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.
Historic 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.
It’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.
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.