The One and the Many

ks sgrafitto nr gatman

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

One of the great confusions in historic preservation is the difference between a single landmark of great significance and a grouping of historic buildings that is also significant, but more as a whole and not in each individual detail. The confusion is that people think districts treat all sorts of more ordinary buildings as if they were monuments of great import.

Sometimes they are, as in the Krems, Austria, street scene at right – but in fact this is a functioning economic place, not a museum. You can buy clothes, ice cream, pots and pans, purses, notebooks and more ice cream in these buildings.

Historic districts generally treat individual buildings with less scrutiny than individually designated landmarks. But the confusion results from the history of preservation, which began with historians and later architects trying to save buildings as museums, isolated from the rest of the productive world. Preservation hasn’t really been like that for over 40 years, but there are cases where it still is, and a lot of people still have that “museum” idea. Plus. a museum preserves more than a modern economic use.

For a while. House museums have never made money. Let me rephrase that: house museums have never NOT LOST money. Not during your childhood, not during your mother’s childhood, not during the Civil War. They need subsidiziing, which is why we shouldn’t have too many of them.

The big problem is that this confusion makes people think that historic districts are similar to house museums. They aren’t. They are related – the same way dinosaurs are related to birds.

Historic districts for the most part have a different history than restoration projects. They were created to save buildings, yes, but as a type of zoning they were created to insure value, which is what they do. WAIT you say, can’t I get more value if I sell out for a highrise? Yes, but then you aren’t a member of the community anymore.

Historic districts zone out speculators (like you) in favor of current residents and owners. It’s what the economists call an owners club: it insures, maintains and enhances value but it freezes out the windfalls and the outsiders. Everyone plays by the same rules.

This is mostly what historic preservation is, not museums.

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