A House Divided

August 15, 2016

Today’s New York Times featured a familiar human interest story about neighborhood revitalization and the efforts of a building owner to bring a derelict structure back to life after years of neglect. In Brooklyn Heights, a well-gentrified and upscale part of New York’s hippest borough, the eyesore is an 1872 mansion at 100 Clark Street.

Once a stately Victorian with a mansard roof and elaborate moldings, the building was not only carved up into apartments inside; it also lost its roof and most of its door and window details over the years. Owner Margaret Streicker Porres had to spend six years just sorting through legal and planning problems before she could even consider a restoration or replacement.

She and her architect, Tom van de Bout, eventually elected to bring the building back to its original appearance, at a cost exceeding that of building new. Their task will be made more difficult because there is only one known photograph of the original building. Some details will have to be extrapolated from other houses, invented, and filled in where they can’t be seen in the photo. I’ve done this kind of work before, and it is a challenge, though not one a competent architect couldn’t handle.

The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission has strict standards for “reconstructions” like this one. Though the majority of the construction will be new, and will include some materials not in the original building, they will insist on an exterior that matches historical elements to the letter. The neighborhood will benefit from a kind of healing–a beloved and familiar family member will rejoin the clan. Amenities inside will be modern, up to date, and luxurious.

Yet there are still some architects and critics who consider this approach anachronistic and even harmful. The newspaper quotes Taz Loomans, a Portland architect: “They go against progress, and they don’t reflect our society’s evolution.” That was a common refrain fifty years ago, before the historic preservation movement proved its power and effectiveness in bringing new life to old neighborhoods. It shouldn’t be persuasive in today’s world, where sustainability demands that we reuse every building that retains its sound materials and historic characteristics.

Progress is no longer a justification for waste, destruction, or replacement of human made artifacts of any kind. We’ve learned that “evolution” doesn’t mean throwing away old material; Darwin recognized that living things retain the armature of previous generations even as they make small improvements in their ability to pass on their genes. We can put our house, our planet, in order by following the real model of organic adaptation, not by insisting on “new” architecture in every context.

 

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