Region III Quarterly

Volume 2 - No. 1

January, 1940


By Dr. Aubrey Neasham,
Regional Historian.

One of the evidences that we, as a nation, have come of age is in the preservation of our heritages from the past. Together with the concept of the conservation of natural resources, we have begun to realize that it is our duty to preserve historic sites and buildings. These, as evidences of our past culture, are held in trust by us for the enjoyment and enlightenment of this generation and those of the future. Preservation as applied to historic sites and buildings means to keep them from injury; to save them. It does not mean adding to the site or building, or taking away that which is historic. By the same token, the removal of non-historic accretions is implied.

Some people object to preservation work. They argue that an old ruin does not present a true picture of the historic site. In this they are correct. There are good reasons, however, why it is not within our province to add our own workmanship to an historic building to make it look as it did in historic times. Foremost, perhaps, is our desire to get away from the idea of deceiving the public. Historic sites and buildings are evidences of material culture. The more we know about how our ancestors lived and about how they built, the better able we are to understand them. Their material culture should be of use to us in many instances. The best of their architecture, landscape treatment, interior furnishings and decoration, and ways of living, may well be incorporated into our own material culture of today, as ours may be, also, into that of the future.

John Ruskin summed up well the idea of preservation, especially as to the information to be gained by historic buildings, when he said; "You may make a model of a building as you may of a corpse, and your model may have the shell of the old walls within it as your cast might have the skeleton ... but the old building is destroyed, and that more totally and mercilessly than if it had sunk into a heap of dust, or melted into a mass of clay; more has been gleaned out of the desolated Nineveh than ever will be out of rebuilt Milan."

The argument is put forth by some that the visiting public goes to an historic site to get as full a picture as possible. From that standpoint, many consider it necessary to restore and to reconstruct the historic setting in full. What results is an illusion. The illusion not only affects those who see it today, but also those who will see it in the future, even to the extent that what we have reconstucted and restored may be called the work of our predecessors. Such reconstruction and restoration is not only artificial and unreal, but scientifically unsound. No matter what we may do, we cannot supply in exact detail or spirit that which was done before us.

Since Ruskin's day, we have found new methods and technique which we may apply in preserving historic buildings. Our scientists and professional men are working continually upon methods for saving materials from deterioration. The more perishable materials, always the bugaboo of preservationists, are coming within the conquest of the experts. Paper, wood, and adobe are giving up their secrets, and before many years ways will have been found to preserve them.

There are proper ways to present the historical picture in full without trespassing upon the principles of preservation. To reconstruct and restore in full is not necessary in order that the public may visualize the historic setting. Museums with their informative rotating exhibits, dioramas, murals, and other presentations, lend themselves to a variety of possibilities for telling the story of the past. If the mission, for example, must be shown as it was originally, a miniature model in exact scale may be practicable. Pictures, paintings, photographs, documents, artifacts, dioramas, and pamphlets may further tell that mission's story. How much more impressive an historic building will be, if the genuine historic parts of the site are preserved and the museum interprets the story. Not only is such a method less artificial, but the public is better able to grasp the story as a whole, through means of directed interpretation.

It is questionable whether a museum should ever be placed within an historic structure. The glass exhibit cases, dioramas, and other exhibits break the unity of the historic setting. A museum in such a place, even though it is composed of historical materials relating to the area, adds a touch of unreality. It is far better to restore the setting with authentic furnishings to show how a room or building was used and how it appeared to those who used it in its heyday, than to clutter it up with an atmosphere which is partially modern. Experts are recommending that a separate small museum be placed outside of the historic area. This does not impinge upon the historical picture and is easier to handle in a scientific manner. In some instances, the museum may be combined with administrative units, where it is felt that such a combination is desirable because of practical and administrative reasons.

