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What We Build Is More Important Than What We Save

Historic preservation is useful and important, but it implicitly assumes that we cannot equal our best historic architecture today.
Penn Station.

One might imagine that historic preservation is, by definition, a conservative cause. “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set,” the Book of Proverbs commands (22:28). The reality, however, is that the preservation movement in the United States is now guided by professionals who subscribe to a historical and cultural relativism largely antithetical to traditional preservation and to a liberal interpretation of American political and social history.

In the United States, historic preservation’s 19th-century origins lie in the desire to maintain buildings and sites of extraordinary significance. In the decades after the city of Philadelphia purchased Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in 1816, the former statehouse was restored as a civic shrine. Other major preservation initiatives included the successful mid-century campaign by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association to purchase and maintain George Washington’s Potomac River estate; the passage of legislation, in 1889, allowing the pre-Columbian Casa Grande ruins in Arizona eventually to become a national monument and first national park site; and the creation of the first national military parks at the Civil War battlefields of Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Gettysburg during the 1890s.

The architectural merit of buildings like Independence Hall and Mount Vernon could only strengthen the case for their preservation. Considerations of aesthetic as well as didactic value similarly inspired John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s ambitious project for the restoration of Williamsburg, which got underway in 1926, marking a broadening of preservation’s scope from individual buildings to architectural ensembles. In 1931, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, landmarked its magnificent Battery district and enacted the nation’s first historic preservation ordinance.

The designation of places like the Battery, Old Town in Alexandria, Virginia (1946), and the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. (1950) resulted from the architectural standard they set. But it also reflected a new and unprecedented motive for preservation: a loss of confidence in American civilization’s capacity to build as well as it had in times past. Though advocates of the steady broadening of preservation’s purview see it as an indication of the nation’s increasing cultural maturity, one could just as easily regard it as a symptom of cultural decadence. Indeed, preservation’s emergence as a major cultural movement is closely associated with one of the great harbingers of the collapse of American architecture: the demolition, in 1963, of Charles Follen McKim’s classical masterwork, Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, and its replacement with a dismal modernist urban-renewal complex. This catastrophe led to the establishment of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, and it also contributed to the passage, in 1966, of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).

Unlike earlier preservation-related legislation in this country, which mainly pertained to the conservation of significant historic, archeological, and natural resources on federal land, the NHPA created a national preservationist infrastructure. It led to the establishment of state historic preservation offices in every state and territory. These offices maintain inventories of historic properties and work with “certified local governments” (CLGs) at the county and municipal level that qualify for federal grants under the act. As a rule, CLGs, which numbered nearly 2,500 by 1999, have enacted historic preservation ordinances and incorporated preservation guidelines into their zoning codes. Because land use is regulated at the local level in the United States, it is these ordinances that are of immediate consequence for the owners of individually landmarked properties or “contributing” buildings in historic districts. They establish the conditions under which a historic building may be demolished along with design review boards that consider significant exterior alterations.

The NHPA’s passage is a matter of almost macabre irony in that the federal government’s proverbial right arm used it in an attempt to limit the damage it was inflicting, through urban renewal, with its left. In the very year the act was passed, urban renewal and the plague of ill-considered architectural mega-projects and cross-town expressways it unleashed on the nation’s traditional urban fabric got a huge boost courtesy of the Model Cities Act. More than ever, in other words, historic preservation was now a remedial movement that treated symptoms rather than the disease. Needless to say, the movement has been synonymous with public hostility to modernist architecture, a routine ingredient of the urban-renewal recipe. In the decades since the NHPA was passed, legions of urban districts or neighborhoods, varying widely in degrees of architectural distinction, have secured designation in order to protect themselves from the scourge of architecture and urban planning at odds with the sense of cultural continuity most Americans want their built environment to impart.

But that protection has proved inadequate where new construction in designated districts is concerned. This is the result of the advent of an academically trained bureaucracy, itself a result of the vastly increased scope of preservation activities at the national, state, and local levels. This new bureaucracy largely transformed the movement. It introduced a new concept of preservation grounded in the naturalization of Western ideas of history and culture. Professional preservationists thus tend to subscribe, like art and architecture historians in general, to a historical relativism that conflates the deterministic, anthropological, German-romantic concept of culture as a vast organism spanning the range of human activities, which flourish and degenerate in tandem, with non-teleological notions of cultural evolution derived from Darwin.

This relativism does not regard history as normative. It regards it as a mere process. It has therefore deprived the term “historic” of meaning, and largely deprived the preservation movement of its idealistic character in doing so. Indeed, an essentially documentary orientation underlies the Charter of Venice (1964), which gave birth to the foremost international preservation organization, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which is headquartered in Paris. The charter also exercised a decisive influence on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, first issued in 1976, which set forth the very exacting criteria the rehabilitation of income-generating “historic” properties must satisfy in order to qualify for federal investment tax credits.

The Standards decree that “each [historic] property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use.” The traditional idea of transcendent significance is hardly in evidence. One of the Standards’ crucial stipulations, moreover, is that the “historic integrity” of a given architectural specimen be maintained in perpetuum. Any appendage must be readily recognizable as historically distinct in order to avoid unscientific confusion with the original—unless, of course, that appendage is itself “historic.” This utterly paradoxical guideline has provided carte blanche for unfortunate modernist additions to old buildings. It underlines the severe limitations of preservation grounded in “science” rather than a humanistic appreciation of design. Indeed, preservation’s documentary ethos has resulted in the exaltation of “authenticity.”

Authenticity’s merely sentimental value, however, is overlooked. And though many professional preservationists quite subjectively regard modernist architecture as “authentic” and traditionally oriented contemporary design as “fake,” there is little indication that the public subscribes to this view. Academic preservation would thus appear to give aesthetic values, values of deeper emotional resonance, far less weight than they carried with preservation’s original exponents. One might argue, therefore, that preservation has been the victim of its own success.

In obscuring the distinction between the historic and the historical, the documentary ethos has replaced the normative, culturally integrative concept of “historic” with the relativist and culturally atomistic concept of “heritage,” and has served to expand preservation’s frontiers very considerably in the bargain. This ethos has led to curiosities such as the listing of the last surviving original McDonald’s on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual roster of America’s “eleven most endangered historic places.” It has led also to confusion between what the public should learn by visiting “historic” sites and what it should learn from printed or audiovisual media. In numerous cases the designation of such sites reflects a preoccupation with addressing social or racial grievances by focusing attention on the “dark side” of American history, as if historians and documentary filmmakers were not equal to the task. The National Park Service, the federal government’s principal preservation agent, has thus designated a World War II detention camp for Japanese Americans and the battlefield where a regiment led by George Armstrong Custer massacred 103 South Cheyenne Indians as national historic sites.

Its philosophical vicissitudes notwithstanding, preservation has unquestionably rendered sterling service to the nation. The National Trust, for example, has benefited hundreds of Main Streets across the land by showing how traditional commercial districts can compete successfully against new suburban shopping malls. In this case, it should be noted, preservationists have retained a vital sense of esthetic amenity.

During the 1990s, the preservation movement launched a crusade against “suburban sprawl,” which its leaders compare to the struggle against urban renewal. In the present case, however, they are taking on a far more formidable adversary. Whatever the prospects for success in this new crusade may be, the sheer scale of the “sprawl” phenomenon may force at least some of the movement’s adherents to conclude that it is not what we save that is of greatest significance for the quality of the nation’s built environment, but what we build.

Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture and lives in Washington. He is a past founding chair and research fellow of the National Civic Art Society. This article originally appeared in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (ISI Books, 2006), and is republished with permission from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

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