CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Summer 2010
CRM Journal

Viewpoints


In Honor of James Marston Fitch: The Preservationist’s Eye: Esthetics in Reuse and Conservation of the Historic Built Environment

by John H. Stubbs

To celebrate the centennial year of the birth of architect, educator, historian, and preservationist James Marston Fitch, the charitable foundation that bears his name organized a symposium entitled “The Preservationist’s Eye: Esthetics in Reuse and Conservation of the Historic Built Environment” in September 2009.1 The structure of the symposium reflected aspects of Professor Fitch’s famous “scale of possible participation in conserving the built environment” and specifically addressed the esthetic aspects of restoring and preserving architecture, the esthetics of designing for and conserving historic urban landscapes, and esthetics relative to architectural conservation science. These broad and diverse facets of cultural heritage protection held equal importance in Professor Fitch’s view, and formed the basis of his significant impact on American architectural history and on historic preservation in the United States.

A Summary Biography of James Marston Fitch

James Marston Fitch was born in Washington D.C. on May 10, 1909, and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His father, James Fitch, was a quartermaster in the U.S. Navy and later held clerical positions. His mother, Ellen Payne Fitch, came from a New Orleans family that had suffered severe losses in the Civil War. She rehabilitated and sold houses to supplement the family income and built the log house that was the family home. At the age of 15, Fitch graduated from high school and enrolled as an engineering student at the University of Alabama. In 1929, he attended Tulane University’s School of Architecture but financial circumstances forced him to leave after one year. He later was employed by the Herbert Rodgers interior design firm in Nashville as a designer of period style houses, one of which was a copy of Auburn, a famous Natchez plantation house. When the Depression brought such work to an end, Fitch worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority under wilderness advocate Benton MacKaye, director of recreational resources. The Tennessee State Planning Board subsequently employed him where, as director of population statistics, he produced detailed studies of the distribution of industry, highways, railroads, tenant farming, and the general economic determinants of population distribution. After a summer of study with housing and planning expert Henry Wright, Fitch moved to Washington D.C. where he worked for the Federal Housing Administration on establishing minimum standards for federally subsidized housing.

Fitch’s first published article, “The Houses We Live In” (Architecture, vol. 68, pp. 213-218, October, 1933) came to the attention of Henry H. Saylor, editor of Architectural Record, who offered Fitch the editorial position that brought him to New York at the end of 1936. There he commissioned groundbreaking articles on architecture and landscape design and wrote anonymously himself on architectural trends. Drafted into the army in 1942, he was assigned to meteorology which led him to begin to focus on the connections between climate and architecture and to consider ways that building could benefit from or modify the impact of climate. This formed the basis for his first book, American Building: The Environmental Forces that Shape It (New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1948), which was a refreshingly holistic and insightful history of American architecture. Fitch’s second key book appeared as Architecture and the Esthetics of Plenty (New York, Columbia University Press, 1961). It too was comprised of 18 remarkably well-written critical examinations of mainly American architecture. Its last three chapters—The Uses of History, The Critic’s Shifting View, and The Esthetics of Plenty—offered in detail Fitch’s bold opinions of the roles of architectural history, historical method, and the then-state of affairs of American architecture.

As an editor at Architectural Forum (1947–49) he met Jane Jacobs who became a lifelong friend, fellow activist, and influence on Fitch’s thinking about urban conservation. In 1949, Fitch changed positions to serve as architecture editor of House Beautiful with the specific assignment of directing a “Climate Control” project. From 1950 to 1953, each issue of House Beautiful offered plans for “climate-wise” houses in different areas of the United States designed in consultation with a panel of experts in climatology.

In 1954, Fitch joined the faculty of the Columbia University School of Architecture. Courses in historic preservation were added at Fitch’s instigation in 1964, and together with the architect and historian Charles E. Peterson, they established the first graduate program in the United States offering training in restoring and preserving historic buildings. The start of this program coincided with a growing public awareness of the devastation caused by the sweeping urban renewal programs of the 1950s and 60s and graduates of the program became leaders in the nation’s growing preservation movement while Fitch became internationally renowned as a teacher, lecturer, and writer who advocated preservation of the historic built environment.

When Fitch reached Columbia’s mandatory retirement age in 1979 he embarked on a series of new careers; he had already served as the first conservator of Central Park (1974–75); he set up a graduate program in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania; he produced the first comprehensive book on the subject, Historic Preservation: Curatorial Management of the Built World (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 1982); and he became a partner and director of historic preservation in the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle in New York City. Among the many restoration and rehabilitation projects he assisted the firm with were: the Museum Block at the South Street Seaport Museum, the Main Building at Ellis Island National Monument, Grand Central Terminal, and the restoration of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City.