The terms "preservation", "restoration", and "reconstruction" are often used loosely and interchangeably. Actually, they mean different types of endeavor. Restoration means bringing back the historic building, so far as possible, to its condition at the time of its greatest historical importance. Restoration goes hand in hand with the principles of preservation, if properly applied.

church ruins

Through restoration, the mission of which we have spoken takes on a truer atmosphere. Modern accretions are removed; landscape treatment is accorded the surrounding area; and, provided the condition of some buildings is adequate, it may be possible to furnish them as they were during historic days with authentic furnishings in keeping with the uses and functions of the buildings. Such restoration is essentially restoration to original appearance. Restoration to original function is to be encouraged when possible. In such an instance, if a building was constructed as a church and was used as a church, its use as a church today would be the ideal use to be found for it. The same would apply to using an historic house as a house, a store as a store, a governmental building as a governmental building.

Reconstruction goes further than either preservation or restoration in the attempt to bring back the picture of the historic setting. It implies, of course, full leeway to rebuild as far as is deemed necessary. Its exponents, discovering the remains of an historic building, find the foundations of that building the ideal basis for their operations of reconstruction. They feel free to tear down or rebuild what they wish, and gradually modern workmanship and materials are seen to materialize into a finished product, the duplicated reconstruction of the old. The building, an illusion, nevertheless is supposed to represent the old, despite the fact that its materials in their newness or attempted antiquing give away its creators. In most instances, even though the building in general may be accurate, the minute details are absent because of a lack of information and the impossibility of reconstructing exactly in the manner of our predecessors. Visitors are wont to exclaim at the cleverness of the modern creation, and its influence upon those visitors may be pronounced. However, there is always the realization that after all it is only an illusion, a part of unreality. If the building is recognized as only a copy of the original, there is never the thrill or the stimulus which comes from that which is truly historic.

Restoration, having gone hand in hand with preservation, also may be the companion of reconstruction. Restoration of both appearance and function is possible in reconstructed buildings as well as in preserved buildings. In fact, such restoration becomes easier in the reconstructed area because that much is new and the whole is not limited by historic reality. Whereas in preservation, where only a portion of the original may be left and restoration is limited to that which is left, reconstruction allows for full expression of the idea of restoration.

The question may be asked whether there can be a common ground upon which the ideas of preservation, restoration, and reconstruction may meet. The answer is yes, provided the proper techniques and methods are used. Assuming in full the principles of preservation, I have said that the historic building is to be touched as little as possible, with only a minimum of repair or stabilization work. Restoration is compatible with preservation in the removal of modern accretions, in landscape treatment, interior decoration, and in the restoration of former functions, if possible.

Reconstruction may be brought together with preservation in the development of museums, where small scale models of the historic structure may be built. There is no reason why, if it is desired that the building be a full-sized model, it should not be built in exact scale upon a location away from original foundations. Provided we claim the building as modern and not as historic, we have not transgressed beyond the realms of historic reality or the basic principles of preservation.

Having outlined in general the principles underlying preservation, the question may arise as to whether those principles may be logically transgressed -- that is, may the historic part of an historic building ever be altered or changed by the individuals of the present generation? Like all principles and rules, there may be occasions when they do not apply to all conditions or circumstances. Practical considerations and necessity have led to the change or destruction of more than one historic building. The evolution of many buildings has called for some change in the past. We are told that such changes are natural in the evolution of all buildings, and that anything we do to change them is just a part of that evolution. Such reasoning is dangerous and contrary to the principles of preservation. Repair and stabilization is permissible in order to preserve the building but outright change is not, in most instances.

There are times when the idea of evolution does apply, it is true, which will allow for changes in the historic building during the present. The instances where this is permissible, however, are only when the function is the same as in the original instance and where the ownership is the same. For instance, where a church has occupied a building for hundreds of years and is using that building as a church, it is to be expected that the church may change the building to fit in with present-day conditions and needs. Likewise, who would advocate that the White House, one of the most historic buildings in the United States, remain in the condition which it had during the Civil War? The same may be said of other buildings owned by the government, by institutions, or by descendants of the original owners, provided ownership and function is a continual carry-over from the past to the present. It is with historic buildings in which there is no carry-over of functions and ownership that the basic principles of preservation must be applied rigidly.

The principles of preservation, if applied rigidly by this generation, will insure the preservation of the heritage of the past, as exemplified by our historic sites and buildings. Those historic sites and buildings will represent a bond of unity between the past, the present, and the future which, in essence, will be an evolution of historical reality.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005