but it is also just simple good sense – you can’t make a new window as good as the old ones. The wood doesn’t exist. The rant followed a meeting with a collection of downtown building owners in Chicago who complained that if they were landmarked they would have to replace their windows with wood windows.
Twenty years ago, my reply: IF you can’t keep your original windows, I DON’T CARE if the new ones are wood, metal, graphite or even plastic as long as they look like the original ones. And paint color? There are HOAs that mandate paint color, but generally historic districts and landmarks DO NOT. I used to teach the famous San Antonio case of Sandra Cisneros (originally from Chicago) who got in trouble for painting her house a wild periwinkle color, but she won in court anyway and there are almost no places that regulate paint color, including here.
At The Conservation Society of San Antonio we have approved building grants in historic districts which use modern polymers rather than wood for front porch decking. I saw these products at the Historic Homeowner Fair years ago and I like them for a couple reasons.
Firstly, as with the windows, save the original, dense, fine-grained historic wood if you can. If you can’t, find something that lasts. Modern wood is rarely straight, never dense, and prone to decay. Secondly, this is South Texas where wooden porches are the sun’s favorite snack.
A major goal of heritage conservation is to keep existing structures around by repurposing them for the future. 95% of historic preservation is REHABILITATION – not restoration. There are a few museum structures that should be treated with utmost care and preciosity, but 19 out of 20 times that is not the goal. It isn’t even the goal for “museum” sites. My dear late friend Jim Vaughan wrote a great article in 2008 “Rethinking the Rembrandt Rule” that argued we have to stop treating every item in the museum as a Rembrandt. That is especially a problem in house museums, whose collections would be best preserved if they were NOT in an old building that we are also trying to preserve.
Moreover, if everything is “hands-off” there will be no hands raised when the site needs saving. That’s the point of human-centered preservation. Preservation is a community deciding what elements of its past it wants to bring into the future. AND the best way of doing that.
In the everyday, the prime directive for us is to help buildings, structures and sites survive to the next generation. That generation will have to save them again anyway. And they might decide to restore some to a museum standard. If we save them, even imperfectly, the next generation will have that option.
The developers of a much-maligned project in River Road have once again been denied permission to build on a vacant area in the historic district. This time they managed to get a feature article written around their failure, morphing from a case to a cause. The subhead calls it an “unpredictable process.”
Being an expert in the field, I don’t find it “unpredictable” but it has a quality that makes it difficult for the average developer. And that quality is literally Quality. Historic Design Review is a qualitative process, and most developers are used only to zoning, which is quantitative.
The first problem is that the qualities of projects like this case – design, landscaping, setbacks, and massing – are overwhelmed by the quantity. The goal seems to be to cram as much building as you can into whatever space you have available. You can add gables and porches and board-and-batten siding but it is still a big hulk. Over the last year, the 23-townhome project has changed design elements that we objected to, like front-loading garages (snout houses) and heavy lot line massing.
They would likely have been approved if they removed one more unit, but after 18 months of carrying costs and redesigns, they probably felt they couldn’t afford to. Curiously, they basically got approval from the Office of Historic Preservation staff, but could not get enough votes from the volunteer Historic and Design Review Commission.
But now that it is a feature article, let’s look at the bigger picture, which is quantity and quality and who is good at what they do.
See, the beauty of historic districts and historic landmarks is that they treat every resource individually. It is not a commodity that can be alienated. It is not a grain that can be graded and put in a grain elevator. There is not a solution from another district or another landmark that can be applied, because that would be a different individual with different needs.
Average developers do not have a good handle on qualitative issues. They are in the business of grading grain and selling it by the container load. Their business model has no room or capital for individuals.
Above-average developers, on the other hand, get the qualitative issues. They may even seek out historic buildings because they know they can get a 45% investment tax credit between the state and federal laws. And they are practiced, so the process is less unpredictable for them. They know the rules but more importantly they know that they have to approach each project with an eye open for its inimitable qualities.