Monday, April 17, 2017

Steven Engelhart: What Makes Historic Preservation Irresistible

The Church of the Transfiguration Our Vermont friends behind “Preservation in Pink” define historic preservation as “an eternally optimistic, inspiring field intent on improving present and future quality of life through the appreciation of our built and cultural heritage.” Although we are still a long way from being a nation or a region of true historic preservationists, we are increasingly becoming more preservation-minded as the intersections between preservation and common sense, community health, good stewardship, and sustainability becomes better understood.

So what makes historic preservation so attractive, even irresistible?

It’s About Beauty. People are drawn to historic buildings and communities because most are aesthetically pleasing places to live, work, and visit. This attraction grows from a deep human need to be around beauty, as also reflected in our love for great art, music, and wild places.

Historic places are attractive because they often represent high achievements in design and craftsmanship. Whether it’s the work of a great architect like William Coulter on Upper Saranac Lake, or the imagination of a talented builder like Earl Woodward in Lake Luzerne, or the much simpler vernacular structures seen on farms or in mill towns, historic buildings are well-designed, handsomely detailed, and constructed in beautiful ways rarely seen in contemporary architecture.

Our love of buildings, however, extends beyond simple aesthetics. Let us consider other motivations for loving and preserving old structures.

Buildings Connect Us to History. There are a myriad of ways that people learn about history – through conversation, literature, and by looking at photographs and art. All of these require some kind of choice and effort, but historic buildings are the everyday connection we have to our past. They are all around us; they are the places where we grew up, the places where we worshiped, the places we’ve played, worked, and studied. If we learn to view buildings as embodiments of past lives, stories, and history, we find that they have much to teach us.

In Saranac Lake, one sees the history and importance of the tuberculosis curing industry through its sanitaria, cure cottages, civic buildings, the Trudeau Laboratory, and its thriving downtown. In Moriah, the evidence of its long and rich history of iron mining is everywhere in its mill buildings, tailings piles, company-built housing, and in the once prosperous look of Port Henry. Raquette Lake’s history as a quintessential summer lake community is told through places like The Antlers and the Raquette Lake Supply Company, as well as through the work of Great Camp designer William West Durant in Camp Pine Knot and St. William’s on Long Point. Through our observations of the built environment, we find that the history of each community is written in its buildings.

Historic sites are also the best places to learn history because of this direct connection to the past. Making this connection is especially important for teaching young people. At the Penfield Homestead Museum in Ironville, you can shear sheep and spin wool; on the grounds of the forts at Crown Point, watch 18th century soldiers drill and muster; at the Trudeau Laboratory, learn of Dr. Trudeau’s work to cure tuberculosis; and, at the 1812 Homestead near Willsboro, children can experience first-hand a day at school in a 19th century schoolhouse, then make candles, work in the garden, and feed farm animals.

tumblehome boatshopHistoric Places Foster Identity & Pride. Historic structures are very often the “beating heart” of a community, those buildings that give a community its identity and “sense of place.” Historic preservation is often misunderstood as hindering progress, rather than helping contribute to the vitality of our cities and towns. In a culture that places great importance on maintaining healthy job growth and a thriving economy, it is imperative to realize that preserving our buildings also benefits us by growing and sustaining the health and soul of our individual communities.

Think of almost any Adirondack community and you’ll quickly identify one or several such historic structures that give the area its “soul.” In Long Lake, it’s the Adirondack Hotel; in Old Forge it’s the iconic hardware store; and in Big Moose it’s the community chapel. Jay, Keeseville, Wanakena, and Hadley all have historic bridges that are central to their identity. Who can think of Newcomb without also thinking of Camp Santanoni? What is Inlet without The Woods Inn or Northville without the Willard Brothers building?

It’s What Makes Community. Historic places are where community life happens, in churches, grange halls, parks, the library, at the drug store, and on the sidewalks in between. The successful preservation of community buildings provides places for people to come together to learn, inspire, celebrate, and enjoy life.

Over the last ten years, a grassroots group has restored the Whallonsburg Grange Hall and made it into a lively community center that offers music, dance, lectures, movies, theater, classes, a commercial kitchen, and a place for meetings and special events. The former Baptist Church in Wells, now The Revival, is a place for many of the same activities. The Indian Lake Theater is the center for all kinds of community life. All of these buildings have brought people together in new and marvelous ways.

Kingsland BlockIt’s Economic Opportunity. Historic preservation projects often mean economic opportunity by providing better housing, or creating a home for a business, or developing a new attraction.

