October 17, 2016

Keeping Buildings Alive: Preservation's Modern Mantra

The following is an excerpt from Stephanie Meeks' new book, The Past and Future City: How Historic Preservation is Reviving America's Communities, published this year by Island Press.

Precisely because they are old, the older buildings all around us are ripe for reinvention. These structures have already withstood the test of time, so they have likely already shown themselves effective at fulfilling a particular need for the community. For the reasons discussed in chapter 3, these "specious old boxes" are often especially well suited for adaptation to a new use or uses. Finally, and just as important, old buildings have inherent and unmistakable character, the type of character that only time can convey. Because they give us a sense of history and connect us to earlier generations of city life, people like them and like being around them.

When making the case for older buildings as a key to urban vitality, Jane Jacobs pointed to this endless capacity for reinvention. "Among the most admirable and enjoyable sights to be found along the sidewalks of big cities are the ingenious adaptations of old quarters to new uses," she wrote in 1961. "The town-house parlor that becomes a craftsman's showroom, the stable that becomes a house, the basement that becomes an immigrant's club, the garage or brewery that becomes a theater, the beauty parlor that becomes the ground floor of a duplex, the warehouse that becomes a factory for Chinese food, the dancing school that becomes a pamphlet printer's, the cobbler's that becomes a church[,]...the butcher shop that becomes a restaurant: these are the kind of minor changes forever occurring where city districts have vitality and are responsive to human needs."

Reading List: Preservation Is Alive and Well

"The Past and Future City," by Stephanie Meeks and co-author Kevin C. Murphy, offers empirical data and fresh facts to underline the importance of keeping buildings alive and in use in modern cities.

Although rehabs can sometimes be a tricky enterprise, "the fact is that obsolete buildings are fun to convert and a delight to use once they're converted," Stewart Brand argued similarly three decades later. "Wouldn't you rather go to school in a former firehouse, have dinner in a converted brick kiln, do your office work in a restored mansion?"

For the majority of Americans, by all available metrics, the answer is yes. In city after city, the hot new restaurant, nightclub, or bar is frequently in a converted structure of some kind. Both the condos drawing young tenants and the affordable housing meeting the needs of senors are often historic rehabs that offer all contemporary amenities while retaining the old distinctive quirks. The offices of innovative start-ups once saw garment workers, machinists, barbers, or distillers ply their respective trades within the same four walls. "A building being reconfigured for a foreign new use is filled with novel opportunities," said Brand.

Often, people tend to think that these sorts of innovative and adaptive reuse projects aren't really the bailiwick of historic preservation—that those who call themselves preservationists would rather take these old buildings, throw a few plaques on the front, and bottle them up like, well, preserves. But in fact, adaptive reuse is the very warp and woof of preservation, and has been central to our mission for at least half a century.

“A building being reconfigured for a foreign new use is filled with novel opportunities.”

Stewart Brand

As Lady Bird Johnson wrote in her foreword to the 1966 With Heritage So Rich report: "In its best sense preservation does not mean merely the setting aside of thousands of buildings as museum pieces. It means retaining the culturally valuable structures as useful objects, a home in which human beings live, a building in the service of some commercial or community purpose." Mike Buhler, executive director of San Francisco Heritage, agrees. "One of the central tenets of historic preservation," he has said, "is that historic buildings must have an active use, and must be valued by people, in order to survive and thrive."

Preservation is not just about keeping old buildings around. It is about keeping them alive, in active use, and relevant to the needs of the families and the cities that surround them. We do not honor the historic buildings in our midst, nor those who once inhabited them, by trapping these structures in amber or sequestering them away behind velvet ropes. We do it by working to see that they continue to play a vibrant role at the heart of the community.

And, although there are many excellent exceptions across the country that belie the rule, that can't always mean turning them into museums.

From The Past and Future City by Stephanie Meeks with Kevin C. Murphy. Copyright © 2016 National Trust for Historic Preservation. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Stephanie K. Meeks was the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2010-2018. She is the author of "The Past and Future City."

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