Architect: Historic Preservation Is Not Easy, But It's Necessary

By: Elizabeth Van Wye

Topics: Historic preservation

The restoration and renovation of the Starboard Light house was one of several historic preservation efforts along Stage Harbor. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Protect Our Past, a Chatham-based group focused on saving historic properties on Cape Cod, delved into some of the background and origins of historic preservation recently, welcoming internationally recognized architect Gunny Harboe as guest speaker at the group's fourth program in its online lecture series.

What we have called historic preservation is perhaps best thought of as cultural heritage, focusing not just on buildings but also on the things in the past that we share as part of our culture, Harboe explained. Cultural heritage includes world renowned sites like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame but also what he called the "vernacular architecture," like farms, storefronts and homes. Cultural heritage also includes structures like bridges, our industrial heritage and post-modern architecture. It describes "who we were at a given time," he said.

Recognizing who we are as a global culture hasn't been in the forefront until recently. Physical and natural structures are part of our cultural heritage, but there are also intangible components as well, including traditions, food, dance and song. He showed a photo of an iconic '60s era McDonalds in the Chicago area and said it makes an important point as well. "It is part of our cultural heritage and should be recognized for what it is," Harboe said.

From a global perspective, there are now 869 worldwide locations designated as World Heritage sites, including 11 cultural sites in the United States like Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty. In addition, there are 13 U.S sites referred to as natural heritage sites, like the Grand Canyon.

The worldwide historic preservation movement began in earnest in the 18th century, according to Harboe, coinciding with a developing interest in preserving ancient ruins. But it has only been since 1972 that worldwide protection of these natural and cultural sites has existed, under the umbrella of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In the US, the historic preservation movement began with the mid 19th century work of Ann Pamela Cunningham to preserve Mt. Vernon, the homestead of the nation's first President, George Washington, in 1853. More than a hundred years later, in 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act was passed.

In order to be considered under this act, properties are evaluated on several criteria, including the significance of the history of the place, the renown of the person connected to the place, the contribution of the architect or the architecture of the place, and/or its archaeological significance.

When discussing historical protection, Harboe said five alternative approaches are often considered including preservation, or simply keeping the site it as it is; restoration, or bringing it back to some designated time; rehabilitation, which involves some restoration and then the addition of some usefulness going forward; adaptive reuse, perhaps converting a hotel to an office, for example; and reconstruction, which happens after a destructive act like a fire. The Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, which was severely damaged by a fire in 2019, is being reconstructed, including the restoration of a tower like the original designed by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

Harboe ended with some advice for those interested in advocating for historic preservation. He cited important work done for several properties on Champlain Road in Chatham, including the iconic Starboard Light. The problem in many places like Cape Cod, he noted, is that the value of the land is more than the house. That makes it difficult to preserve historic structures. "You need to find a way to protect it," he stressed, describing the challenges of an effort currently under way to find a way to preserve the cottage of noted modernist architect Marcel Breuer Cottage in Wellfleet.

Ellen Briggs, president and founder of Protect our Past, said the group was currently focused on communication initiatives supporting three major preservation efforts, including the CG36500 boat house, the Monomoy Theatre and the historic property at 68 Shell Dr. in Chatham.  A documentary film, as well as several short features, is being developed to follow how these projects and encourage support. For more information visit www.protectourpast.org.