Monday, March 28, 2011

Be Careful How You Define "Old" When It Comes to Buildings

After reading Historic Preservation Basics No. 2 at Preservation in Pink last week, I was bothered by the distinction made between historic ("Listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Typically, such properties are 50 years or older, though that is a guideline, not a rule.") and old ("Referring to a property that does not possess historic significance or historic integrity. Not eligible for listing in the National Register.")   Defining old in this way seems to indicate that old buildings are not worth saving (though This Old House and Old House Journal seem to indicate otherwise).

To be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, a building or neighborhood must in general be 50 years old or more and:
  1. be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or 
  2. be associated with the lives of significant persons in or past; or 
  3. embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or represent the work of a master, or possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or 
  4. have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory.
There has traditionally been a bit of snobbery about what is historic and what is not.  Monticello?  Yes.  Mount Vernon?  Yes.  The Victorian next door?  Maybe, but they painted it such garish colors.  The American Four Square?  Probably not.  It's too new.  And well, it's just so...common.  The Ranch House?  Definitely not.  But it was built in 1959.  It's 50 years old. 

I would argue that there are plenty of traditional, vernacular buildings (and ranch houses) that don't meet any of the four criteria, but that are over 50 years old and are sturdy houses that, with some rehabilitation, can meet today's needs.  Preservation is inherently green.  That means that retaining these houses is more environmentally (and usually economically) sound than building new.  Save the dimensional oak 2x4's, old growth wood windows, and solid wood doors.  Insulate the walls and attic, replace the wiring and plumbing, add storm windows, and move some walls around.  These houses don't have the high expectations, distinctive characteristics, and architectural details of those listed on the National Register.  Retaining the neighborhood character and creating a cozy and environmentally sound home for a new family should be the goals for traditional, vernacular old houses, not the landfill.

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