Knowing Today What We'll Miss Tomorrow

April 1, 2004
Jennifer Webb and Natalie Graham

Buildings can and should have
connections to the past.

The preservation movement is presently facing a turning point. In the next few years, many buildings in the Modern and the International Style will be 50 years old and, according to the Secretary of the Interior's guidelines, eligible for placement on the National Register. As this time approaches, we must ask ourselves several questions. First, why do we choose to preserve our architectural structures? Second, what do we choose to save and in what condition? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what role do we play as interior designers? This article attempts to raise awareness of the approaching dilemma and to pose questions which we must be prepared to answer for our students, our clients and ourselves.Architectural structures can be valued for sentimental reasons, for architectural significance or as "signs of the times." Until the 1960s, people fought to preserve architecture as symbols of the sentimental value individuals assigned to structures or special locations. People also intervened to save structures due to their relevance in historical events. The cliché of "so-and-so slept here" fueled the saving of many houses and structures. Notable events in the preservation movement include Pamela Cunningham's organization of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union and their purchase and preservation of George Washington's home. This occasion, along with other important preservation acts, motivated private citizens' predilection for preservation. Involvement continues today as a grassroots effort. Yet another reason we may seek to preserve our architecture is a function of the emotional and cultural roles our buildings serve. Our built environment is a reflection of our values and dreams and, therefore, is significant to our understanding of people and their culture at a specific point in time. Material culture also provides an important emotional link to the past and to the people; these connections can be reassuring in today's fast-paced culture. With this in mind, it should be obvious that, in the context of recording human existence, we preserve many types of buildings and not only those representative of a significant architectural style. William Murtagh states that the heart of preservation lies in community efforts to preserve what is personally meaningful.One point of conflict will be the balance between saving those structures with sentimental value and those that represent significant architectural styles. Many buildings approaching preservation status are the same ones communities raged against just a decade or two ago. Allan Greenberg commented that our current reluctance to demolish or change old buildings results from fear of what the future may hold. He states that our preservation zeal is a function of the "anti-urban and often anti-human" architecture recently offered. Personal aesthetics and architectural significance must be brought into balance.Individual values will continue to be the catalyst for grassroots preservation movements and battles for places and structures around which fond memory of a time, event or person centers will be fought. At the same time, we must also consider structures' roles as historical examples of human efforts and values as well as examples of high architectural style. Murtagh suggests that shifts in preservation interests from the sentimental to the aesthetic have broadened "the scope of the traditional or associative criteria." This means that the factors in determining the value of a structure have changed and should stimulate architects and designers to evaluate their stance on the way we approach aging structures. These decisions must also be considered in the context of urban and community planning. Additionally, groups of individuals qualified in some predetermined manner must be identified to select those structures meeting preservation and planning criteria.If the question of why and what we save can be answered, we are then confronted with the next decision: In what condition is the building maintained or restored? Most individuals are unaware of the many options that include preservation, restoration, reconstruction and adaptive reuse. Rigid preservation guidelines sometimes limit the more environmentally sensitive reuse of buildings. While many buildings are innovative markers of their architectural time, the drive of progress pushes for decisions regarding their future. In many cases, the cost of new construction is much lower than maintaining the original structure. Advances in heating and ventilation systems, building materials and spatial organization have changed the building needs of people today. In many cases, it is difficult to fit an old building to a new purpose and determining the appropriate level of renovation or adaptation can be difficult. Greenberg comments that only very recent generations have been reluctant to alter or add to a significant structure; he holds as an example our own White House in addition to the great structures of Europe.We must also examine the role of the interior in the preservation movement. Preservation movements today lean more on the concept of façadism—primarily keeping the shell and destroying or significantly altering the interior. However, the connection between the interior and exterior forms the architectural style and contributes to our overall understanding of the people and their actions at a particular point in time. Preservation briefs published by the Secretary of the Interior provide guidelines for preserving historic interiors and urge caution to be used when altering the interior. These guidelines emphasize the retention and protection of floor plans, spatial arrangements and other interior elements during preservation processes. These interior elements serve in ways identical to the architectural structure itself. It is critical that we consider the interior design at the same time as the architectural shell in determining value.The preservation of contemporary interior spaces, elements and furniture is increasingly rare. In a recent Interiors & Sources article, Mary Anne Beecher states that the average contemporary interior can anticipate a seven-year lifespan. Today, commercial interiors have movable partitions, furniture has replaceable covers and facilities managers reconfigure interior space as employees and tasks change. Residences often undergo seasonal changes in color, accessories and textiles. Frequently, interior components and furnishings end up in a landfill or, if lucky, on e-Bay. The questions remain: Why and what do we preserve? Who will decide what we will preserve? In what state will it be preserved? Buildings can and should have connections to the past. Further, not every building within historic qualifications is on the National Register, nor do the owners intend it to be. As designers, we will be confronted with clients and projects where we will determine an historic structure's treatments. We must be informed in order to make decisions that have a positive impact on preserving our recent past.

  • Jennifer Webb, Ph.D., IDEC, NCIDQ, is an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Natalie Graham is an interior design student anticipating graduation in May 2004. This paper is one product of a semester-long investigation into current historic preservation theory. For information about IDEC, call (317) 328-4437 or visit
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