How Buildings Learn: Preservation, Part 2

Getting back to our very favorite chapter in How Buildings Learn,” Preservation: A Quiet, Populist, Conservative, Victorious Revolution.” I love typing that title!

Brand spends some time discussing the history of the preservation movement. Personally, I’ll admit that until much more recently than you might expect, I didn’t pay much attention to the history of preservation. This is an oversight that I have been trying to rectify, and this blog has been one way that I’ve used to force myself to learn more. People like me, who came into preservation right around the time How Buildings Learn was published (i.e., at a zenith), are the ones who I think will have to struggle to reconnect to the American people and renew our movement after the beating we’re taking from the New Modernism. And to do that, we need to look back and see how the “elders” overcame the Old Modernism and other anti-preservation philosophies of their own time to show people how important preservation is to our civilization.

Brand spends a few paragraphs talking about the beginnings of a preservation movement in England in the 19th century and compares it to our own American version. Brand sees the English movement as more rooted in philosophy and specifically the ideas of the Romantics, while the American movement had its start in a patriotic spirit. Both movements initially focused on the grand landmarks of rich and famous people (usually men), but the American movement eventually came to encompass large districts of vernacular buildings used by the common man (that’s where the “Populist” part of his chapter title comes from). Brand also shows us the beginning of that age-old battle between those who wish to “restore” a building to its allegedly original character and those who like the patina of age and change. Of course, Brand is an In-Favor-of-Patina kind of guy.

But enough of paraphrasing. Brand does quite well speaking for himself:

Preservationists might be thought of as tourists-in-place. They bear a pilgrim’s veneration for the local ancient buildings, whether ‘ancient’ is measured in decades or millennia. They will lie down in front of bulldozers to save a 1930s Art Deco bus station. In view of this kind of devotion and the whole complex of behavior and organization that has grown up to support it, cultural historian Chris Wilson regards preservation as a ‘secular religion.’ How did such a phenomenon arise? Is it likely to last?

The tradition that America draws on took shape among the romantics of early 19th century France and England. The French archaeologist A.N. Didron stated in 1839 the slogan that still guides all preservationists: ‘It is better to preserve than to repair, better to repair than to restore, better to restore than to reconstruct.’ Later the French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc [maybe we Mississippians could just call him “Duke”?], while elaborately restoring medieval works such as the cathedral of Notre Dame, simultaneously was devising the theoretical foundations of functional Modernism–an affiliation of the passionate and the pragmatic worth revising.

In England two varieties of romantic came into open warfare. Gothic Revival enthusiasts armed with Victorian wealth and confidence set about ‘restoring’ everything dark and stone to an Early (13th century) Gothic look regardless of the actual age and tradition of the building. John Ruskin, the romantic’s romantic, an aesthete as revered in America as he was in England, rebelled. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1848) he thundered that restoration ‘means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed.’ Inspired by Ruskin, the artist and activist William Morris founded in 1877 the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), which inveighed against the ‘restoration tragedy’ and founded the preservation movement in England. (Another scion from the same root was the Arts and Crafts movement, which medievalized new construction and artifacts with a sophisticated simplicity, craftsmanship, and warmth still imitated.)

In the intensely public debate it was Victorian ‘scrape’ versus Ruskin and Morris’s ‘anti-scrape’–tear off the plaster to expose ancient stones (even if they were plastered originally) versus Leave The Building Be, including the original plaster and everything that was added later to keep the building working. ‘Scrape’ won the 19th century, ‘anti-scrape’ the 20th.
. . .
America’s preservation movement began in patriotism rather than romanticism. Around 1850, George Washington’s Mount Vernon was offered by the family for $200,000 to the state or federal government, neither of which could imagine paying that much for a decaying house and farmed-out plantation. In 1853 a 37-year-old southern gentlewoman, medically frail and single, heard of the impasse and wrote a shaming letter [aahh, a good shaming letter always does the trick . . .], ‘To the Ladies of the South,’ published in the Charleston Mercury and reprinted nationwide. Thus Ann Pamela Cunningham inspired and soon deftly organized the Mount Vernon Ladies Association with female fundraisers in every state. They purchased Mount Vernon in 1858, and they run it to this day. A pattern had been set. In matters of preservation, organizations of volunteers would take the lead.

Two comments on the above: I wish Brand would have expanded upon his comparison of the preservation movement with a religious movement. As a Christian, I have noticed this similarity at times, and admit to having been vaguely disturbed by it. If you carry out the comparison, could the recent debate amongst preservationists who hate Modern buildings and those who love them be compared to the beginnings of denominations in the Protestant church, as one group decided it didn’t have as much in common with the other group as it initially thought? Second, it’s interesting that the British movement got its start with riled-up men, while in America, it was women who started and, I think, have sustained the movement over the past 150 years.

This post is the 4th part of a week-long series. Want to read the rest?

1. Book Quotes: How Buildings Learn

2. How Buildings Learn: From High Road to Unreal Estate

3. How Buildings Learn: Preservationists Are Soooo Cool

5. How Buildings Learn: Defining Vernacular

6. How Buildings Learn: Some Closing Thoughts

Categories: Books, Historic Preservation

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