In defense of architectural conservation

There’s nothing quite like walking into a historic building. Maybe it’s a Gilded Age home, with swooping, detailed woodwork, beautiful staircases, elegant floors. Perhaps it’s a sleek, Art Nouveau bank. It speaks to the era it came from, the many people who have passed through it. Sometimes, such buildings are still being used for what they were designed for, have been used that way for centuries. Others have been reworked to a new purpose, as for example with former lavish town homes turned into flats because few people keep such residences in the modern era. They still retain their grace and elegance when they’re well cared-for and such conversions are done thoughtfully, though.

Historic buildings can be a source of squabble and conflict. While beautiful, sometimes they really do need to come down because they are structurally unsound or dangerous. At other times, those calling for a building’s head are being unfair and unkind: A glorious structure shouldn’t be razed to make way for another row of overpriced condos. The level of conservation of originality and detail is also sometimes a subject of strife. I believe in using as many original materials and construction methods as possible, but I also believe in making buildings safe and fixing accessibility problems. I will absolutely speak up for an anachronistic elevator so everyone can enjoy a beautiful building, and I’ll push developers to think about how to make it mesh with its surroundings.

There’s a growing trend these days to tear down old buildings, and I must speak out strongly against it, because they hold social, cultural, and economic value, in addition to just being beautiful things that I love walking among. I like strolling through historic neighbourhoods, feeling and savoring these structures and their history, acknowledging the dirty side of that history, too, like the fact that servants went through the back of these glorious homes, this famous restaurant didn’t serve people of colour until mid-century. These neighbourhoods offer tremendous economic value, too, because lots of people like visiting historic districts and will pay for it — which brings in tourism revenue through bed and breakfasts, restaurants, and the myriad other things that arise to exploit tourists. I loathe the industry, but if it’s going to exist whether or not I like it, leverage it.

I don’t have nostalgia for eras characterised by a great deal of needless pain and suffering. I do, however, note that old buildings have an important value that is lost forever when they’re torn down. Some include materials we can’t get and don’t use anymore, from massive redwood beams to bricks made using processes we’ve actually lost. Others utilise construction techniques that no one knows how to replicate today. These buildings represent part of our cultural heritage, providing illustrative examples of things we cannot neatly recover, and for that, they serve an important role.

They also reflect a time in which buildings were constructed to last. In an era when oppression ruled many classes of people, hubris was in plentiful supply, and it included the belief that companies and empires would never end. We are making cotton cloth. We will be making cotton cloth. Forever, and ever. That means that some of these buildings were constructed using incredibly robust methods, and they’ll stand for centuries more if we maintain them properly. People still live in 16th century houses in some regions of the world, and worship in temples much older than that. I’ve been inside the home Rebecca Nurse lived in, and raised her family in, even though she died centuries before I was born.

Why tear down something that’s still functional, that still works, that reflects amazing construction techniques in excellent condition? It seems incredibly wasteful to me, whether or not people salvage the remainders of the building. This isn’t like knocking down a sandcastle on the beach, but deliberately destroying a piece of elaborate sand art that someone took days or even weeks to build up. Every era commits its own sins, including unspeakable destruction of buildings and cultural artefacts, but that doesn’t mean we need to join them. We can rise above the fray, be better people, treasure what past generations have given us instead of throwing it away.

A building that’s endured for decades or centuries offers an obvious and inescapable advantage in regions with frequent robust weather: If it’s still standing, that might be a sign of something. Though such buildings may not be constructed to modern code, whatever code they were constructed to has allowed them to survive earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tornados, and other natural disasters, which suggests that perhaps they should continue to be allowed to stand, and purposed for use by interested tenants who might find it appealing to have a structure that won’t fall down when the weather kicks up. Similarly, while such buildings may fall into disrepair and look a bit sad and weathered, often very interesting things come up with a bit of patience — as for example when I was looking at a home with hideous carpets, pulled up a corner, and found pristine wood floors. That awful drop popcorn ceiling might be hiding something incredible. When washed down, that facade could reveal something startling. Old buildings have secrets and they’re waiting to be unlocked, so why would we destroy the potential of finding out what they’re hiding?

I just wish that we loved old structures a little more, treasured them as part of our heritage, and that also they weren’t a pursuit of society’s elite. In some cultures, perfectly ordinary people and businesses inhabit ancient buildings, and the same should hold true everywhere. History is alive. It waits for nobody.

Image: Through Three Windows, Scott Johnson, Flickr