Why Should We Care About the Past?

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.

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