Four Foundations of Successful Preservation
National Preservation Month offers a chance to consider what it takes to preserve the past to create a better future.
The month of May is dedicated to National Preservation Month, a time to celebrate the diverse and unique heritage of our country’s cities and states. For RDG and the many clients we serve, preservation is more than just a month’s long recognition – it’s an opportunity to find and express meaning in a truly unique way. By discovering new approaches to maintaining or revitalizing historic buildings and districts for future generations, we carry forward physical representations of our past.
As we consider the process of preservation, that is, what it takes to begin and see it through successfully, there are four critical attributes inherent in any preservation project: stewardship, collaboration, flexibility and passion.
There are individuals and organizations across the U.S. that understand the need for stewardship of our historic resources, advocating for the buildings and places that represent the heritage of their communities. They may realize there’s a need for a façade renovation, a countywide survey of historic properties or rehabilitation and/or adaptive re-use of a prominent historic building. Such stewardship of historic properties ensures the next generation will experience the character that creates a place people want to visit, work and live. When we undertake a preservation project, rather than tearing something down, we build upon an existing heritage and create something positive within the community.
We see the positive impact of preservation manifest in multiple ways: these projects contribute to the development of community pride and vibrancy, they contribute to environmental sustainability and conservation by saving the inherent energy within the existing building and keeping tons of debris out of landfills, they often provide much-needed housing for communities and they can boost the local economy by providing spaces for small businesses.
Every historic building has its own unique charm that requires its own unique approach to preservation. Each building also must fit into the greater context of its community or city, requiring collaboration and communication with multiple parties to move projects forward. Bringing a building back to life requires teams of tradespeople, architects, preservationists, developers, community members and city staff, and each team member has their own perspective on how the revitalized building or street will fit into the greater community. Considerations include not just the building itself, but also its street frontage, lighting, landscaping and signage, which all come together to ensure the project has the most positive impact possible.
This approach is the foundation of what we do when we create meaning together: we bring multiple perspectives and expertise together to design meaningful places that lead to meaningful experiences. With good collaboration, a holistic approach to preservation results in the greatest meaning and success for communities.
Truly vibrant environments include a mix of old and new buildings, of varying sizes and materials. Flexibility and careful analysis are needed to create such vibrant environments. While some buildings require a strict interpretation of history and preservation, others can be balanced with modern amenities. Historic buildings are like an onion, with each new layer revealing a different challenge and opportunity. These opportunities can require some flexibility to give the building a second life.
While new development can be a boon to communities, we can help those communities research and document all the alternatives and help ensure the iconic and irreplaceable structures are maintained. The clients we work with share our same commitment and understanding, as demonstrated in projects like the Hotel Maytag in Newton, Iowa, or the community-wide work being done in Grinnell, Iowa.
Finally, truly successful projects are driven by a passion to restore, preserve and rehabilitate buildings and tell their stories – from the smallest interventions to the largest community-wide projects. Historic preservation offers both a place and an experience. The historic main street is a location to go to, but even more than that, it’s an experience for visitors as they shop, dine and are entertained. We feel connected to generations before us when we walk through a successfully restored historic district or when we work or live in a historic building.
As Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, our buildings shape us.” The individuals and organizations we work with know these places matter and share our passion to preserve and rehabilitate them, so they can be enjoyed and used for years to come.
This article was originally published on June 6, 2019, and has been updated.