May 23, 2014

Why Do Old Places Matter? Architecture

Access the rest of the Why Do Old Places Matter series.

People love and revere old buildings for their art and craftsmanship—and for the way they make us feel. As a boy, I was fascinated by an old house that my father’s friend, Jim Withers, used as a barn. From the outside, it looked like a relatively modest, two-story house. It was dilapidated, to say the least—the glass was missing from almost all of the windows, and the shutters sagged from their hinges. But inside, there were all the marks of an architect or master builder. The high-ceilinged rooms had hand-carved woodwork, and the wide mantelpieces were supported by intricate molding. Decorative brackets unwound in a spiral on the edges of the steps of the curving stair. The woodwork, the relationship of the woodwork to the tall plaster walls, the size and height of the rooms, all felt like part of something whole. I didn’t know then why the house made me feel the way it did, but I later learned that I was probably experiencing—despite the bales of hay stacked in the rooms—the concepts of proportion, balance and harmony, as well as the marks of time.

The Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, by Mies van der Rohe, a National Trust historic site considered a masterpiece of international style architecture | Mike Crews

I was experiencing Architecture – Architecture with a big “A.”

The feeling I felt in Jim Withers’ old house is a feeling many of us experience when we’re in the presence of certain buildings—that complex web of emotions from wonder to comfort to nobility to delight. It’s the reason that people fall silent under the oculus of the Pantheon in Rome, or stare awestruck at the Farnsworth House. It’s the reason people travel to see the Taj Mahal, the Empire State Building, or the relatively unknown residential masterpieces of Louis Kahn. It’s the magic of architecture.1

This experience of architecture has been recognized and valued by people for thousands of years. From the Roman emperor Theodoric,2 who commissioned architects to take care of ancient buildings, to Brunelleschi, who studied the Pantheon to determine its secrets of proportion and construction,3 to Philip Johnson, who, despite being known for the brash modernism of his Glass House, channeled the entire history of world architecture in his experiments in design, people have looked to the buildings of the past for inspiration.

These special places, these works of architecture, are works of art. Like painting, music or literature, these buildings help us understand our capacities as humans. No less than any other great art, architecture defines our civilization. The Pyramids, the Parthenon, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Fallingwater, for example, are all icons of western civilization. Some of these icons represent watershed moments in the timeline of human culture. I recently heard Ashley Wilson, Graham Gund Architect at the National Trust, explaining the importance of the Farnsworth House. She said, “After the Farnsworth House, modern domestic architecture was forever altered. There are very few buildings that can be identified as the ‘first’ of a movement. One that comes to mind is the early 15th-century building that kick-started the Renaissance, the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence. Nothing was the same after that building was built.” As Philip Kennicott wrote in The Washington Post in a discussion of the central library in downtown Washington designed by Mies van der Rohe, historic preservation experts, architecture critics and other cranks (I love that) “…ground their beliefs on the complicated and difficult to express fundamental value of retaining important cultural objects simply because they are beautiful or play an important role in the history of culture.”4 Old buildings are a critical part of our artistic and cultural heritage.

The District of Columbia library, by Mies van der Rohe | Tom Mayes/National Trust for Historic Preservation

This phrase “cultural heritage” is one we use frequently in the preservation world. It’s an abstract phrase, but it’s useful shorthand to capture a cluster of concepts. When we refer to architecture—old buildings—as cultural heritage, it means we’re not merely valuing these places as culture for culture’s sake (though that’s fine too, and shouldn’t be sneered at), but because these living symbols give meaning—identity, continuity, memory and inspiration—to our lives today.

Old architecture contributes to our memory, our civilization, our history, and our understanding of ourselves. It’s worth noting, however, that for architecture to be part of the continuity of civilization, the building doesn’t necessarily have to be old. People throughout the world vociferously protested the impending loss of the former American Folk Art Museum building on East 53rd Street in New York by the Museum of Modern Art.5 The potential loss is being treated, without irony, as a preservation issue, even though the building was designed and constructed in 2001. Why? Because the building was widely recognized as an important work of architecture—of art—from the time it was built, and its potential loss is viewed by many as cultural iconoclasm, a loss to our civilization no different from destroying an important painting or sculpture. This controversy highlights the fact that preservation is about the present—about valuing things that matter now—not only about things of the past.

Although contemporary buildings may be valued as important pieces of architecture and art, age gives buildings something else—greater dimensions of meaning.

