An open discussion about architectural preservation

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flwright
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Location: Saint John, New Brunswick

Post by flwright »

I've had the pleasure for the last 4 months to fill in as my municipality's Acting Heritage Development Officer (www.saintjohn.ca/heritage) and I have had the opportunity to review hundreds of projects for the exact reasons as we are discussing here. In addition to a municipal bylaw and local conservation guidelines, we follow the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada (http://www.pc.gc.ca/docs/pc/guide/nldclpc-sgchpc.aspx) when reviewing projects to historic properties. These standards were built by professionals across the country over a 5-year period.

From my work at the City of Saint John, I believe that there are many questions I ask myself on a daily basis when reviewing projects that could shed some light on how we view this subject.

First, we refer generally to projects on historic properties as "conservation" rather than the term "preservation," since preservation is only one form of conserving a building.

Second, projects are generally categorized as either one of three methodologies: 1. Preservation, 2. Rehabilitation, or 3. Restoration. The selection of methodology has a great effect on how the building is conserved. For example, as Unbrook states, preservation was chosen for Weltzheimer whereas Pharding's Davenport has been meticulously restored. Preservation preserved the "date" of Weltzheimer as the last date the last private owner owned the building, whereas restoration at Davenport restored a very particular period of time. Each methodology has their benefits.

Third, everything in the Standards centres on conserving the character defining elements of the building. This can be tricky in the case of a FLW where virtually the whole building is a character defining element in its own right or, in other words, a piece of art. On the other hand, the Standards also admit that some unoriginal alterations to a building can become a character defining element in their own right and they recommend conserving these elements. In other words, the Standards generally do not recommend removing character in order restore character. In this case there are probably just as many compelling reasons to conserve the alterations as there would be to restoring the original design.

This can be a tough pill to swallow for some. In fact, I don't completely agree with it either, but this is where the discussion centres: are we trying conserve a vision or conserve a building? The Standards clearly indicate a precedent for conserving the building and it's character since the vision is conserved in the drawings (the same argument why the Legacy Projects shouldn't be built) although we can no longer experience the vision even though it had been executed.

Conserving art (or a vision) and conserving a building are two different beasts. Secondly, how close can architecture truly be considered art? With most other art forms, the artist conceives a vision and it is executed according to that vision. In architecture, although the end results may still be stunning, those pesky clients and codes convince the architect to compromise on their vision. Architecture is the art of compromise and it is very rare for an architect to have complete carte-blanche. Further still, after construction the owner can continue to mess around with that art, some of which may be worth conserving in their own right.

As SDR mentioned, I don't think there is an easy, definitive answer in this discussion.
Morgan

peterm
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Post by peterm »

In regards to sentimentality:

All I know is, that is was extremely easy (on the first day of ownership) to remove someone's miniblinds which had been carefully installed, but impossible to ask Stafford to remove the word "Bill" which had been deeply etched by the adolescent son of the original owner into the nearly destroyed desktop of the kid's bedroom at Lamberson.

Is even sanding this desktop appropriate?

Pharding- we need your expertise now...

flwright- just read your brilliant post. Thank you! Nuance is what is needed, not one size fits all.
Last edited by peterm on Wed Sep 15, 2010 11:11 pm, edited 1 time in total.

SDR
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Post by SDR »

Thank you, Morgan. Well said -- and the distinctions between the three categories of conservation are vital information. I imagine persons among us, Palli Holubar among them, grinding their teeth as I tromp gaily over those distinctions, a fool rushing in. . .

As for architecture being art, surely Wright would be among the first to consider it so, and first to have his work properly perceived as such -- I think. And, unlike many a practitioner, and perhaps characteristic of those few greats whose names we all know, Wright managed to get built, over and over again, nearly or completely uncompromised versions of his dreams -- to the eternal benefit of all who survey them.

SDR

SDR
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Post by SDR »

One way of answering Peter's query: If you have to destroy something in order to save it, that's a bridge not to cross. Either leave it in place, or preserve it off-site and recreate the piece for installation. You can have your cake and eat it too, in this field. . .

S

peterm
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Post by peterm »

Palli- thank you for starting this thread!

pharding
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Contact:

Post by pharding »

peterm wrote:In regards to sentimentality:

All I know is, that is was extremely easy (on the first day of ownership) to remove someone's miniblinds which had been carefully installed, but impossible to ask Stafford to remove the word "Bill" which had been deeply etched by the adolescent son of the original owner into the nearly destroyed desktop of the kid's bedroom at Lamberson.

