Historic Preservation: Expanding the Definition

By February 9, 2019Uncategorized

In his book titled Why Do Old Places MatterTom Mayes of the National Trust for Historic Preservation described what we mean by historic preservation by articulating continuity, memory, and identity as reasons we preserve. Continuity extends our cultural and physical heritage from the past to the present, and into the future; memory gives this continuity a cultural imperative; and identity brings not only memory but meaning to the places we preserve.The words “historic preservation” are institutionalized in our organizations, associations, national legislation, and in numerous university programs—e.g., National Trust for Historic Preservation, Michigan Historic Preservation Network, and numerous university “Historic Preservation” degree programs, such as the one offered at Eastern Michigan University.

During the nineteenth century two famous preservationists espoused completely different philosophies of preservation: John Ruskin said old buildings should be allowed to age untouched, while the approach of Viollet le Duc was to “improve” on their historic character. The appropriate response typically lies somewhere in between—allowing changes to historic buildings while still protecting their historic character.

In the mid-twentieth century, laws and standards recognized this “complementary” approach to preservation. In 1977, the Office of the Secretary of the Interior published the Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties to promote historic preservation “best practices” that protect our nation’s irreplaceable cultural resources. The more detailed Standards for Rehabilitation provide the basis for review of proposed changes in local historic districts, as well as for determination of whether a property owner’s project is eligible to earn tax credits. The Standards are inherently subjective and not prescriptive, and their interpretation is provided by the city’s Historic District Commission.

Historic preservation is expanding its role in society. We recognize the need to move beyond the protection of individual buildings and districts to an appreciation of culture and memories. The term “intangible preservation” represents the need to preserve our non-physical heritage as well as our bricks and mortar. Along with this expanded role, we need to consider a broader range of acceptable changes and adaptation of properties in historic districts.

Sustainability and historic preservation are often at odds with each other, when in fact there is a common purpose to designing for resilience and to protecting our fragile environment. Toward this end, environmentalists often refer to “protection of the built environment” as a separate consideration. The inherently sustainable features of many older buildings, in addition to recognizing that “the greenest building is the one that is already built,” highlight the contribution of all existing buildings to our urban fabric. The cost of demolishing buildings to construct something new that is touted as more energy efficient does not equal sustainable development.

“Think globally, act locally,”applies as much to historic preservation, as it does to other forms of social activism. This phrase is attributed to a Scots urban planner and social activist, Patrick Geddes, who advocated consideration of a wider regional environment when making local planning decisions. With regard to the environment, he urged people to “consider the health of the entire planet, and then take action in their own communities and cities. Long before governments began enforcing environmental laws, individuals were coming together to protect habitats and the organisms that live within them.” Millennials and young professionals embrace this concept in their use of a grassroots approach to recognizing and protecting diverse communities. Through grassroots activism, emerging preservation professionalsare raising awareness of places that matter to more people.

Expanding the definition of historic preservation to incorporate this environmental perspective considers the sensitive issues of climate change, severe weather patterns, sea level rise, and appropriate strategies for mitigating damage to our fragile historic resources. This requires interdisciplinary collaboration and reliance on new skill sets to make changes that result in improved resilience in all communities.


  • Phil says:

    In the 1970’s we lived in Marshfield, MA. We purchased a home built in 1837 by Capt. Seth Sprague. Fortunately, it has been kept up and is currently owned by an architect. That cannot be said for a number of 17th and 18th century homes in town. Many have been torn down. One home that was saved was that of my 8x great grandparents, Kenelm and Elinor Winslow. In the 1990’s their home built ca 1645 was derelict. The surrounding property was sold and a new development built on it. A retired Navy vet and his wife bought the home and have lovingly restored it to its 17th century state. One would think that in a town as old as Marshfield, more homes would have been saved.

  • Ilene says:

    Phil, thank you for your reply. We know what it’s like to live in an early 19th c. house that has changed hands very few times and suffered minimal changes in its 180-year life, and we are proud to continue that tradition of diligent stewardship. If it never falls too far, it’s easier to keep it livable and attractive and a viable contribution to the historic fabric of the surrounding neighborhood. The challenge of an expanding definition of “historic preservation,” however, adds the overlay of challenges to also make it energy-efficient, marketable, and compatible with surrounding uses. We work hard in our downtown historic neighborhood to stay on top of threats to its viability while encouraging diversity of its population, which inevitably means students and others connected to the University of Michigan. We welcome that diversity, but we are vigilant about the neglect and profiteering of landlords who understandably want to maximize their profits and expand their offerings by buying up more properties. We feel that diversity should also include those who want to be owner-occupants, long-term renters, and people of all ages. Historic preservation is more than the buildings we occupy; it is also the sense of place and connectivity to the heart of Tree Town.

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