Archive for November, 2011

Las Cruces and environs

November 23, 2011

Last week at the invitation of alumna Hema Pandya and the good people at New Mexico State University/Doña Ana Community College, I traveled to Las Cruces, New Mexico to give a lecture “Preserving Community” (Subtitle was Sustainability and global issues on existing and Historic Buildings in the United States, China and Peru).

I like Jerri Wells’ poster – I look like Godzilla



Hema Pandya, Dr.Margaret Lovelace, Luis Rios and Matt Byrnes

The lecture was well-attended, even a City Councilman was there. I tied together a variety of disparate experiences and locales by using the IMPROVED definition of sustainability that my colleague Frances Whitehead introduced me to. You remember the old Venn diagram where sustainability is the sweet spot with the orbs of Social, Economic and Environmental sustainability? I learned from Frances that we need a fourth globe: Cultural. And in fact this is how heritage conservation fits into it.


The problem with looking only at Social, Environmental and Cultural is that you solve sustainability only mechanistically, and only in the here and now. (Which means it isn’t really sustainability, which is about maintaining things for the next generation.) It is the same elision that gave us urban renewal, which is to say it is kind of inorganic chemistry for the environment, rather than biology.

Heritage conservation sustains not merely our social (living, working, gathering, playing), economic (producing, consuming, exchanging) and environmental (breathing, eating, etc.) but also those subtle humanisms that we can never eliminate, things like soul and identity and love and attachment. How we know where we are and why we want to continue to be there.

Rio Grande Theatre, Main Street, Las Cruces

But enough of the high theory, let’s get down to the brass tacks, or in the case of Las Cruces, the adobe and vigas. Here stands Hema and my brother Tom next to a marvelous doorway in Mesilla, which is contiguous with Las Cruces but designed around a traditional Mexican church zócalo in the days before the Gadsden Purchase (1854).


check out the beams above the door – hand-hewn it seems

now that is adobe

There is of course, a lot of the fake stuff – frame buildings covered with some sort of cementitious render and false vigas to ape the look. A house style, like they do up in Santa Fe.

But we had a good meeting with officials and preservation leaders in Mesilla, where they have had some challenges, like this adobe bungalow that is slowly losing its historic fabric and residential classification in one of those long, drawn-out, disingenuous projects that slowly but surely erode local character. You can always tell those projects because their own character shifts day by day. First it is an addition to the back of a house (on a corner). Then full-scale bathrooms go in. Then it suddenly takes advantage of possible commercial zoning. Then another wall goes. Eventually the owner will reveal the project’s true intention and the town will have lost the better part of an historic building.

The zócalo in Mesilla is great, what with the twin-steepled brick church and the Thunderbird, the oldest brick structure in New Mexico, and the Billy the Kid Gift Shop, which I remember from a childhood visit here in 1975, and of course La Posta, the former post office and restaurant which is expanding dramatically, giving us these unique views of melding ancient and modern construction techniques:


the contractor said his job was either to make old wood look new or make new wood look old


traditional ceiling form with modern ductwork. The ceiling form reminds me of the ground floor rooms in medieval Irish castles, formed by baskets made of sticks and then packed with a mud wattle.

The challenges in Mesilla and Las Cruces are familiar to many. Partial embrace of community character, preference for new over old, incomplete apprehension of the heritage conservation process, which as my lecture showed, is a community-based evaluation process that seeks to maintain cultural connections found in the environment and in its caretakers. Residents were frustrated that master adobe plasterer Pat Taylor, a local resident, found more business OUTSIDE of town (around the world) than in the town itself.

our meeting in Mesilla

Las Cruces also has the challenge of its Main Street, which features the lovely Rio Grande theater pictured above and below, but suffers from the emptiness and abandonment by both public and private entities following a classic 1970s pedestrian-mall treatment.

There is also an interpretive sculpture of a church that was replaced by a bank. It nicely frames the Organ Mountains from the Rio Grande theater, but it is a little misleading, since the church was about 80 yards away and facing a different direction.

City Councilman Greg Smith is a big promoter of preservation and Main Street, and there is hope, thanks to the arts anchors at the north end of the street, including the Branigan Cultural Center with its great 1935 WPA-style mural and the private Black Box Theater.

We also toured the lovely Depot-Alameda historic district, starting with the 1910 Maud Witherspoon house, a uniquely high-ceiling variant on the adobe style. In fact, many of the homes in the district evince Eastern styles but use local materials and techniques. Here is a sampling:




This is the historic Women’s Improvement Association building

And we saw the 1935 Courthouse High School, which is being rehabilitated with a strong local heritage element throughout the building and its curriculum.