Is even sanding this desktop appropriate?

Pharding- we need your expertise now...
If the rest of the desktop was in good condition, we would take the conservation approach using Mohawk products. If done properly one can make the engraved name go away unless you study carefully the desk with eyes 12" away in strong light. Conservation is always the best strategy where possible.

On Davenport we went to great lengths to conserve original finishes and materials where possible. We could have made the the whole place look like new but we didn't. You can walk through the house and see patina if you look for it. Dings in wood work larger than 1/8" were filled however. Door hardware was cleaned and mechanically restored. In some cases a hardware piece would out of necessity be refinished, but we tried to avoid that. The double swinging door between the Butler's Pantry had concealed 1901 floor closer that was original to the house and frozen and very beat up and had a cracked cover plate. We sent it out for complete restoration, repair, and refinishing. It now works fine and is ultra cool. You can also see some dark mismatched original woodwork that FLW accepted 110 years ago that we left. Conservation is always the best where possible.
Paul Harding FAIA Restoration Architect for FLW's 1901 E. Arthur Davenport House, 1941 Lloyd Lewis House, 1952 Glore House | www.harding.com | LinkedIn

Palli Davis Holubar
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Post by Palli Davis Holubar »

There is a difference between the Weltzheimer House and the lived and loved Lamberson home. Unbrook has learned to live with the Weltzheimer House and found instructive ways to view its condition. As educators that is our job. But it is always better if the public could discover the simple truths of the structure naturally. The Weltzheimer House remains a important study in its Design/As Built context. (Of course, removed from daily use of the house, the cross ventilation acquired with the dining terrace door becomes less important to me.) Thinking of returning the kitchen to 1948 though is, to me, a no brainer; although that means reconsidering the significant date. The Gaeuman remodel is ugly and misleading. The idea of kitchen is too familiar and significant to present day visitors for this denial-it is not even misrepresentation-of the Usonian intent. (Isn't it exhausting to explain the bastardization of 1960s "modern" to people?) The unique brick columns deserve better and, as a public Wright space, clarity would be advantageous.

SDR- No, I love your tromps!
Peter, your incised Bill is a gem of the house. (and in the context of functional "table" what would demand the removal?

Palli Davis Holubar
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Post by Palli Davis Holubar »

RE: the Jeffrey St. Clair's article from Counterpunch that SDR cites on page 1 (docent mandatory reading, BTW)

Was Taliesin Fellow Carter H Manny, Jr. the Ernest C. Withers of Taliesin? John Geiger records show Manny was at Taliesin only 5 months (1/01/46-6/01/46).

Reidy
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Post by Reidy »

Much of this conversation seems to rest on a misunderstanding. Good architectural preservation practice does not say that you must undo later alterations and take a building back to its original look. If a change was an improvement in design or livability, or architecturally meritorious in its own right, you'd probably want to leave it in place.

One of the guidelines of the Secretary of the Interior is that you don't remove original fabric unless it's beyond repair, which is not the same. If somebody altered the building, the original fabric isn't there, and the guideline doesn't apply.

People have mentioned the Oak Park home and studio, which is a case in point. The restorers kept twenty years' worth of alterations in place.

peterm
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Post by peterm »

Reidy-I'm not clear as to what you are referring to when you say that the conversation rests on a misunderstanding...

DRN
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Post by DRN »

When we talk about date of significance for the restoration of a house still used as a dwelling, we should probably make some distinctions as to which parts are included in the date of significance, and those that may not be. This is important with older buildings and as the newer buildings age.

Mr. Harding's restoration of the Davenport house is a model of a professionally managed restoration in which conservation was given precedence. The building was returned to its original form, and its finishes were meticulously returned to their original apearance, while still leaving some evidence of age. The latest technologies were utilized for materials research, new systems were discreetly installed that improve the house's energy efficiency, and skillful (read invisible) integration of improved structural components was made.

BUT, the kitchen and likely the bath(s) (are there more in there now than there were in 1901?) in the house are not exactly as they were in 1901. They could not be; the Hardings could not (and we should not expect them to) live in a house in River Forest in the 21st century with a coal stove in the kitchen, an ice box, and one bathroom.

How far does the date of significance get carried in a "living" house? How are the "necessaries", as Thomas Jefferson called them, to be responsibly treated? Mr. Harding, could you share your thoughts on where/how date of significance lines should be responsibly and reasonably drawn for a "living" house?

