I wrote this piece on historic preservation before I was asked to become a member of the Springfield Historical Commission. In it I wrote that historic preservation is a means to an end and has value when it benefits the city, and that preservation is usually the best policy in a city where its days of greatest affluence were at a time when American architecture was also at its zenith; Springfield’s architectural quality gives the city a competitive advantage.
On the Strong Towns blog last week Andrew Price gave us his analysis of the motivation behind historic preservation and historical(sic) districts. His conclusion is that apart from the occasional unusually significant structure “in most cases…historic preservation is a pill for treating a symptom rather than curing the cause. We have a shortage of high quality urban places not just in the United States, but globally, and I think modernity (which includes suburbanization, modern city planning, and modern architecture) plays a huge role in this shortage. Because there is a shortage, we so desperately hold on to the places that remain. But instead, I think we should focus our efforts on tackling the underlying problem. If we were building more lovable, fine-grain, human-scale places to replace those that were lost or redeveloped, there would be very little reason to focus so much effort on historic preservation.”
I can’t argue with what seems to me to be the fact that a huge motivator for preservation is the crap that replaces our older structures, and who could deny that it would be better if we built better places? It is very much an argument that historic preservation is an opiate and the abolition thereof requires that the built environment being created for the people no longer require Prozac.
But there are other reasons for historic preservation. Springfield is fast approaching 400 years since its establishment as a town. Because most of the development and redevelopment of the first 200 years took place within the same footprint there is very little bar the footprint itself to give the citizens of the city a sense of what Springfield was in that era; actual structures preserved as teaching tools would be marvelous to have to show students of local history today. We have examples from enlightenment inspired neo-classicism which tell the story of America in ways that textbooks can’t. From Beaux Arts to Brutalism preserving the aesthetic and cultural shifts we’ve experienced as a society can give young people an awareness of who we are now and a sense of place that our culture sorely lacks.
Andrew makes the claim that historic preservation chooses one moment in time and seeks to preserve that one moment as an ideal; in my experience that is not at all the case. Different streets, different buildings, different neighborhoods preserve a variety of times and styles and ideals. We’ve already started preserving and protecting much of the best of the 20th century in Springfield and the results are that homes in historic districts are more valuable and more valued than similar homes in unprotected neighborhoods. People making an investment in a certain place want assurances that there is some stability to the ideal in which they are investing.
The environmental argument for preservation is one I don’t feel the need to make here, but others have done so in a very convincing manner.
At the core of the matter is the argument that, historic preservation being mostly a surrogate for better urbanism that we ought to reject the former and strive for the latter. I could not disagree more. If, as is often the case, the only path we have NOW to protect good urbanism is historic preservation then we should use it to the utmost (Like using the courts to fight against an overreaching executive branch). It is not at all my experience, as Andrew states, that local politicians immediately jump to historic preservation when developers come to call. Local politicians are often completely ignorant when it comes to the issues at play and support the people with the money who claim to have the answers: see the classic Taco John’s in Brainerd. Local politicians jump much too quickly on the bulldozer bandwagon in my experience: raze the old house, problem solved! That they are eating their seed corn they are blissfully unaware.
I was called the commissioner from MGM when the casino issue came before the historical commission because I believed (and still believe) that the value and quality of what they were bringing to the city outweighed what was being lost. We fought for and preserved a handful of historic structures and façades, but gave up another dozen older buildings in order for this
to be built.
In the case of the Union Station development (before my time on the commission) permission was given to tear down this:
And now the city will have to overcome the presence of a faceless parking garage on Main Street for decades. Yes, if the powers that be had a better understanding of concepts surrounding Transit Oriented Development or the inverse correlation between parking and prosperity, and/or the basics of creating a walkable environment then it might not have happened, but if the historical commission had done a better job or had more authority in terms of requiring that commitments be kept then the city would be better off regardless of the ignorance of those in charge of development.
By all means, yes, let us make the case for building better places, but until that hoped for enlightenment is achieved let us use the tools we have to improve and protect our places now.