Should It Stay or Should It Go

By September 27, 2015Ann Arbor

Historic properties are recognized for their place in a community and for their importance to a period in time, in addition to other details, like the architecture and/or persons associated with the property. Where the resource was originally constructed is inexorably linked to to its historic integrity, such that moving the resource to another location raises questions about loss of this integrity. If the foundation is new, does this change perceptions about the resource? Were the old foundation materials significant, or perhaps was the basement or crawl space significant to the history and use of the resource?

Historic properties are recognized for their place in a community and for their importance to a period in time, in addition to other details, like the architecture and/or persons associated with the property. Where the resource was originally constructed is inexorably linked to to its historic integrity, such that moving the resource to another location raises questions about loss of this integrity. If the foundation is new, does this change perceptions about the resource? Were the old foundation materials significant, or perhaps was the basement or crawl space significant to the history and use of the resource?

In most cases, if the resource is threatened with demolition, then moving the structure may be the only option to save any of the memory and physical evidence of the original structure. So, consider the decision with this larger view in mind, but admit that moving the above-ground portion of a building to a new foundation forever changes the building’s larger history. Usually, the history associated with a property can still be told if the structure is still evident, even if relocated and the surrounding context is changed.

Documenting historic properties threatened with demolition captures historical and physical information in a logical and consistent manner for a permanent record of the structure at a particular point in time. Ideally, this would only be to temporarily “mothball” the structure until a productive use and funds can be found, but this can also be extrapolated to include documenting those buildings at risk for complete removal. Preservation Brief 31: Mothballing Historic Buildings, by Sharon C. Park, describes this process. I have clarified and simplified the process for use in our local community of Ann Arbor, Michigan so volunteer preservationists can complete the documentation and put the information in a community archive available to future researchers.

Arthur Miller House

439 S. Division Street

Our first project has been to investigate and document conditions at 439 S. Division Street, a property owned by the University of Michigan. In just under two hours, two of us performed a visual survey of the first floor, second floor, and attic, as well as a walk around the exterior. The basement was not available for visual survey. Sketches of the floor plans provide the general layout at each level, with photo locations indicated. All of the photos are listed in a log with a notation of photo locations and conditions observed.

Separately, an architectural description and statement of significance complement the hard data and provide a larger context for the historic resource. Ultimately, this documentation of the structure will have little impact on its fate. The task for the volunteer preservationists has been primarily to gather readily available information and to create a record of the structure. If discussion should open up about an alternative strategy to save the structure, even if saving it means moving it, then these documents provide a useful reference.

That gets back to the original question: should it stay or should it go? If staying is NOT an option, and if going means moving rather than demolition, should that be viewed as a good thing? I like to think so, as moving provides more options than losing the resource entirely. Although not reversible, everything else can be preserved. It is easier to tell stories about the house, the people who lived there, the details of its design, and any events that took place there, if physical evidence of the house remains. Explain what is lost but be proud of what remains.