Last week in Colorado I showed two slides of the Farnsworth House, which I have been blogging about for a dozen years. The first image came in the section of my talk about the Threats to our Heritage, such as Climate Change. I had also showed images of it earlier in the week, when I participated in a Climate Change and Cultural Heritage conference in Pocantico, New York, with a whole variety of players, from colleagues at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Park Service, Society for American Archaeology, World Monuments Fund, English Heritage and many other, collected together by the Union of Concerned Scientists. So here is the first slide, which is Farnsworth House experiencing a “100-year” flood for the first of three times in the last eight years.
I then showed another slide of the Farnsworth House later in the keynote with the caption “The Process of Preservation is Adaptive and Resilient” because I was talking about the only universal in cultural heritage conservation – the process – and I was deliberately framing the discussion in the necessary terms, which you will note say nothing about mitigation.
This is how we began our discussion a year ago with the Trustees of the National Trust, and while I was a facilitator of that discussion, I must credit Anthony Veerkamp for doing the research. I then moderated a panel at the National Preservation Conference in Savannah on Climate Change, that included the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Park Service. The Park Service is dealing with this issue, as is the DOD and everyone else, because the sea levels will rise 3 to 6 feet by the end of the century.
John Englander, who began the discussion in Savannah, works with communities around the country to plan for the sea level rise, and even frames the discussion as an opportunity to plan for something you know will occur as opposed to being caught off-guard. The discussion is not about mitigation – that’s what reanimates the troglodytes – it is about adaptation and resiliency. How do we adapt historic resources to new climatic realities? How do we make our historic buildings and sites more resilient in the face of rising sea levels and increased frequency of extreme weather events?
and where you gonna plant grapes when Napa gets too hot? (actually that is the trick – look where the big producers are buying land in Monterey County and you can see where your wine will come from in 2040)
Skipping over the mitigation question is not an evasion of responsibility, but the fact remains you could shut down every car and building in the world tomorrow and the sea level will still rise 3 to 6 feet by 2100. And it is not an even situation, because how water flows and rises and falls is affected by all kinds of things. So Manhattan is sitting on schist and actually in a pretty good situation, but MIami is sitting on some of the most porous limestone known, so even a braintrust of Dutch polderbuilders can’t make a levee that will save that.
hey at least they kinda look like boats
If you know about that stuff you realize that some of our own NorCal polders like Foster City are NOT sitting pretty, but interestingly the first place in Cali to get wet turns out to be Sacramento, 80 miles inland. Geology ain’t simple, and neither are watersheds – just look at the Chicago River – has run west, east, and west again all since the Pyramids were built, and only that last shift was anthro-engineered.
Now, if you have read my posts about the Farnsworth House, you will recall that I first approached it as we will no doubt need to approach many cultural heritage resources: let them become the future of underwater archaeology. Make decisions based on significance and community needs, and perform the unpleasant but necessary triage that will save some things with precision while allowing others to collapse into that state of romantic ruin that so inspired John Ruskin.
It was a dissolute place anyway
Now, I changed my mind about the Farnsworth House because it is an amazing work of art and architecture and its value needs to be kept above water – although also in a floodplain, since its design makes no sense outside of a floodplain. But we can’t elevate every landmark in the way of the water and we can’t move every lighthouse. Some of it will be lost. But, as Englander notes, we have the opportunity to plan for it over the coming decades – so there is that. Some things, like my favorite National Historic Landmark from the 1880s – will be moved.
Others will be lost, partially or completely. But the majority of the activity we will undertake in the coming decades will not be about radical saves or radical losses of cultural heritage. It will be about how we make our heritage more resilient. Just as this Beaux Arts gem was retrofitted to withstand seismic events, so too we will work to make our historic buildings more adaptable and resilient in the face of weather events and rising sea levels.
As always, 19th century buildings will have the upper hand, since they were built in a time when they were viewed as moveable assets and 19th century North Americans had no problem shifting buildings around. The oldest house I ever owned was built in 1872-73 but MOVED in 1878. It’s still there, about 500 feet above sea level outside of Chicago.
There are whole cultures threatened by rising sea levels, and not just the various Polynesian islands soon to be inundated. At our conference we had Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gulla Geechee nation on the Sea Islands off of Georgia and Florida. A physical artifact can be made resilient and even adaptable, but how do living cultures respond when they are put in new environments? As is our efforts to save cultural landscapes across the world (Global Heritage Fund), the challenge of preserving intangible heritage may be even greater than finding new techniques and new uses for buildings, sites and structures.