Roderick Grant
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Post by Roderick Grant »

Morgan, your distinction between 'preservation' and 'conservation' is the reason the FLWBC chose the word 'Conservancy' for its title, and justly so. When it comes to standards of restoration or conservation bureaucratically imposed, however, I am leery. I'm not a fan of bureaucracies doing anything that involves thought.

When it comes to restoring architecture (which is immeasurably more difficult than restoring paintings or sculpture), one should differenciate between elements that define the art of the place and those which are merely functional, such as the Davenport kitchen. FLW would have no problem upgrading a kitchen or bath. Touring Robie in the mid-50s, when the house was in danger of being demolished, he said all one would need to do was update the kitchen, and the house would be as good as new. Even bedrooms in FLW houses often are not all that precious. Although I would never sand out 'Bill.' If a fireplace doesn't draw well, either restore it as designed and discontinue its use, which is easy in a public building like Barnsdall, or if the private owner desperately wants to use it, make the fix so it can be reversed in case the house ever goes public. Private houses are always dicier than public spaces; that ugly portrait of Grandpa Aunt Maude gave you for your wedding present either hangs in the living room or you're out of the will.

Some alterations "made over time," as the DI standards say, should not only be kept for the sake of the narrative, but might even enhance a building, but when the alterations defile the original design they should be reversed or the architect's name should be removed to avoid being blamed for bad work. Again, Barnsdall! Full of disastrous alterations. In the case of Samuel & Harriett Freeman House, five architects contributed to its final appearance (FLW, Lloyd, RMS, Lautner and Bob Clark), as well as Sam doing his own thing, like whacking the dining table down to coffee table height. Unless Freeman is restored to its FLW design, all involved should be given credit (or blame) for its design.

With respect to the Oak Park complex, the post-1909 elements that were kept were all aesthetic alterations, while the elements deleted were adjustments made to convert the place into an apartment complex, so the clerestory in the south bedroom was worth keeping. (During its apartment building years playwright Charles MacArthur resided there for a time, so perhaps in a "George Washington slept here" way, that apartment should have been maintained?)

The general rule for architectural preservation/conservation/restoration should be "No General Rule!" Each instance should be treated separately, because architecture is so much more than art.

Unbrook
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Architectural preservation

Post by Unbrook »

So many things come to mind. I am reminded of Eileen Gray, the French architect and decorator who had built a house on the Riviera. She lent it to Le Corbusier for a while and when she returned he had comleted a fairly significant painting directly on one of the walls. She was not pleased. If one were to restore it, would you take it back to the original design? The painting was clearly not in the original scheme.

There is a Richard Neutra building at Gettysburg in PA which was meant to house an existing cyclorama painting. Evidently currentopinion did not think the modern building was appropriate, so a new one was constructed. What to do with the old building? It is a good mid-century Neutra building.

Lastly, the preservationists at Monticello have discovered the wall paint in the dining room was not the greyed blue it has be for the last 50 years, but rather an intensely bright yellow color, which does effect the whole interpretation of the space.

I think we all must be conservative in the approach to architectural preservation and do nothing that can't be undone at a future point.
I can not advocate the saving and restoration of every structure deemed historic, but in a time of limited resources must do what we can and educate by not misleading.

peterm
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Post by peterm »

Roderick Grant wrote: The general rule for architectural preservation/conservation/restoration should be "No General Rule!" Each instance should be treated separately, because architecture is so much more than art.
I heard that, Roderick.

Unbrook- Your Le Corbusier-Eileen Gray example is an excellent one and illustrates the complexities we face! It would be unthinkable to remove his mural, though it was a complete assault to her at the time. History is complex, and with conserving/preserving we need to not only try to save the architecture, but the important narratives and history which are contained within.
Last edited by peterm on Thu Sep 16, 2010 2:58 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Roderick Grant
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Post by Roderick Grant »

Speaking of Neutra, his original church for What'shisname has sat virtually unused since the Crystal Cathedral was built nearby. Much too small to accommodate the vast crowds at the church, the Neutra is, however, a masterpiece compared to the Johnson/Burgee monstrosity.

Paint colors in the Colonial period tended to be bright, almost garish. The same problem showed up at Mount Vernon, and they used the early colors. The more muted tones have had an effect on how we view early architecture in this country, flawed. More beautiful, but less historic.

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