Sunday, December 17, 2006

What Is Historic Preservation?

Diane Jakubsen of the N&R's real estate advertising section wrote today about a man who built a federal-style farmhouse out of bits of salvaged historic architecture.
Although it was built in the early 1990's, the Federal-style farmhouse looks as if it has sat on its four-acre patch of land for at least 100 years ... One other fact accounts for the authentic look of Figueroa's home. Not only is it an amalgam of countless vintage parts, the house itself is a reproduction of a 1790's house still standing in Johnson County.
At first this sounds like a preservationist's dream, right? Man with a passion for old architecture preserves countless pieces of history in a beautiful showcase.

At the risk of opening myself up to the charge of being both a snob and a hypocrite, let me say that what Figueroa has done isn't exactly historic preservation.

Benjamin Briggs of PGI likes to say "every building has a story to tell," and that's one of the main justifications for preserving old buildings. Historic buildings are a tangible record of their time and place, and are valuable insofar as they are actually intertwined with our history.

So, for instance, the JP building in downtown Greensboro is significant not only because of its architectural style and detailing, but also because it is a living record of Greensboro's economic boom in the early 20th century.

The houses in Greensboro's historic districts are significant not only because they're pretty, but also because actual Greensboro people lived in them and left traces of themselves and their way of life there.

World War Memorial Stadium is significant because it is a monument of Greensboro's 1920's-era patriotism and boosterism -- the First Horizon Park of its day, if you will.

What is the story of Figueroa's house, then? Each piece in it probably has a story, but taken all together they make a cacophony of stories. The story of the whole house is really the story of Figueroa, which is certainly an interesting one, but not yet an historic one, and the project as a whole shouldn't be confused with historic preservation.

In fact, what Figureroa has done is explicitly prohibited in Greensboro's historic districts. The manual for the districts says,
Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or architectural elements from other buildings, shall not be undertaken.
So much for my snobbery ... on to my hypocrisy.

I'm nearing the end of a renovation of my dining room (got to get it done before the in-laws arrive on Tuesday), and yesterday I did the scariest part of it -- repairing the floor in a corner that went squish when you stepped on it.

I ripped out a couple square feet of the old heart pine flooring, got under the house with the black widow spiders and armadillo crickets, and nailed in some new ledger boards.

But where to find replacement flooring, as well as 1-inch thick quarter-round molding, which I also had to rip up along the baseboard? You can't buy that stuff at Home Depot; they just don't make it any more.

But you can find it at the Architectural Salvage of Greensboro, of course. ASG had exactly the salvaged pieces I needed, and it isn't the first time I've used them.

So am I doing the same thing as Figueroa? I don't think so, since I'm trying to maintain the integrity of a house that has already achieved historic significance, and using the principle of "replace like materials with like."

But I've done other things to my house that are more Figueroa-like, such as replacing the plain window casings in my kitchen with fancier fluted ones that I got from ASG. The fluted ones match the casings in the rest of my house and look nice. But if I had to do it over, I wouldn't do that again. Old-house kitchens were utilitarian places where the servants worked, and usually had no decoration. By dressing my kitchen windows up, I effectively silenced that part of my house's story.

At any rate, I don't want you to think that I'm criticizing Figueroa. I'm glad he saved all those architectural pieces and gave them a home. I just wanted to make it clear that there's a difference between what he's done and what the city is trying to accomplish in Greensboro's Historic District Program.


Anonymous said...

I learned about Architectural Salvage of GSO when we did the PGI Web site a while back. Benjamin is one busy Web site updater (the kind who makes designers proud!). Can anyone buy parts there, or do you have to live historically?

David Wharton said...

Anyone can buy stuff there.

Good work on the PGI site. It's beautiful!

Anonymous said...

Figueroa's work reminds me a little of what Frank Horton and his cronies did for Old Salem and MESDA back in the 60s and 70s. The difference in the two scenarios being that Mr. Horton took the stories of the individual architectural and decorative pieces and preserved them as MESDA. Also, Mr. Horton didn't pretend to meld the disparate pieces together into one house -- he gave each piece its individual voice and turned an old Kroger's building into the mother of all niche museums.

David Wharton said...

Putting decorative elements in a museum setting like Old Salem's seems ideal -- you preserve the pieces and inform people about their original contexts.

The only thing that bugged me about the Figueroa article came at the end, where it said that when people mistook his house for an old one, he didn't tell them otherwise.