Posts Tagged ‘Secretary of the Interior’s Standards’

Transforming the Heritage Field

May 7, 2015

The first of two blogs on my plan to transform the statutory and philanthropic foundations of heritage conservation.  Today we deal with the statutory in the United States…

As I prepare to move on from Global Heritage Fund after three years, I am committed more than ever to the transformation of the field of heritage conservation.  In the distant past, heritage conservation was a curatorial activity that sanctioned and even encouraged the removal of physical – and intangible – artifacts from our economic everyday in order to conserve them as if under a bell jar.  But, as I demonstrated in my dissertation, that approach began to die as historic preservation (in the U.S.) and heritage conservation (everywhere else) were infused with community-based activism and organization in the 1960s.  I had the good fortune of coming into the field during the creation of the first heritage area in the U.S. 32 years ago.

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Lockport, Illinois, part of the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor

This was the era of Reaganism and the public-private partnership.  Heritage areas not only married historic preservation to natural area conservation, they confirmed preservation as an economic development strategy, an idea which Mary Means started with Main Street a few years earlier.  Dozens of heritage areas, Main Streets, and tax credits later, heritage has become so successful that real estate developers now ape the types and styles of past architectures in order to insure their economic success.

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Brand new house, 100-year old style

I have had the great fortune to work internationally over the last 17 years, and that work has reinforced my conviction that heritage is a community and economic development strategy.  Even the other motivations we ascribe to wanting to save history – education, identity, community – have an economic component.  You can’t maintain property values without an educational system.  You can’t attract human and financial investment without identity.  You can’t sustain development beyond five years without community.  Rehabilitating old buildings gives you all three.

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Fort Collins, Colorado – making downtown vibrant

The evolution over time has been thus:  early in the 20th century, heritage was a curatorial pursuit, and architects dominated especially after the creation of federal programs during the Great Depression.  Heritage was also focused largely on tourism, with places like Charleston and New Orleans and Natchez and Tombstone saving buildings to attract tourist dollars.

Balcs and Shutters Royal and Toulouse Corner

The Vieux Carré, with fully clothed tourists

That started to change in the 1950s in places like Georgetown and Beacon Hill and Brooklyn Heights, where highly organized communities became historic districts in order to preserve their property values and promote sensitive new development that would not destroy their community, their identity, and indeed their economic investment.

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Georgetown, Washington DC

The next four decades witnessed the increasing involvement of communities, and community organization and development, in the creation of historic districts and other forms of zoning that did what all zoning does: preserves investment.  The extent of community involvement meant that districts that may not have had the highest architectural INTEGRITY (bad word – will explain in a moment) were designated because the community had a strong identity and a strong investment in historic architecture and landscape.

By the onset of the 21st century, neighborhoods considered “slum and blighted” in the 1960s and 70s were now historic districts, exercising the great middle-class value shared by all:  a say in the disposition of your home environment.  Preservation (Heritage Conservation) had become a democratic tool.

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148th and Convent, Hamilton Heights, New York City

But had it?  Many of the activist communities that sought local control through historic zoning ran up against architectural rules that seemed arcane and illogical.  The vast majority of designated landmarks and historic districts fell under the architectural category, and a whole set of architectural rules – the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards – had been created back in the 1970s, when the basic historic preservation textbook still had “curatorial” in its title.

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Not historic enough in 1991 – North Kenwood, Chicago

Several of my recent blogs have discussed the idea of revamping the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which haven’t had much update in a quarter-century.  Reading the Standards is a little like watching an old movie  or reading a 19th century novel.  There are many discussions about this topic going on right now, and my own contribution flows from my international experience and my lifelong understanding that heritage conservation (historic preservation) is above all a community development tool.

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Han Li in Dali Dong village, Guizhou

Preservation is a Process, not a Set of Rules

For the last 15 years the best heritage conservation practice follows the Burra Charter, which does not preach community outreach but in fact requires community engagement and input into the entire PROCESS of IDENTIFY, EVALUATE, REGISTER, and TREAT.  This came out of the fact that many different cultures value different kinds of heritage and the context statement that is SUPPOSED to be at the beginning of every preservation survey and plan must be DEFINED in part by the local culture.  In China, the greatest art is calligraphy.  In the West, some believe it to be architecture.  Some tribal cultures find it in the landscape and some minority cultures find it in festival and performance.  The process of the Burra Charter deals with all of that.

