TCS Daily

The New Environmentalism

By Jackson Kuhl - January 27, 2003 12:00 AM

In a recent editorial, The Hartford Courant lamented the demolition of a group of 19th-century buildings in the city's downtown. The structures were boarded up and unused, the state building inspector had labeled seven of the eight buildings unsafe, and some were burnt out and ready to collapse.

Details, details. The newspaper chastised both the city for failing to save the buildings and the local Spanish American Merchants Association, which had pushed for the demolition as part of an effort to revitalize their neighborhood.

It's good to hear that newspaper editorial writers know what's better for the barrio than the people who actually live and work there. But it's not only patronizing, nor is it isolated. In Scotland, renovation of a ruined 13th-century castle has been blocked by a preservation group as being detrimental, even though the plans called for stabilization of the collapsing structure and construction of a public museum. Meanwhile, encroachment of modern buildings on ancient Greek temples in Sicily prompted one official at the UN's cultural arm UNESCO to quip, "A bomb wouldn't be a bad solution." Just to review: Bombing Saddam, bad. Bombing Sicilians, good.

To some, a perceived need to preserve old buildings outweighs the needs and wants of present-day people. Yet the original intent of historic preservation - the idea that "the built environment is just as much part of the public trust as the natural environment," according to Connecticut Historical Commission historical architect Susan Chandler - was exactly the opposite: the works of yesteryear could be refitted to serve us today. It initially applied to distinguished sites like Mount Vernon and only later was expanded to include general buildings renovated for housing and commerce.

Modern preservation draws the parallel Chandler describes even closer, subsuming it the kind of ideological orthodoxy that has already devoured environmentalism. The results will be identical: a growing confrontational relationship between government and property owners, egged on by the same kind of end-is-nigh hysteria in the media.

On a certain level, historic preservation is an absurd concept. As Alexander Stille observes in The Future of the Past (2002), "The conservation of the past is ... a peculiarly modern preoccupation, born out of a vain hope that we can freeze time and the vain notion that what we are trying to freeze is the past." But, he adds, "What we are trying to freeze is actually the present."

The Henry Whitfield House in Guilford, Connecticut, for example, is ostensibly a stone house built in 1639 by Puritan settlers, now owned and operated as a state museum. But the house seen today is the Whitfield House as it was in the late 1930s, when an architect commissioned by the state renovated the house to return it after centuries of metamorphosis to what he and other historians conceived as its original floor plan. In the process, a fireplace and other features were added which most modern researchers confess had never been there. So which is the Whitfield House we're trying to preserve - the 1639 one or the 1930s version? What about the myriad incarnations in-between?

While greens contend that they seek to preserve a landscape as it was before alteration by mankind (which itself, in some geographic areas, is arguable), buildings are, of course, human constructs. They are material culture - tools. They are made to fulfill a certain purpose, to be modified over time to better suit their owners' needs and discarded when they no longer do, no different from an arrowhead or an automobile.

Constantinos Doxiadis, the Greek architect and urban planner who founded ekistics, the science of human settlements, made a biological analogy to cities and towns, suggesting they were organic creations with sectors that grew, atrophied, and otherwise constantly fluxed. But hard-line preservationists like the Courant want to paralyze something in time and change human behavior to fit the tool.

Preservation will only work if it's the other way around. A study conducted by Rutgers University a few years back and published by the Fannie Mae Foundation illustrated the beneficial impact preservation can have on local and state economies. On a state level, preservation efforts typically create two more jobs per million dollars invested than new construction. They also raise income levels and generate tourism. Heritage tourism to Colonial Williamsburg alone drops half a billion dollars a year into Virginia's economy.

On the other hand, preservation is so successful it hikes taxes, causing gentrification - which indicates there will always be a need for less-expensive new construction. That's the balance preservationists have to strike: adapting the tools to new purposes, like morphing old factories into condos and five-and-dimes into Banana Republics, or discarding them and starting over when they no longer fit our needs. Questions of which Whitfield House is being preserved become redundant; it's a museum and tourist-info center foremost, its tangled history secondary. Crumbling Scottish castles and 19th-century tenements serve no one.

Preservationists also share with environmentalists the conviction that if government doesn't do it, no one will. Travel doyen Arthur Frommer, in a long essay on preservation delivered to the Atlanta Historical Society, underlines the economic resource historic areas present in cities that have "no particular recreational appeal" like casinos or beaches. Yet he soon gushes in admiration at the "draconian" preservation laws of European cities, how they maintain character and flavor while we Americans erect "boxlike, functional skyscrapers," "ugly parking garages," and "offices, offices, offices." If that's true, it doesn't seem to have greatly affected tourism; according to the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, in 2000 almost as many Americans went to Europe (13.1 million) as Europeans came to the U.S. (11.6 million). We must be doing something right.

The problem with legislating preservation is that government intervention goes both ways. In a now well-publicized case before the Connecticut Supreme Court, residents of New London, Connecticut, are attempting to stop the city government from using eminent domain to seize houses in a waterfront neighborhood, then turn the land over to a private developer to build condos, offices, stores, and restaurants - basically, a downtown, even though the standing downtown is in desperate need of revitalization. The neighborhood isn't designated historic, but many of the houses date back to the early years of the last century and even Victorian times and have been renovated - that is to say, preserved - by their owners.

Frommer would undoubtedly side with the home owners. At the same time, though, he argues for "putting teeth" into laws similar to eminent domain - laws intended to deprive private-property owners, all for a nebulous ideal of the greater good. "Preservationist forces should declare the specific districts, blocks, buildings that they believe should be added to the list of historic conservation," he writes, "And challenge the developers to oppose their inclusion." He adds: "Real estate developers, almost by definition, are inherently dangerous people." Frommer wants us to believe our buildings will be safer in the hands of zealots like him than in those of, say, the city of New London.

A pox on both houses. Historic preservation is something that, like breeding nearly extinct sheep and beans, is best left to the private sector, whether they take the form of individuals, civic groups and historical societies, or nonprofits. After all, people fixing up their houses, both old and not-so-old, has become big business: Home Depot reported record net earnings of $940 million for 3Q 2002; Lowe's, $339.2 million, also a record. The market for custom crafts replicating bygone features and workmanship is probably unquantifiable. Granted, not every building will be saved, an intolerable thought to hard-line preservationists. But American communities are not museums as Doxiadis realized, and only the morbid would want to live in a museum anyway. When no one steps up to save an old structure, as in the case of the Hartford buildings, government shouldn't be looked to as the last resort. Government can play its role through tax breaks and code exemptions - though frankly, the first thing government can do to preserve buildings is to stop madmen from flying airplanes into them.

There are good reasons to preserve old buildings. The fact that they're old, by itself, isn't one of them.

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