Historic Preservation and Documentation Wednesday, Jun 13 2012 

Historic Preservation has two functions: to aid in preservation, which hopefully includes some form of sympathetic reuse, and to witness the removal of the past.  I am not especially keen on preservation that focuses solely on the enshrinement of building fixed in a moment in time.  There are a few, rare cases where this is desirable; however, most buildings are better kept in use.  If they cannot be used, the society in question probably cannot afford to maintain them.  Sometimes, mothballing a building is possible, thereby avoiding demolition or massive changes, with the idea that eventually a more sympathetic use can be found.  Mothballing, in fact, probably ought to be a more available option.*  But most buildings need to be used, while at the some time recording what has changed (if only so the next guy knows what did and didn’t work)

However, any modification usually means erasing something.  But it is also a point of opportunity.  This picture shows a minor point of combined destruction and discovery:

Taken during the remodelling of the kitchen eight! years ago, this shows the old south wall of the pre-1870’s farmhouse, before all the additions.  The old lathe is visible, over it is the new diamond wire mesh for the new plaster.  What is also visible is a shadow on the wall, actually a stain.  The diagonal line running from the center of the stove to the top of the photo is the old stairs, also present are the stair treads.  These stairs were removed in the 1870’s when the south end was expanded.  While it was known from the floorboards of the room above that stairs might have existed, there was no proof until this renovation project.   Putting in the new plaster simultaneously revealed and, probably, destroyed this stain.  The photo, therefore, becomes an invaluable source of information. 

Historic preservation in action.

*It is not due to the combination of security, regulatory, tax, and financial hurdles.  Tax and regulatory are huge, especially in locations where property tax exists.

Contemplations on Windows Tuesday, May 29 2012 

An aside from Esperanza.

Working on a minor architectural history project today, documenting some windows in a potentially historic building before their replacement, got me to thinking about the ‘why’ question of historic preservation.  Not too surprising, given that the building in question is a gym and the people I was dodging in their devotions to the gods of exercise wanted to know what I was doing.

There are a number of possible answers, all more or less applicable depending on the circumstances.  These may be long-term economic considerations, environmental considerations, sentiment, aesthetics, or the inability of the modern age to rebuild a replica (cost, rarity/or complete lack of material, and the lack of the skilled labor).*

Now this building, already heavily modified on the interior, has a relatively low level of historic integrity and the windows are nothing unusual.  They are precisely what one would expect in a public building, in New England, built pre-1920.  They are big, double-hung windows using the pin and pulley system, with full arched fanlights above.  The fanlights are hinged at the bottom with the top of the fanlight swinging in.  The window is stopped by chains which are attached at the balance point located a bit below the middle of the curve, so that when one closed them (using a long pole hook) you never had to deal with the entire weight of the window.  Most of the fanlights are missing already, chopped out for air conditioners or hidden in a dropped ceiling, yet the chains and the top hook were still in place on two of the old frames, poignant reminders.  The pulley/pin system of the double-hungs, judging by the paint layers, had fallen into disrepair before the arrival of those air conditioners.

These utterly standard windows were an ingenious, mechanical, solution to the problem of ventilation.*  And here is where historic preservation, or at least good documentation, becomes valuable in this situation.  How does something work?  Not a question we ask as much as we should.  Ideally, if one didn’t want to, literally and metaphorically, close doors; a renovation or new construction could use that fanlight/clerestory window design, and maybe even in the double-hungs, in tandem with its modern climate control.  Historic preservation preserves Options as much as it does the past.  ‘Learn from history’, what a cliche!  Only, is it really?

The replacements will, of course, not open.  I hope the power stays on…

*It has been shown that, whether a window or a building, you triple your carbon footprint when you tear it down and replace it with one of similar size.  Basically construction of Building A, plus demolition of Building A, plus construction of Building B equals three buildings, and associated material/fuel costs.  Refit/Renovation generally has a carbon footprint of a half to one additional construction. It has also been shown that historic renovation/reuse is a much better economic engine than new construction in the short term and has long-term, indirect economic benefits as well.

*Yes, I realize that the air conditioner is a more effective cooling system…but what would the bill look like if you ran the AC during the day, and opened the windows when the ambient, exterior temp dropped at night(as it generally does in New England), or on other days?  Options, you wouldn’t have to, but you could…and in a builidng occupied around the clock, why not?

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