Finally a hike up to Dripping Stream in the Organ Mountains with Hema and Matt Byrnes. There is a 1910 TB Sanitorium preserved up there.



Thanks to Hema, Matt, Luis Rios, Dr. Lovelace, Irene Oliver Lewis, John Sullivan, Eric Liefield, Greg Smith, Lori Grumet, Clark Meyers, David Rockstraw and all of the others who made me so welcome in Las Cruces.

Advertisements

Why Should We Care About the Past?

November 8, 2011

Historic preservation – more properly called Heritage Conservation – has never been about the past at all. It is a decision about the future that includes physical and intangible elements of the past which a community has judged to be significant. This significance derives from their design; their history (past) as lesson, warning, or honor; the knowledge they convey by their construction; their patina and ability to define and refine shared space. The process of identifying and evaluating this significance is central to any society and any community.


it’s about community as well as artistry. why is that hard??

Historic preservation laws and regulations are guidelines – they are never prescriptive or proscriptive. They vary with every resource and they are rarely ‘precedent-setting’ because the same process applied to two resources or to two communities will never yield the same result.

When you write it like that it seems quite simple, but our minds can’t hold it well because what is consistent is not the resource or its treatment but the process of identifying, evaluating, assessing and determining the treatment.


anywhere in the world

This is the source of endless confusion and it requires you to get your mind out of the gutter of categories and nouns and into the dynamism of action and verbs.

is battery a noun or a verb in this case?

A case in point: Yesterday the Chicago Tribune had an article about a 1952 coal-powered steamship that plies Lake Michigan between Wisconsin and Michigan and dumps 4 tons of coal ash into the lake each trip. The headline “Landmark status for polluting ship?” raises the fearsome specter of landmarking and how it can flout all other rules of social and environmental order and community.

Poppycock. Humbug. Horsefeathers.

But the article unfortunately plays upon a misunderstanding of our field, especially in the U.S., that has grown up over the years. The assumption in the headline – and the first few paragraphs – is that landmark status trumps other laws, like environmental ones. You also find this assumption among building owners. It’s like preservation laws have a magical quality that makes them superior to all other clauses of the social contract.

Poppycock. Humbug. Horsefeathers. Do I need to use stronger words?

Now, if you actually read this lengthy article (thanks Trib for going back to long articles!) the truth is there. The owners of the steamer, the Badger, argue landmark status would help them in their negotiations with the EPA.

Negotiations. Landmark status doesn’t override EPA regulations or fire codes or ADA requirements or anything else. It CAN provide a way to negotiate a non-standard (I want to say post-normal) solution to those regulations. The fact of the matter is that most maritime national landmarks are museum pieces that don’t steam around the lake dumping coal ash. This particular boat has been making end-runs around environmental regulations since the 1980s and there is a separate EPA exemption being legislated even as they try the landmark status ploy. The boat merits consideration as a landmark, according to the Park Service, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it gets to keep polluting.


If I landmark the Fisk electric plant in Pilsen it doesn’t mean it gets to keep polluting. Landmarking my house doesn’t mean I have to go back to gas lights or horse-drawn carriages and landmarking an early Chicago School skyscraper doesn’t mean you have to live with one restroom per every three floors.

If you “landmark” something it means you need to follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for Rehabilitation when you work on it. These are GUIDELINES, not rules, and they are subject to interpretation. The guidelines encourage maintaining a property in its original use but DO NOT REQUIRE IT. I can turn the Fisk plant into a nightclub or the Badger into a diesel-powered casino without affecting any landmark status either might merit.

People often hope that landmark status can help them in the “negotiations” over some other issue, and in truth, it can sometimes. But it is not a magical mystery bullet or even an arcane set of rules. They are GUIDELINES and they are ADVISORY, not REGULATORY, as the government’s own website states unequivocally.

Get into historical significance and the absurdity of the argument grows wider than the Irrawaddy in flood. If I preserve Versailles do I need to restore the French monarchy? Of course not.

the original Shwedagon Pagoda, NOT the copy in the new capital

le salon c’est moi

The whole point of saving something is so you can keep reinterpreting it and repurposing it. Nothing is static, ESPECIALLY in the field of heritage conservation, a field whose only constant is a process of dynamic change and its sensible management.