Tuesday, February 3, 2015

When is an old house not worth saving?

I know this is probably a loaded question, but at some point as preservationists we have to admit that we cannot save everything. And for those opposed to preservation who make the comment that "you cannot save everything,"-- Don't worry, we won't. Far far too much is already lost.

But looking at the cold hard fact that yes, we must tear down some of our buildings at some point I grapple with the question of at what point is a building not worth saving anymore?  This is a very hard line to draw--it certainly is not black and white.

Is it when the building is literally falling down in a heap of materials?

This house may be deteriorated, but it is not beyond repair and restoration. However, its type is common throughout rural North Carolina, and there are probably other better examples of it in it's home county.

an example of a dwelling that is literally falling apart and probably too far gone for any type of rescue

Or when it has been so altered physically and functionally that it's historic integrity has been completely compromised?

this house does not look as it would have originally been built with many severe alterations including replacement windows, enclosed porches, and changes in fenestration patterns.

Or perhaps the building or house is a run-of-the-mill house with no distinctive or outstanding stylistic elements or historic significance?

This house is a standard one-story modest dwelling whose form and characteristics are very common in North Carolina, it is not architecturally outstanding in any way and thus does not make a compelling case for preservation if the time came when it would be more prudent to demolish rather than preserve.

This is another very common house type in North Carolina that has experienced compromising alterations, including changes in the window fenestration patterns and replacement of doors and windows. It does not possess any rare or outstanding architectural significance.

I think the demolition of an old building can be warranted for all of these above reasons. It is certainly true many times that historically significant and architecturally outstanding buildings are sadly demolished. But the same is true for architecturally boring and standard buildings with no meaningful historical narrative or important connection of which we would want to preserve for the future. I'm not so sure we need to save old buildings that don't warrant preservation for a good reason. We can be focusing our energy on other important causes in our field.

Of course there are always exceptions to my opinions stated above. For some properties there may be a personal connection to a family and therefore that family has an interest in preserving it for their own sense of history. That is a decision that should be left up to the family.

Also, common house types that are found in historic districts may contribute to the district's significance as a whole, and therefore should be preserved as a whole. They may not be all that significant on their own but are important in defining character for a particular town and it's historic streetscape.

So, what do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you, hard decision indeed. If you ever decide to visit NY you have got to go to the Genesee Country Museum. It is acre after acre of homes from around New York that were rescued from rotting away or being torn down. They have so many houses and so many styles. It is a living history museum. They have farm houses and Victorian homes, churches, general store, log cabins and more. Google it! You'll love it!:)