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After all architecture is just frozen music anyway

The Problem of Integrity

So why did Australia get this right before the U.S.?  Because their native populations had a particularly non-tangible approach to heritage?  I would argue it was also the Asian context, where heritage lies more in the performance and craft than in the artifact.  But we also have the problem of integrity, in that the U.S. is the only place that uses that word.  Everyone else uses authenticity, which by its nature is more accommodating to a broader range of significances.  Integrity refers almost exclusively to architecture and formal, visual concerns, although we do have verbiage about “feeling and association” in there, but let’s be honest, we didn’t commit to it.

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Smells like teen spirit  Los Gatos, CA

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Here is Jane Addams Hull House Museum, the Dining Hall, which is an absolute travesty in terms of architectural integrity.  The building was moved off its foundation, rotated 90 degrees, moved 50 feet, and covered with a veneer of red bricks IT NEVER HAD in 1965.  But each week in the Dining Hall they engage in discussion of the social, political and environmental issues of the day, just as Jane Addams and the residents did a century earlier.  From a performative, intangible perspective, this building has more HISTORICAL integrity than almost any other in the land.

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The Forum on 43rd in Chicago.  Light on Integrity, Super heavy on history.  Preserve It!

The other problem is that we treat integrity as an on-off switch, which is, prima facie, cray cray.  I wrote about Ray Rast’s approach to this before here.  Integrity is no more a YES/NO question than history is a singular narrative. But, nearly 50 years of National Register practice in this country has reinforced the architectural legacy in our system.  In some ways, if we actually took the time and trouble to do proper context statements prior to every survey and every community plan, we would start to address the diversity deficit in our own landmarks, but we don’t.  We tend to rest on a set of standards and practices written at a time when new buildings were High Modern and old buildings were old-fashioned.  All of that has changed completely.

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Architecture of its time, 1996.  Los Gatos, CA

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Architecture of its time, 2014.  Los Gatos, CA

So, we swap authenticity for integrity, work to create a series of serious historic context statements with a special focus on minority history, intangible heritage, and non-design based conservation treatments.  We should revise the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards to be in line with international practice and we should ACTUALLY FOLLOW the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Preservation Planning.  They should reference the Burra Charter and they should insist on stakeholder engagement in each step of IDENTIFY, EVALUATE, REGISTER and TREAT.  That would be a start.

skatebd park 31st

So we landmarked the Zephyr Skate Shop but that is a building??? Why not landmark the cultural performance and practice they invented there and in the empty pools of the 1970s California drought???

If we adopt this process, it will make more room for preserving HISTORY as well, where that history is not contained in neat or attractive buildings.  As my dear friend and hero Donna Graves says, ‘Interpretation is the fourth leg of preservation.”  To capture the diversity of American history we need to reclaim lost sites from oral traditions, from the depredations of disaster and urban renewal.  Donna pioneered this a quarter-century ago with a project that garnered my immediate attention even though I was at the other end of Route 66 and would not see it in person for over a decade.

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Interpretation is a part of preservation because it preserves intangible, lost and oftentimes deliberately buried history.  It activates the power of place, which is what LA’s Biddy Mason park was and is, and it can activate and sustain community.

Activating and sustaining community is the fundamental work of preservation.

Next time:  A new heritage practice for a new philanthropy

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.

Traditional Modernity II

March 4, 2010

Nearly five years ago I wrote about a fantastic debate on the architecture of additions to historic buildings and infill in historic districts between Steve Semes and Paul Byard. You can see the old blog here:

Paul Byard sadly passed away but Steve Semes has finally put many of his ideas about the value of traditional architecture for new construction in and around historic buildings into a new book, The Future of the Past (Norton, 2009) and he spoke and led a discussion today at SAIC. It was fascinating and stimulating and I can’t shut up about it.

His lecture asked WHY we preserve and analyzed the motives for preservation, which include the historian’s motive of buildings and places as “documents of their time,” the populist motive of “places we love and want to keep,” and the most forgotten motive of all, “to learn how to build.” That latter one has often been anathema even (especially?) in architecture schools, where creativity is seen as the opposite of context.

In this blog I have often written that it requires more creativity to deal with an existing context than to start from scratch, so I agree with Semes there. I also agree with a really important issue he brought up in regard to historicism, which is sort of the traditional 19th century concept of history: it starts, it progresses, it changes and it sort of follows a logical trajectory.

If you look at my website you know I am convinced that the beauty of history is that it doesn’t start, it doesn’t progress, and it is – like all truths – rarely pure and never simple. It is a big mess all of the time that only gets messier with time and that is its mystery and beauty. So Semes had me there as well. And here is where he makes his big point: Why in following the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards do we insist on “contemporary” design for additions and infill? Why do we require architects to create a discontinuity of style between old and new?

