Hoop skirts and fast food
Shopping on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont
Backward-looking, elitist, snobby, precious, architectural appreciators with an affection for hoop skirts. Those are terms I’ve heard many times associated with those of us in the field of historic preservation. And, sometimes its kinda true. Being a sensitive lot, many of us have shied away from judging buildings too much because we don’t want to be thought of as elitist or backward-looking. We don’t want to say historic buildings are better. But, that’s kinda true, too. The reality is that most of us have a visual preference for more thoughtful design, and older buildings and neighborhoods are found to be more visually appealing by many of us, whether we call ourselves historic preservationists or not.
Instead of shying away from judging we should acknowledge that even young kids know that older buildings, particularly those built by skilled craftsmen with true artistry on a human scale, just feel better. We know it when we see it. No matter what the building’s modern function is- elderly housing, high tech incubator, restaurant or home, the refinement and charm brought by age evokes a positive instinctive response. Beacon Hill in Boston, the lovely squares of Savannah, and Rainbow Row in Charleston are beloved by residents and tourists because they feel right. Like local food, historic buildings are organic and have evolved over time to meet the specific needs of their location and history- they have terroir. Chain restaurants and pharmacies look freakishly similar no matter where you go. With few exceptions, they look like they were dropped from space by alien invaders. And, that might be kinda true, too.
In acknowledging and maybe even capitalizing on visual preference for historic structures and neighborhoods, we might be able to find all those latent historic preservationists we’re told are out there. If they’re taking pictures of historic neighborhoods, they probably care. We should not ignore their captivation.
Here’s a simple test, inspired by a program developed by The Dunn Foundation and Scenic America called Viewfinders that explores this concept with young people (credit to A. Nelessen Associates, who originated the concept of the visual preference survey.)
Here’s my version:
Where would you rather live, shop, eat out, go to school?
Go to school?
To be clear, I love modern architecture and I don’t believe inspired design is limited to old buildings. But its okay to recognize that historic buildings are often more solidly built, thoughtfully designed, uniquely situated and organic. It is time for us to be more bold in assessing visual preference when it comes to preserving our old buildings. They feel good to all of us, whether we call ourselves preservationists or not.
Maybe historic preservation is in your blood if your visual preference bends to them, as well…
“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”