“…it is right to build houses as people wish them…to subordinate tradition…”
Gustav Stickley, from More Craftsman Homes, 1912
After more than 33 years of designing and building in the historic districts and vintage neighborhoods of Montgomery County, MD, it seems fitting to reflect on this experience. What does the historic preservation process already do well, and what could it do—by enlarging its perspective—to make a more valuable contribution to the future?
The Imperative to Preserve
That we should preserve significant buildings that link us to traditions or events of the past ought to be self-evident. But why a regulatory process may be necessary for preservation is more complex. Most directly, wind, rain and gravity take their toll on buildings. Maintenance and repair can become as costly as the building itself. Also, as communities evolve, individual buildings lose their context. Usage changes and modifications are made. Often the modifications are expedient, and accelerate deterioration. As usage changes and technology improves, buildings become obsolete.
All of these phenomena are part of a natural, organic progression—but they all can diminish the value of historic buildings as capital investment. Yet their historic value appreciates.
But historic value has little cash value. In thriving communities, the land an old house sits on may become more valuable than the house itself. In declining communities, it may make more financial sense to neglect a building—or even to abandon it altogether—than to maintain it. And so we as a community have decided to intervene on behalf of these buildings, and the linkage they provide to the past. Hence, we have created the Montgomery County, MD, Historic Preservation Commission.
What we seek to preserve is well defined, both in terms of a resource’s historical and cultural significance, as well as in the nature of its architectural design and local context. Still it is valuable to look a little into these attributes—and how a building or a home winds up subject to official preservation.
Foremost of these attributes is resilience. The building itself must withstand decades of assault by hail, hurricane, and heaps of heavy snow, and it must resist the relentless grinding force of frost heave. Simple endurance, then, is a self-selecting factor.
Beyond that, however, is our natural impulse to preserve what is the best of its own time. These buildings not only represent what was unique and innovative, but also contemporaneous that celebrates in some fashion those original, more innovative buildings. What this represents is the makings of style—and in turn, when such buildings are clustered, the fabric of a historic district.
More often than not, these styles flourished far from where the pace setters were conceived and built—perhaps in completely different climates, topographies, and community contexts. For example, the Craftsman style was initially a West Coast phenomenon. The Prairie style originates in a Chicago suburb. The popularity and spread of these and similar styles were facilitated by national publications such as “The Ladies’ Home Journal” and Gustaf Stickley’s “The Craftsman.” They were also completely commodified, and distributed as DIY kits by mail order companies like Sears and Montgomery Wards.
It’s notable that some of these proliferating early 20th Century styles were explicit reactions to earlier styles. Frank Lloyd Wright’s antipathy toward all things derivative is legendary. To Wright, they are “inorganic” things,
…absolutely removed from time, place or people; borrowed finery
put on hastily, with no more conception of its meaning or character
than Titania had of the donkey she caressed…
In the pages of “The Craftsman,” William L. Price contrasts the simple and direct ideal house for his contemporaries with
…the pillared porticos of the stately mansions of Colonial days [that] speak of pomp, of powdered wigs…of slavery or serfdom…
Perhaps no one expressed this sentiment more powerfully than Charles Sumner Greene: making truly useful and beautiful buildings
…cannot be done by copying old works, no matter how beautiful
they may be to us now…The old things are good, they are noble
in their place; then let our perverted fingers leave them there.
Ironically, these iconoclastic sentiments—which inspired and continue to inspire generations of designers and builders—were in turn overcome by the Great Depression, and a resurgence of Old World styles.
Considering all this, what we are in effect preserving is not only the building stock itself, but also a dynamic and evolutionary process of innovation, imitation, reaction and counter-reaction.