Existing buildings are often affordable real estate and their rehabilitation is often less costly as compared with new construction. A huge early 20th century barn at Nettle Meadow Farm in Thurman now serves the farm operation and is a beautiful events space. The Davidson family of entrepreneurs in Keeseville transformed a series of two story row blocks into vibrant commercial and residential spaces. Boat builder Reuben Smith created a new shop and showroom for Tumblehome Boats in a former highway garage near Warrensburg.

It sometimes helps that both the state and federal governments have provided incentives for the restoration of civic, commercial, and residential buildings through tax credits and grants. These incentives can make projects more affordable and often make the difference between saving and losing a building. The restoration of the Hotel Saranac in Saranac Lake, the creation of senior housing at the Lee House in Port Henry, and the Old Brewery apartments in Keeseville were all made possible by the use of tax credits. It’s Smart Growth. People don’t often make the connection between sustainable development and historic preservation, but the Smart Growth movement stands out as one notable exception. Widely supported across the political spectrum, this movement has a clear statement of principles: to create a range of housing opportunities and choices; to create walkable neighborhoods; to foster distinctive, attractive places with a “sense of place;” to preserve open space and natural beauty; to strengthen and direct development toward existing communities; and to take advantage of compact built design. Therefore, if a community does nothing except protect and reuse its historic buildings, it will have advanced every Smart Growth principle. Historic preservation is Smart Growth.

It Preserves Open Space. Historic preservation contributes to the conservation of open space by encouraging the reuse of existing buildings and the construction of new buildings on vacant lots that are in keeping with the building style already found there. The more construction activity that occurs within an existing settlement, the less development pressure there is to subdivide farm fields or forests.

It’s Sustainable. A great deal of attention has been given to the energy-saving benefits of new construction versus existing buildings, with much fanfare especially over LEED certified buildings. But, this misses several important points. The energy used to make the materials for existing buildings – the masonry, glass, metal and wood products, and plaster – has already been spent. These elements make up the “embodied energy” contained in a building. A significant amount of new energy has to be expended to produce all the building materials used in new construction and, according to the Empty Homes Agency, it can take many decades to recoup these initial energy and carbon expenditures in future incremental energy savings.

Existing buildings can also be made to be very energy efficient by investing energy dollars into attic insulation, securing the building envelope, improving mechanical systems, and installing storm windows. The energy payback for these improvements is relatively quick.

Compared to new construction, rehabilitating existing buildings also means more dollars go directly to local tradespeople, stimulating the local economy. This is just another benefit to reusing and improving existing buildings. If reusing historic buildings means energy efficiency through thoughtful conservation measures, utilizing the value of long ago spent embodied energy, and employing local materials and talent, then the greenest building just may be the one that already exists. They are also the biggest, most complex things that you’ll ever get to recycle.

There is overwhelming evidence that the most successful communities in America, those with thriving economies, healthy schools and social institutions, are communities that have embraced their own history and preserved their historic buildings in downtowns and residential neighborhoods. These places have embraced historic preservation as a critical element to community health along with other crucial concerns, such as job creation, economic growth, and protection of natural resources. Historic Preservation is a big part of what makes a community a good place to live, work, visit, and play.

Irresistible, right?

Photos from above: The Church of the Transfiguration (1885), Blue Mountain Lake; former highway garage is now the home of the Tumblehome Boatshop; Kingsland Block, Keeseville; and 19th Century home in Essex is heated by geothermal energy, provided.


Steven Engelhart

Steven Engelhart is the Executive Director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), the regional historic preservation organization of the Adirondack Park. AARCH's mission is to promote better public understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the region's built environment. Among AARCH's many activities are: sponsoring a series of tours of historic places; offering workshops; giving slide presentations; publishing a newsletter; managing Camp Santanoni, advocating on behalf of threatened historic sites; and providing technical assistance to individuals, organizations and local governments.   Steven is a native of the region and has a BA from SUNY Plattsburgh and a MS in historic preservation from the University of Vermont. He is the author of Crossing the River: Historic Bridges of the AuSable River, a small book about bridges and local history of the AuSable Valley. He resides in Wadhams and loves to hike, canoe, read, play the banjo, explore the region, and spend time with family and friends.




14 Responses

  1. Larry Roth says:

    Unfortunately, too many people find it easily resistible, as I’ve seen too often.

    The old and familiar is subject to nothing but contempt too many times. History is seen as a luxury, preservation a job-killer and an infringement on property rights. Economic potential is lost on those who only think in terms of newer and better, rather than tried and proven – and what development bandwagon is everybody else jumping on this year? Short term thinking and immediate returns on investment rule the day. Everything is considered disposable, nothing has meaning or permanance.

    And then we find ourselves adrift, not knowing where we came from, who we were – or where we are going. A society with no regard for the past is a society with no future.

  2. Big Burly says:

    Steven, a compelling and interesting article. Thank you for your dedication to the preservation and communications about the richness of the history of the DAKs. I agree with Mr. Roth’s comment that regard for the past is necessary for success in the future.

