Prelude to Demolition

The following is a generic record of an historic structure’s slow decline; and ultimately, its final days.

- The still handsome property begins to suffer from a lack of timely maintenance

- Maintenance that is performed is substandard or inappropriate in quality, material and appearance with the result that the overall value of the property diminishes

- The diminishing value of the property continues both in terms of upkeep and in the mindset of the owner/caretaker

- The owner begins to despair under the seemingly incessant and ever-growing list of maintenance issues

- The owner privately capitulates and admits defeat – the property must be divested of either by sale or demolition

- For the benefit of stakeholders, the owner contrives excuses to justify the decision to divest: the building is suddenly financially too burdensome to repair, even with repair it is too expensive to operate, too old with outdated components, and even, unsafe

- If the property is a registered heritage property, an application to deregister is considered or even made

- Outrageous quotes for specific repairs that may require imminent action are recited before the few remaining unconvinced parties as a final means to justify demolition.

For preservationists, the final days are surreal.  They start to imagine the familiar landscape without the familiar.  A sense of urgency and despair motivate a few to explore options.  The owner, who has long ago said good bye, is unmoved by the irrational emotions of others.  History huggers don’t understand the business world.

Posted by Joe Feb 13, 2012 Posted in Built Heritage, Preservation Comments Off

What Happened to Maintenance?

The throw-away ethic has become so engrained in our society that it has virtually eliminated the concept of maintenance.  Indeed we are consumers, and so we consume as if it were the most natural of habits.  At one time, there were business formulas that were founded on various types of maintenance: the house painter, the corner garage auto mechanic, or the television repairman. 

Society’s failure to sustain a culture of maintenance has resulted in a frail and underdeveloped industry.
The maintenance industry, as it turns out, was a wonderful contributor to the local economy – keeping local dollars circulating locally.

Maintenance, as it relates to heritage buildings is a concern for preservationists and those who own historic properties.  Unfortunately, the present reality is doubly challenging for home owners and carpenters because one or both parties often do not understand the concepts of in-kind replacement, honesty of materials, historic scale and proportion and heritage millwork.
It may be interesting to look back at a snapshot of what a healthy maintenance industry once looked like.  Consider for a moment how traditional tradesmen marketed their skills.  It was really quite simple.  They identified a niche market, staked their territory, and educated prospective clients as to what they offered.  The advertisement below is from 1903 and illustrates well the idea of creating a niche market.

Mr. Grant, though skilled in general carpenter work, stressed his particular proficiency with respect to bay windows and verandahs – two of the most common building additions of his time.

No one advertises this sort of skill today – yet the work and need is there – not so much for bay windows but certainly for wooden windows in general and especially verandahs.  Large numbers of heritage verandahs are in a wanting condition and require appropriate maintenance or complete rebuilds as was the case with this Craftsman style verandah below.

Verandahs are just one example, though, of the many skilled trade opportunities that exist in the historic preservation field as long as we believe in the value of maintenance and encourage young people to enter these trades.

The great challenge for those entering such trades though is that they need more than just the obvious skill set – they must also be able to foster re-creation of that maintenance culture – a culture that will protect original architectural details and components from replacement by poor imposters that are not only questionable in composition and scale but are often not produced locally.

How many beautiful homes have lost their dignity with the installation of pressure treated toothpicks?  How many wooden windows have been replaced with vinyl ones because no one bothered to do the math on the energy efficiency payback? – Often in the 80 to 150 year range even without any intervention to improve the outgoing wooden counterparts.

We all need to retrain ourselves so that we do not automatically assume new is better.  Sure, “new” has its lustre but it’s incredibly fleeting as there is always something newer.  Things that have gathered around themselves the charm of antiquity boast an enduring appeal.  Regular maintenance is almost always cheaper and often more aesthetically pleasing.

As well as being a cornerstone of historic preservation, maintenance is an important contributor to a few little things known as environmental stewardship, sustainability and local economic stimulus.

Posted by Joe Feb 06, 2012 Posted in Economic Sustainability Comments Off

The Attitude of Historic Construction

Liverpool skyline c. 1905

the half-finished stone church belonging to our Episcopal friends… will be an ornament to the town.  Truro, 1877

The new Masonic Hall, Sheet Harbor, now under construction, will when finished, be quite an ornament to the village.

Sheet Harbor, 1903

“…an ornament to the village”  “…an ornament to the town” These early phrases and various equivalents have been used in reference to period construction of public buildings and residences alike.  Its conviction is virtually unheard of today.  Its sentiment is loaded.

It treats the subject as a piece of art.

It declares the appearance of the subject as a credit to the community.

This kind of sentiment was once widely held by architects and other local builders; and their work was truly admired by citizens.

Consider the associated benefits that this sort of attitude could potentially produce.  Does it not impact on sense of place and community pride?  To personalize it we might say self-esteem and self-confidence.  These attitudes naturally encourage economic initiative and risk – in other words – entrepreneurship.  If you look like a winner and feel like a winner – you’ve got the makings of being a winner.  Now we’re talking about economic prosperity.

Is it a coincidence that communities that once built “ornaments” were at the same time prosperous?  Some might be tempted to say that such communities were prosperous and therefore could afford “ornaments.”  Some might claim that notable structures can only rise out of affluence.  A closer look at the building of these “ornaments” reveals, in many cases, considerable sacrifice and hardship, even cases of derision for building on such a scale.

The idea of building “ornaments” is best encouraged by the words of John Ruskin (1819-1900)…

Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever.  Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See!  This our fathers did for us.”  For indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold.  Its glory is in its Age.

Contemporary construction typically does not follow the “ornament” creed.  Buildings now are often constructed with something called a “life expectancy” – an odd concept for a culture that is trying to adopt ideas of sustainability and of minimizing carbon footprints.

Although the largely uninspired architecture of today should be a concern; there is already ample enough building stock that did follow the “ornament” creed to keep preservationists busy for decades.  In other words, we already have wonderful ornaments that need either preservation to retain their status, or restoration to return them to their former prominence.  These ornaments also need to be cherished by the general public in ways that are vocal and sincere.

Value these structures  – because indifference means slowly conforming to contemporary ideals that promote a sterility and sameness of architecture – ultimately eroding community identity and neutering a community’s ability to present itself as confident and proud.

Architecture should be experienced and enjoyed.  Build ornaments.  Preserve ornaments.

Posted by Joe Nov 30, 2011 Posted in Architectural History Comments Off