Regarding the Value and Role of Historic Property in the American Ethos

The value and evaluation of historic fabric has become an intensely difficult task in the 21st century. Though there are numerous governmental agencies at the state, national and international levels that make a concerted effort to do so in an efficient and effective manner, these agencies lack cohesion in their missions as well as their guidelines. Moreover, the institutions currently in place are dealing with a conundrum that, by definition, is vague. The decision of where and what to extend resources for preservation is a decision involving historical and sentimental material, the human link to which is derived by the unquantifiable measure of faith as Avrami and Mason state. Of course, this notion of faith can be further subdivided to create a deeper understanding and can be seen as aesthetic, spiritual, social, historical and symbolic as well as economic.

Applying contemporary thought to the ideals and practices laid out by the state, national and international institutions and evaluating their ambitions based on these criteria would distill these extant paradigms into their basic parts and quantify their distinctive roles in the world of preservation. Regarding primarily the World Heritage Convention—this group encompasses the broadest geographic field possible for preservation. Accordingly, its mission does not involve copious detail while it seeks to provide some protection and encouragement towards historic landmarks. The benefits of belonging to a community such as this one is the boost of joint effort and international collaboration and funding towards these projects. Accordingly, this group has minimal political say over the handling of preservation matters as more specific guidelines are found at the national and state levels. The world heritage conference does not make stringent efforts to value or evaluate specific landmarks at the same level as the other institutions.

The next level, the national level offers an enhanced degree of concern comparatively, and offers substantial advisory policy as well as economic aid. The national Park Service offers four distinct treatments for how to handle historic fabric, and in turn, offers contrasting philosophies in the world of preservation. They are: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and reconstruction. Again, these treatment options are vague as they meet the need to incorporate many scenarios of preservation. Additionally, the NPS’s notion of rehabilitation and restoration contrast in their treatment of historic fabric. This broad stance, however, is an effective and pragmatic method of offering preservation advice to the large variety of property owners, both public and private, who seek aid.

Lastly, at the local designation is the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Ordinance which lays out its goals directly: to preserve, establish historic districts, encourage restoration, afford opportunity, strengthen the economy and foster civic pride. By citing these goals as its mission statement, The Philadelphia Historic Preservation Ordinance places practical value on historic fabric by linking it to opportunity and the economy.

These institutions reveal the evident disconnect between their ambitions as well as those of the greater community. As Avrami and Mason believe, the goal of preservation is not just to preserve old buildings, yet rather to preserve values, memories as a means to an end. Of course then, who has the right to define those values and by what means and are they defined by economic means or by civic development?


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