Standard #3 requires additions and new constructions not “create a false sense of history” and Standard #9 requires additions to be compatible with the original but differentiated. Semes is upset with stark modernist additions to buildings in traditional styles, and blames it on the interpretation – and to a lesser extent the wording – of these standards. The Norman Foster example above in Manhattan is a good example of what he is fighting, and he asks – as he did 4 years ago – why don’t we allow traditionally style additions to Modernist landmarks? Fair point.

I told him I sometimes like the more contemporary additions, but he is right in his book at outlining a series of strategies for additions that range from rupture (Soldier Field) to absolutely exacting imitation (Cour Carree in the Louvre). We allow the ruptures – although we pointedly did not at Soldier Field, which lost its landmark status – more often than the continuities, says Semes.

“Tradition,” Semes notes, is a bridge between the past and the present, and culture is the tending of social life and all art forms – it is an attitude of “loving care,” quoting Hannah Arendt and should be at the center of preservation attitudes. Yet we often abandon that sense of stewardship for our expertise and modernist bias, which has affected preservation ever since it became a mass movement in the 1960s. I once asked a Landmarks Illinois founder why the group did not include the 1920 Chicago Theatre in its 1974 Inventory of Landmarks and he replied “we were all modernists.” Modernism was the handmaiden of preservation in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards reflected the aesthetic movements of that time. But that time has changed. “Architecture of today” is a range of styles, most of them “traditional.”

Semes is also right about history, and we need to understand that every style is a style and every architecture is “a product of its time” because there is no single narrative. High modernism is already being revived in Dwell magazine and elsewhere, and the restoration of the Lever House is almost as much of a recreation as the reconstruction of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg was 70 years ago. So what if they are different styles?


I chatted with him later about some of the foibles of high modernism, which was a very historicist movement, not in a fashion or stylistic sense, but in the Hegelian sense of seeing history as a dialectic and a narrative. High Modernism was incredibly optimistic and egoistic because they saw all of history except themselves – they had the hubristic attitude of being outside history: being its conclusion or culmination.

Semes is of the position that exaggerating the continuity of style
is preferable to exaggerating the discontinuity. I showed him this 1990s addition to Daniel Burnham Co.’s Joliet Public Library and offered that in the 1990s we started to see traditional additions to historic buildings in spite of the tendency that Semes has identified as a problem. Contextual additions are much more prevalent since 1990 than in the previous quarter-century, although Modernism is still granted a funny space outside of history even as it too has become a revival style.

I have said it before and I will say it again: you can make two mistakes in looking at the past: one is to assume that people then were smarter than now. The other is to assume they were stupider than now. The fact is they were people living a life as inchoate and contradictory and aspirational as our own, and yes they had technologies but the fact is the Tribune Tower is more technologically advanced than the Auditorium and that has nothing to do with Gothic buttresses or Romanesque arches. We tend to judge books by their covers despite all the warnings to the contrary.

I also think we need to tweak the Standards. One of my favorite quotes from Semes had to do with arguing against the Standard that tells you not to create a “false sense of historical development.” Semes responds that there is no such thing in architecture as a false sense of historic development. If it was built in 1924 and it looked like a refrigerator or a Jacobean castle or an elephant or a Renaissance manor house or a log cabin, IT WAS STILL BUILT IN 1924 really. There is no one “true” history of architecture – the 20th century was not simply the rise of modernism.

And neither does the 21st century have a singular style or singular narrative. Time does keep everything from happening all at once, but that doesn’t mean it only writes one story.

Again, I like some disruptions and I love my modernisms in all of their variety. But I also value something that we have been holding dear at the National Trust as we lean into the preservation of the recent past and modernism: a lot of pre-1930 buildings were built really well. They are more energy efficient and sustainable and durable than anything built in the second half of the 20th century and likely more durable than many buildings built today. And that is why Semes point about preserving a culture of building and preserving buildings SO WE CAN LEARN HOW TO BUILD was the most revelatory comment he made today. This not only takes us beyond the archicentric and modernist tendencies of the Venice Charter and Secretary of the Interior’s Standards – it incorporates the sense of traditional culture and traditional building and cultural definitions of significance and stewardship that have modified Venice since the Nara Document of 1994 and subsequent revisions that have made our conservation project more conservation oriented and less preservation and restoration oriented. More than simply asking us to revisit architectural standards for preservation, Steve Semes asked in his presentation and his book that we look at preservation as heritage conservation in the broadest, most ecological sense. It is not about style and it is not about rules. It is a process and it is a loving care of tradition, or whatever it is we want to label that connection every culture makes between the past and the future.