This close-up shot of the wallpaper in a structure at Bodie shows at least three different iterations.

photo by: Tim Walters/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

September 5, 2018

Aging Gracefully: The Resilience of Historic Structures Preserved in Place

In the Summer 2018 issue of Preservation magazine, we brought you the remarkable story of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway, a working movie theater in a state of arrested decay. Visitors catching a film at the theater will see a multitude of wallpaper sections from different decades, chipped plaster, and an eye-catching sunburst medallion, made all the more arresting by the different degrees of deterioration of the rays.

“Arrested decay," "preservation in place," or "preservation as found" are a few names to describe one of the more obscure preservation practices. It might be considered an underdog as far as preservation practices go—the term wasn’t even coined until 1962, when the state of California used it to describe Bodie State Historic Park.

Arrested decay can be a little deceptive when someone first sees an example of it in real life because it is not as straightforward as a standard preservation project or a restoration effort. What makes this approach unique is that it tells a story of how a site has changed over time. A person sees snippets of multiple generations from one wall, or a plaster cornice, and even by clothing and food left behind, that they may not get from other properties that have been "fixed up."

Arrested decay may show that finishes will not last forever, but it also shows the resilience of historic structures. And whatever the back story is to sites that have been preserved as found, the aesthetic is so arresting that “arrested decay” takes on more than one meaning.

Preservation Magazine: Film Star: A Classic Baltimore Movie Palace Shines Again

Architect Steve Ziger admits he gets a lot of questions about one of his firm’s latest projects, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway in Baltimore. “Is it finished yet?” people ask him when they see the interior of the newly preserved 1915 theater for the first time. “Is that plaster peeling?” “If you had more money, would you paint it?”

Drayton Hall—Charleston, South Carolina

One of our National Trust Historic Sites offers a striking glimpse into the lives of the Drayton family, who lived at Drayton Hall until the early 1970s, and those who lived and worked in its extant outbuildings. When the National Trust acquired Drayton Hall in 1974, it chose to keep the structure as is—an unusual choice at the time. But the house never had plumbing, electricity, or central heating or cooling, and the finishes had been untouched for so long, so this made perfect sense.

The absence of much furniture in the house compels visitors to look closer at the circa-1732 Palladian details on the walls, floors, and ceilings, and the little details, imperfections, and curiosities that could otherwise be obscured.

Each year, Drayton Hall closes for one week so that staff can do a thorough cleaning. Mortar has been repointed to prevent water intrusion, and bigger projects (like the stabilization of the portico) were undertaken to keep the house in shape. Despite all of the hurricanes and natural events this Lowcountry house has endured, it continues to give life to the residents, enslaved servants, and more who left their marks many years ago.

Eastern State Penitentiary—Philadelphia

Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the best surviving examples of America’s early prison reforms. The prison had ceased operations 23 years before it opened to the public for tours in 1994. Those decades of abandonment had taken its toll on the prison, but it offered an attractive opportunity for the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

The penitentiary is now run by the nonprofit Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. Since 2001, it has focused on stabilizing the site. Netting protects visitors from falling plaster as they walk through the prison's corridors. Peering into any number of prison cells reveals desks, beds, lamps, and clothing. If it weren't for the crumbling whitewash on the walls, it looks almost as if someone just left for a moment.

In July of 2018, the National Trust's HOPE Crew helped stabilize parts of the foundation and do masonry repointing and repairs to the stone walls to keep the site in a state of arrested decay while preventing severe or sudden structural failures.

Bodie State Historic Park—Bridgeport, California

When the former gold mining town of Bodie became a state historic park in 1962, photographers snapped some photos of the structures' condition. Fifty-six years later, the state parks department and the Bodie Foundation rely on these photos to determine how the buildings should be. The buildings are maintained only so much as to ensure their structural safety; other than that, the 110 buildings, which were constructed starting in the 1860s, are left to experience the natural process of decay.

The town grew to 100,000 in its prime (and had 65 saloons), but by 1950 gold had dried up and the population zoomed to zero. Visitors who brave the rough roads to Bodie now often stumble across broken tea cups, nails, or other items that once belonged to the gold miners and their families, but these items stay where they are.

If you're not entirely convinced about the resilience of Bodie, this might change your mind: In December of 2016, Bodie experienced three successive earthquakes that averaged a magnitude of 5.6. Several buildings sustained damage, especially those with brick chimneys and walls. However, not one building collapsed.

Aiken-Rhett House—Charleston, South Carolina

For 142 years, generations of one family lived at the Aiken-Rhett House on Elizabeth Street in Charleston, South Carolina. The interior finishes and furnishings were largely untouched since the mid-19th century, creating a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF), the nonprofit organization that operates the house museum, to keep it in the condition in which it was found in 1995.

The chandelier and ceiling medallion in the ballroom show their age.

photo by: Haley Schriber

The house has elegant plasterwork throughout.

A common misconception is that places like the Aiken-Rhett House and its outbuildings could fall down at any minute; after all, if the house is left "as is," doesn’t that mean it's not examined for structural issues and the like?

As someone who once worked here as a museum interpreter, I was frequently asked similar questions. In addition to making sure the house is stable through inspections and crack monitors (a small device that measures horizontal movement), HCF has sealed the exterior after rainwater began to intrude. Likewise, the art gallery, which shows paintings and sculpture from Gov. William Aiken and his wife Harriet’s Grand Tour of Europe in the 1850s, was restored and is climate controlled to protect the artwork.

Visitors can see early knob-and-tube electrical wiring in the warming kitchen, early layers of plaster in the enslaved servants' quarters, and the best example of intact 19th-century stall partitions in the stables.

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Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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