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Preservationists are often cast in a less-than-flattering light in disagreements over alterations or demolition of older buildings. A hard-line “never change anything any time for any reason” approach will tend to result in more losses than wins in these cases.
Effective historic preservation work approaches rehabilitation as managing change over time to preserve character-defining elements and spaces as opposed to maintaining a “snapshot” in history. A key question that frames the discussion is this: how would we ever define the exact point in a home’s history to preserve? Most buildings have had many modifications over the years. Each change adds to the building’s individual narrative, and each owner leaves their individual chapter in the ongoing history of the home. From a change perspective, this narrative is at least as important is the architecture when exploring “why” historic buildings are meaningful and worth preserving.
And a building that people can connect to through narrative as well as architectural appreciation is more likely to be “saved.”
There are, course, key elements and spaces that need to be preserved in order to fully understand a building’s conception, and the economic/social, architectural forces at play when it was constructed. Other spaces and elements should be expected to change over time with changing tastes and functional expectations.
Historic Tax Credit programs strike a good balance between narrative and architectural integrity. They seek to incentivize rehabilitation and maintenance of historic structures in a way that maintains our ability to understand the its architecture and place in the historic context, while also acknowledging the ever-changing individual narrative.