During the 1980s and into the 1990s Fitch continued to travel widely as a consultant and lecturer and to publish critical essays such as “Physical and Metaphysical in Architectural Criticism” and “Murder at the Modern,” in which he attacked Postmodern theory and what he regarded as a betrayal of the principles of modernism. His last book, co-authored with William Bobenhausen, American Building: The Environmental Forces that Shape It (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999,) was an expansion on his earlier writings on the subject and was, and likely still is, by far the best title on this topic to date. A perfect literary capstone to Professor Fitch’s career that demonstrates his extraordinary range as critic, historian, preservationist, environmentalist, and philosopher was provided posthumously by art historian Martica Sawin who compiled and edited: James Marston Fitch; Selected Writings on Architecture, Preservation, and the Built Environment (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006).

James Marston Fitch received honorary doctoral degrees from Columbia University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, the University of Kansas, Parsons The New School for Design, and Tulane University. Shortly before his death in 2000 he attended the first Fitch Colloquium, established in his honor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.2 His legacy is maintained by several awards, grant programs, and honors including a chair in Professor Fitch’s name at Columbia University’s graduate program in historic preservation, a fellowship in historic preservation at the American Academy in Rome, and the grant programs of the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation that has, since 1988, awarded excellence and new thinking in American historic preservation.

Defining Esthetics in Architecture and Architectural Preservation

Scholars in the arts and humanities of James Marston Fitch’s generation used the words esthetic or esthetics for perceiving, describing, and evaluating art and architecture, among other things. Since the word esthetics has fallen into disuse in recent years, it may be useful to define it before discussing the word’s relation to the preserved built environment. The word esthetics, also known as aesthetics3, traces back to antiquity, and a selection of definitions of the word, that indicate its various nuanced meanings over time, are cited below.

Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language defines esthetics as: 1. a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty; 2. a particular theory or conception of beauty or art: a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight.4 From the 1750s, the philosophers Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel all used the term with slightly differing meanings in describing beauty, the good, the right, the moral. By 1830, Hegel elaborated a science of the fine arts that he called Aesthetik, which won so much approval since his time that his usage of the word was generally adopted. More current connotations and denotations reveal additional nuanced meanings and uses of the word; with its most up to the minute publically-generated definition being found in Wikipedia being: Aesthetics (esthetics) is commonly known as the study of sensory values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste. More broadly, scholars in the field define aesthetics as “critical reflection on art, culture and nature.” Aesthetics is closely associated with the philosophy of art. Aesthetics studies new ways of seeing and of perceiving the world.5

Given the long-standing use of the word esthetics in describing the art of architecture, and with today’s record accumulation of U.S. examples of the preserved built environment, organizers of The Preservationist’s Eye symposium asked leading figures in the field to address aspects of esthetics in historic preservation in our time. It is from this perspective that the symposium papers were presented, offering critical thinking on the artistic, psychological, and physical implications of today’s conserved built environment.

After the aims and parameters of the conference were presented, with my remarks taken from the present paper, Professor David De Long delivered a keynote address entitled “James Marston Fitch and the Ethics of Esthetics.” It was followed by Session 1: “Esthetics in Sustainable Architectural Preservation Planning and Design; Defining Esthetics in Historic Preservation” which was chaired by William Higgins with presentations on architectural preservation and sustainability by architects Erica Avrami and Rick Cook, and architectural writer Charles Lockwood. Session II: “Esthetic Considerations in Historic Landscape Restoration and Conservation” was chaired by Professor Randall Mason and presentations on esthetics of historic preservation at the scale of landscape design and planning for renewed urban areas were given by landscape architects Alison Hirsch and Michael Van Valkenburgh. Session III: “Esthetics in the Conservation of Building Materials and Finishes” was chaired by architect and professor Theodore H. M. Prudon and presentations on facets of conservation science were presented by professors George Wheeler, Frank Matero, and Susan L. Buck. The conference ended with commentary and concluding remarks by Professor Andrew Dolkart, Director of Columbia University’s graduate program in Historic Preservation.

Fitch and the Esthetics of Architecture

James Marston Fitch’s concerns for esthetics and ethics in architecture trace back to his early career, at least as far as his first employment in Nashville, Tennessee where he worked as a draftsman building a copy of an antebellum Southern mansion for a client. This experience made Fitch wonder early on about the role of architecture in America, in particular its ethics and esthetics with his writings, especially from the 1950s, confirming his interest in the topic. In a 1970 essay entitled “The Future of Architecture” for the Journal of Aesthetic Education he discusses in detail the importance of esthetics in architecture and admits the difficulty in addressing it. The essay’s first sentence is: “Any prognosis of the aesthetic future of American architecture is certain to be difficult, risky to write, and anything but reassuring to read.”6 He stated that architecture faces the most profound aesthetic crisis since the Renaissance, and that there were problems relating to its manifestations, problems of facing its experiential realities, and even problems of capacities for understanding the crisis. However, he reassuringly states that certain modern masters—namely Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Wright, “taken together, constituted the first sustained and principled effort to come to terms aesthetically with the post-industrialized world.”7

James Marston Fitch’s interests in esthetic theory in architecture developed from his belief that “buildings are first and foremost meant to serve in favor of people.” It is from that position that he quite early saw how preserving, reintegrating, and adaptively using existing buildings is essential to shaping and maintaining built environments. Here in the second decade of the 21st century, Fitch’s speculations from 50 years ago on the future of the built environment have proven to be amazingly accurate. He was especially right on matters pertaining to the inherent sustainability of architectural preservation and how blending new and old is key to successful urban design.