  3. Boreas says:

    I bought an old bungalow 10 years ago that was built at the start of the Great Depression. It was a Sears or some similar kit that was likely brought in by rail and built on site 1/8 mi away. Actual 2″x4″ and other lumber likely from old-growth forests somewhere. A few cracks from the earthquake in Ausable Forks prior to the purchase. I have kept the structure as original as possible, except the original windows were replaced with “modern” vinyl junk about 25 years ago and they started failing 10 years ago. Original front door and hardwood floors.

    It seems costly to maintain these old structures as designed. Scraping & painting every 5-10 years vs. “once in a lifetime” vinyl that lasts only 20-30 years. I would guess the cedar siding on my place is over 60 years old and may even be the original siding. Again, likely from old-growth trees that gave their lives to the saw. Why waste their lives? Celebrate their lives by keeping and maintaining them with paint applied every so often by a tradesman in the area that can use the money rather than applying a chemical-based siding made from a a non-renewable resource that must be disposed of in a landfill. Keep busy yourself or hire local tradesmen to maintain your old house. Don’t give in to the temptation to “modernize” it. Re-glaze wooden old windows, add quality wooden storms and doors. Keep that old structure original and happy!!

    • David P Lubic says:

      I live in a house built in 1925–and one of the lessons it has taught me is that I NEVER want wall to wall carpet if I have any choice at all!

      I’m the one who took it out–and when you do, you see what your vacuum sweeper and rug shampooer DON’T do! Ugh!!

      And besides, all the hardwood floors throughout the house look better than anything else!

    • David P Lubic says:

      I’ll add that if you do need to modernize something–say a kitchen or a bathroom–make it look like it fits the period of the house. It’ll look better than anything else>

      Appropriate lighting fixtures, hardware, and so on are available, provided you give yourself the free luxury of looking beyond Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Wal Mart–and sometimes you can even find the right stuff there!

    • Paul says:

      I am lucky enough to own several houses with the youngest being built in 1940. It is a log cabin and the logs are not that big. So I don’t think you need to assume that any old wood is “old growth”. The oldest is 157 years old. That one might have some “old growth” in it! But the trees that were seeded by those could be 200-300 years old or older now! That is the beauty of a renewable resource like trees. Their production is better for the environment than vinyl for sure!

      Keep the old stuff but make it energy efficient, so in that sense do “modernize”. An old house can be quite bad for the environment. Going to switch the old house I have to geo-thermal.

  4. Richard Daly says:

    Steve, Excellent observations, as usual. Keep the faith! Richard

  5. Charlie S says:

    Larry Roth says: “A society with no regard for the past is a society with no future.”

    Thank you Larry. This, or words similar, have been said by others, Eric Sloane included. We have a leadership that has no regard for the past and more and more you can just feel the detachment in people regards their heritage, the history that surrounds them. It’s a shame and before you know it they’ll be no roots whatsoever to latch on to, the eternal landscape of the past…lifeless.

    • JohnL says:

      I love the way Patrick Henry said it in his famous speech to the Second Virginia Convention in March of 1775:
      “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of
      experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.”

  6. Charlie S says:

    “There is overwhelming evidence that the most successful communities in America, those with thriving economies, healthy schools and social institutions, are communities that have embraced their own history and preserved their historic buildings in downtown’s and residential neighborhoods.”

    Yes sirree. Is why I am drawn to Vermont so much. Because they are pro at preserving their history.

  7. Charlie S says:

    Boreas says: “Keep that old structure original and happy!!”

    There’s the spirit! It’s no wonder we get along so well Boreas.

  8. Bob Rainville says:

    Interesting topic. I too enjoy “experiencing” history via well-preserved structures, etc. Immersing oneself in the tangible past can be very satisfying.
    But then my mind wanders to the big human picture and the speck of time we inhabit that is our false reality. Which “era” is worth preserving? Everything is “modern” at some point and perhaps draws the ire of those that are attached to the particular era “when things were better”. How far back do we preserve? What will a newborn wish to preserve? How about aboriginal structures? How would a nomadic culture view this topic? Cemeteries used to make me take pause for the same reason. If you think about it in terms of the big picture, preservation of anything is unnatural and ultimately futile (notice I didn’t say worthwhile). Preservation is a remote form of hoarding. It’s a form of resistance to evolution.
    Past, present and future must all be equally embraced.

  9. Boreas says:

    All eras are worth preserving. But preserve the original structure and character. I just don’t feel anything is being preserved by putting a new “modern” facade over old buildings like we did wholesale in the 60s on Main St. America. We have spent decades since restoring those original facades. Same thing with new facades on handsome old houses.

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