Historic Preservation: Take Two

I had no idea how convoluted, diverse, and complicated preservation was.  There are many types, levels, and functions of preservation.  While Tyler explained the National Register’s Criteria for Evaluation of a property’s historic significance, I couldn’t help but notice how subjective the criteria seemed.  The property has to be associated with a “significant” event in American history, associated with a “significant” person, on a “significant” site, or representative of a “significant” type, period, method, or form of construction or art.  These criteria seem ridiculously ambiguous and I wonder how often political/ethnic/racial motivations help make a specific site “significant?”  I particularly liked the thermometer metaphor in thinking about historic “significance;” specific criteria can benefit or detract from the overall “significance” of a building, area, or location.

While I understand the point of the Fifty-Year-Rule, I am sure there are numerous buildings over fifty years old that lack historic, architectural, or cultural value.  Likewise, I am sure there are more examples than the few Tyler mentions where historic, architectural, or cultural value exists to a great degree on “newer” buildings.  Why can’t history be truly lived?  Why the arbitrary number? Why 50? Why not 100? Why not 25?

On page 148, Tyler explained the criteria for excluding locations from the National Register.  Much like the criteria for including locations, I found these to be rather subjective.  Religious properties are generally not listed unless they have significant historical or architectural merit.  I have been to a great number of churches throughout my life.  Most of the churches either look extremely historic (because they are really old) or extremely new (because they are really new).  Many historic churches are located in historic districts and/or have “significant” architectural features.  Also, why is moving a structure such a big deal?  So long as visitors are informed of the move, I feel that relocating historically “significant” (to use their favorite word) buildings can be of great educational merit.  One of my favorite museums is a County Museum back home.  There are about ten relocated buildings that have been saved from being demolished and relocated to the outside museum.  When you go in the different buildings, the previous location is given as well as a description of when and why residents added to the original structures.  I have already argued about the arbitrary nature of the Fifty-Year-Rule.

In regards to dedesignation, I found one of the criteria to be subjective as well as ironic: a building or location can be dedesignated because of “prejudicial procedural error in the designation process.”  I would hate for a building to be dedesignated for the same reason, prejudicial procedural error in the dedesignation process.  The entire process seems like a bureaucratic mess.  As for dedesignating Soldier Field because they updated the structure, I feel that Soldier Field (Grant Park Field) still holds great cultural and historic value.  It is problems like this make me think twice about advocating the historic preservation of locations.  Economics drives society, America is after all capitalist in many ways.  Where do economics and historic preservation meet?

I found Tyler’s discussion on the “restoration” of Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois interesting.  I lived less than ten blocks from here during undergrad, and I went on the architecture and history tours a few times while I lived there.  While his specific home and studio have been restored to their 1913 selves, there are three buildings next to this complex that Wright crafted.  People live in these buildings and they reflect later additions as well as Wright’s evolving architectural styles.  If you go to the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Oak Park, they offer a walking tour that encompasses these buildings as well as parts of the local high school and a couple churches he either designed or built.  When his home and studio are places within the context of the other buildings, all of which are currently being used, the restoration efforts seem more than out of place.  Moreover, the museum’s tour guides never mention that the buildings were restored.  Most visitors are led to believe that Frank Lloyd Wright was the only occupant of the building and nothing has been touched since, this is not good history.  Regardless of these “problems,” the tour is a lot of fun, but I would definitely suggest taking the walking tour rather than the simple on site “point and grunt” tour.

I had no idea how many different types of preservation and documentation existed in the field of historic preservation.  After finishing today’s readings, I am very appreciative that I am not going into historic preservation.  Part of the reason for this is seemingly subjective criteria for determining how “significant” a place or location is.  Another reason for this is that I cannot imagine trying to decide which type of preservation to attribute to which building, nor can I imagine trying to defend the reasoning for my decision.  Tyler claims that preservationists are not against development, but I find his argument rather biased.  If preservationists feel that a specific structure needs to be maintained exactly as is, or that one original building materials can be utilized, preservationists are indeed against development.  Development and progress go hand in hand, therefore, being against progress is being against development.  There is a fine line between maintaining the cultural, historic, or architectural significance of a building and rendering a building useless or unable to make money.  As for the discussion regarding “experience economies,” I wish Tyler would have delved deeper into how a community, state, or region effectively pursues such an experience.  Furthermore, I wish Tyler would have discussed the, inevitably there are many, failed attempts at creating “experience economies.”

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