Fitch’s impressive understanding of how environmental, historical, and social forces shape architecture coupled with his critic’s eye and uncanny ability of expressing himself, were the basis of his influential teachings and writings that have resonance to this day. His reach into the worlds of psychology, medicine, science, environmental concerns, and his interest in the roles of the senses, made his perceptions of architecture all the more rare. Elsewhere in his above mentioned article in the Journal of Aesthetic Education, when speaking of the architect’s role in aesthetic decision making, Fitch spoke of “the possibility of establishing, much more precisely than ever before, objective criteria for aesthetic decision-making in architecture.”8 He could be speaking of the decision maker in historic preservation as well, with only slight modifications to his words: “Every thing the preservationist does, every form he chooses to conserve, or technique he specifies, has aesthetic repercussions. His problem is thus not Hamlet’s: ‘To act or not to act.’ It is rather to act wisely, understanding the total consequences of his decision making.”9

Here in the second decade of the 21st century, speculations from 50 years ago on the future of the built environment have proven to be amazingly accurate. He was especially right on matters pertaining to the inherent sustainability of architectural preservation and how blending new and old is key to successful urban design.

Historic Preservation, Esthetics, and Beyond

Any cursory viewing of progress of historic preservation over the past two or three decades reveals its tremendous positive effect on the nation’s built environment. In fact it is phenomenal since today’s preservation for the sake of preservation, with all its cumulative experience and capacities, has resulted in the majority of the American population knowing about and at least sympathizing, if not participating in the activity. Indeed the evidence of the success of historic preservation and its good effects is all around us.

In working on a recent book10 which delved into the question “Why cultural heritage conservation and where is it leading us?” I was reminded of the generation gap in the field of architectural preservation that has closed only recently. In both Europe and the Americas there was an age gap of more than a generation that existed between the post-World War II proponents of the discipline of historic preservation and today’s leaders in the profession which is reflected in the literature of the field, the subjects of conferences, and a continuing general paucity of dialog and critical thinking on topics related to the esthetics of the built environment. Why did this break in continuity occur? Was it because of changes in the teaching of art and architectural history? Were societal changes in the 1960s and 70s so fundamental that broad thinking humanists such as James Marston Fitch and their concerns for esthetics in art and architecture considered too subjective and abstruse? Could it be that modern society simply doesn’t care any more about esthetic concerns and values? Whatever the answer, the abandonment of considering architecture in esthetic terms seems both defeatist and wrong since a) it was such an important consideration in creating so much of today’s built environment and to not understand it is to not see it, and b) today’s accumulated built environment has acquired an esthetic of its own. Call it “sense of place,” “character-defining qualities,” or “cumulative historic significance,” the built environment in which we live has its own distinct and ever changing esthetic. As such, any tool or means that might help in better valuing and interpreting the preserved human built environment is worth considering. The stakes are quite high-after all, we are addressing the human habitat. Investigating it anew was the principal aim of the Fitch symposium and of this collection of viewpoint essays published as the symposium proceedings.

About the Author

John H. Stubbs currently serves as vice president for field projects at World Monuments Fund, adjunct associate professor of Historic Preservation in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and chairman of the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation. He may be contacted at jstubbs@wmf.org.

Notes

1. The James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation is indebted to many who helped bring the symposium to fruition. Special thanks are extended to the Preservation Alumni of Columbia University and Adrian Benepe, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks, who co-hosted the inaugural reception for the symposium. Gratitude is extended to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and Joan Kaplan Davidson who provided financial support for the event and to the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World that generously provided the venue for the conference. Gratitude is extended to Anne LeBleu, former Executive Director of the Foundation who primarily coordinated the event, to the speakers and moderators who are responsible for its rich content, and to Dr. Barbara Little, Editor of CRM magazine for her enthusiastic interest and help in publishing these proceedings.

2. This biography is a modification of a version found on the website of the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation, http://fitchfoundation.org/about_Fitch_bio.php (accessed July 6, 2010)

3. According to the Merriam Webster Third New International Dictionary (Springfield, MA, Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1981) the word esthetics is a variant of aesthetic and the two words are synonymous. Both spellings of the word derive from Greek aisthētikos meaning sense perception, from ais-than-es-thai to perceive. It was similarly spelled in Latin (aestheticus) and our use of the term today derives from German ästhetisch.

4. Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (Springfield, MA, G. & C. Merriam Company), 1959.

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aesthetics, accessed on July 30, 2010.

6. J.M. Fitch, “The Future of Architecture” in the Journal of Aesthetic Education, Special Issue: The Future of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 4, Number 1, January 1970, 86-104.

7. Ibid. 85.

8. Ibid. 102.

9. Ibid.

10. John H. Stubbs, Time Honored: A Global View of Architectural Conservation; Parameters, Theory & Evolution of an Ethos, (New York: Wiley, 2009).