People have long recognized that there’s something special that age imparts to buildings. John Ruskin wrote in the 19th century that old buildings were important because they were imbued with the spirit of the people who made them—“that spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman”—and that they reflected the spirit of the age in which they were built.6 This spirit is revealed in the specific workmanship and materials that the buildings are made from—the craftsmanship. Just as I appreciated the stair brackets at Jim Withers’ old house, people appreciate the marks of the makers in buildings throughout the world. We have the exquisite craftsmanship of buildings from the arts and crafts movement—the Greene and Greene houses of Pasadena, for example. But we also find the mark of the builder’s hand in the simple visible plane marks of plain doors of log cabins. That sense of the maker’s hand and the spirit imbued in the building is one of the irreplaceable things we lose every time a building comes down. We destroy a part of the spirit of our own civilization, irreplaceable clues to our understanding of ourselves.

The newel post at Cedar Grove in southern Virginia is attributed to Thomas Day, a free black builder before the Civil War. The property is protected by an easement held by the National Trust. | Tom Mayes/National Trust for Historic Preservation

We may not—we almost undoubtedly do not—know all the “spirit” embedded in old buildings. As the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa wrote: “There is a tacit wisdom of architecture accumulated in history and tradition. But in today’s panicked rush for the new, we rarely stop to listen to this wisdom.”7 Or, to use the example that the Washington, D.C., architect Andrew Singletary shared with me recently, an architect or planner raised in the 1960s suburbs is unlikely to be as aware of the ideal environmental siting of a farmhouse as a builder from the 19th century, who was raised in that rural landscape. And when we lose that building, we lose the artifact of that knowledge.8 Another example of this can be seen at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, where a light well that had been closed was reopened and now reestablishes light in the center of the building without the use of any ongoing energy consumption. In many early 20th-century apartment buildings in Washington, D.C., louvered doors with overhead transoms combated Washington’s notoriously hot and sticky summers—though those are often not used anymore. This wisdom is increasingly appreciated in the recognition of the inherent sustainability of many older buildings—as documented by the research being done at the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab.

Besides the embedded environmental wisdom, old buildings embed symbolic meaning and secret histories that may be revealed over time. What does a building say about the intentions of its builders at that time and how do we recognize it? We’ve become very familiar with the use of neoclassical orders, but few people recognize the meaning of the bulls’ skulls and garlands that decorate buildings in every American city. Americans built neoclassical buildings to express democratic ideals, but we may be shocked to discover that our public buildings incorporate the symbols of pagan animal sacrifice (the bull’s or ox’s skulls represent the sacrificed animal, which was decorated with garlands as part of the ritual).9 And we may not be aware of historic knowledge embedded in our architecture—the clues of past histories—from the tools hidden by slaves in the walls of plantation buildings, to the Hebrew lettering on a medieval building in Rome once used as a synagogue before the Jews were forced into the ghetto. All of these are lost when we lose an old building.

Pallasmaa wrote, “The significance of architecture is not in its form, but in its capacity to reveal deeper layers of existence.” Old buildings help us understand deeper layers of our existence, from the sometimes thrilling experience of an architectural icon, to the mark of the people who made the places, to the symbolic and historic meanings that the places reveal. Architecture—with the mark of time—helps us become more aware of ourselves—our past ideals, our place in the long line of civilization, and the possibilities for a better future. It’s the sense of harmony that I felt in Jim Withers’ old house all those years ago, and it’s the reason people all over the world love and revere old architecture.

I still love to visit great buildings. Where have you felt the power of architecture?


  1. See, e.g., Alain de Botton. The Architecture of Happiness, London: Hamish Hamilton 2006.
  2. Jokilehto, Jukka. A History of Architectural Conservation, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann 1999.
  3. Jokilehto, supra. p. 21. “Filippo Brunelleschi is said to have made four visits to Rome to study the architecture and technical solutions of the ancient Romans.”
  4. Kennicott, Philip. “Mecanoo, Martinez + Johnson to renovate MLK Library,” Washington Post, February 18, 2014.
  5. Quirk, Vanessa. "Glenn Lowry on American Folk Art Museum: The Decision Has Been Made" Arc Daily, January 29, 2014; Kimmelman, Michael. "The Museum With a Bulldozer’s Heart: MoMA’s Plan to Demolish Folk Art Museum Lacks Vision" New York Times, January 13, 2014
  6. Ruskin, John. The Seven Lamps of Architecture. New York: The Noonday Press 1961, 184.
  7. Pallasmaa, 319.
  8. Interview with the author, April 26, 2014.
  9. Hersey, George L. The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1988.

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Tom Mayes, chief legal officer and general counsel, has worked on the full range of National Trust legal issues since he joined the National Trust in 1986. He received the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation in 2013 and is the author of the book Why Old Places Matter. @thompsonmayes

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