Historic Building Renovations Require Constraint

Written by: Chad Glenn

My son and I went to a flea market this weekend.  It was ton of fun as there was a large variety of stuff. New mixed in with the old.  Of course my son and I had to hit all the toy booths.  One of the coolest things we saw was this large Millennium Falcon so of course we both went running up to it to check it out,  we were quickly intercepted by the 50 year old guy wearing a Darth Maul T-shirt, “Hey you can’t play with that”.  My son heeded his demand but with an obvious look of confusion, because he and I both knew it was a toy.  We listened and watched him explain how rare the toy was. We didn’t purchase that toy but we did leave with a purchase.

A packaged Darth Vader and his Tie Fighter from the late 1990’s that had been in it’s package for over 20 years, although it was tempting to tear into it right there I told my son to wait until we got home to open it, which he did and proceeded to have fun with it the rest of the day.  I am pretty sure that toy brought more enjoyment in that one day then it had the previous 20 years.  That evening I proceed to pull out my old G.I. Joe’s along with some original Star Wars action figures that I still had around that were packaged up in the store room, and we played with them, after all they are toys so play!

Wait a minute I thought this was suppose to be about historic building renovations?

As architects it is in our nature to design which often relates to doing more.  More design, more demolition, more building.    More, More, More.  When you have a building that has a history and a story to tell often times with many twists and turns it is best to tell that story.  Show its scars.  Tell the occupants where it has been what has been done to it and leave a few hints to what may have been, leave the occupants with a little mystery, but by all means a building is meant to be used.

While I do not claim to be a doctor (I actually get pretty squeamish around blood, sorry I digress) I see the historic renovation process akin to exploratory surgery, thankfully without all the blood.  Carefully peeling away the layers of time yet knowing when to stop.  With most historic buildings there will be a level of demolition along with rebuild of the original that has taken place before you arrive.  While at times this may be unfortunate it is our responsibility to remove the damage but not to always provide an exact duplicate what might have been there in the past.  Honor the past and what is original but never assume what we do today will be the same as what they originally built.

Best to try and preserve what you have and protect what you can.   Even removal of all non-historic elements may not be necessary.   Remember we are trying to tell a story.  Any good story not only has a beginning and an end but an entire journey in the middle do not deny that.  Once you have removed the portions not critical to the story it is time to bring it back to a functioning building by today’s standards. A historic building is only worth what you can do with it today.  The building has to have a use in order to be a viable member of the building community. While that use may strictly be a museum showing off what once was, more than likely the historic building will need to be a viable investment with an expected return on that investment.

Now that we are ready to occupy the building the next step also requires constraint.  Let the building inform your decisions, don’t fight it work with it.
Show off what it was and where it has been.  Use those historic scars as character within the project.  Don’t be afraid of them or try and cover them up. When you do put back new elements don’t try and overshadow the history of the building, be equal to or even a little understated from what has come before.  Honor what has come before while making the new unique.  We don’t build buildings or detail things the way they use to, that is ok be your own person leave your own mark, without destroying what has come before.  What is new should be new what is old should be old.  Remember the building that you are renovating used details and construction methods current to its time, same should be for your work, anything put back should utilize current means and methods of construction.

Be your own person use the historic building, after all when the building was first built it was expected to be used so although the function may change the building still longs to be used.  Buildings are built for our use so go use them, go enjoy your building.

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