Monday, September 7, 2009

Preserving Old Buildings

I've had a crash course in historic preservation this summer, so I was intrigued by this discussion posted on H-Public late last week about the standards used to decide if a property warrants a local historic designation.

Public historian Alex Bethke vents his frustrations with the San Diego Historic Preservation Commission, of which he is a member, and its interpretation of what qualifies as architecturally significant.

Bethke worries that the commission is too lax in its approval of properties, leading to lost property tax income for the city and "public misperception of historic preservation and inability to understand historical resource significance."

But Cathy Stanton responds by asking whether "the loose application of 'significance' is really such a bad thing"?

I'm with Stanton on this one.

While Bethke's San Diego situation may indeed be an extreme, I think that a broad interpretation of what qualifies as "significant" helps, rather than harms, preservation efforts.

Sure, not every building can be as historically significant as Independence Hall, or as architecturally significant as Fallingwater. But many "lesser" properties nevertheless contribute to a neighborhood's character and history. Plus, we already have such limited tools for preserving old buildings that I hesitate to take any out of the toolbox.

At least here in Philadelphia, local designation on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places helps encourage developers and homeowners to keep old buildings standing.

The Philadelphia Register does little if anything to educate the public about history, or architecture, or residential or industrial patterns within the city. But it was not meant to. Heck, sometimes the Philadelphia Register doesn't even prevent a building from being demolished. (Check out the recent flurry of activity to save the Hillman Medical Center on Chestnut Street).

I think we need to add more enticements for preserving old buildings, not set stricter requirements for what is "worth" saving.

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