The Role of Architectural Elitism In Historic Preservation

Architectural elitism, some believe, is a force that thwarts historic preservation. It is argued that way of thinking preserves individual monuments in lieu of neighborhoods and proves catastrophic when it comes to the larger scale of historic fabric. This way of believing, however, is contradictory to the beginnings of the preservation field. The Mount Vernon ladies’ association actively pursued the preservation of Mount Vernon in an act that would set the tone for preservation practices in America. Although this was isolated at its time and there was no precedent for such acts, this act can be considered one of the founding acts of historic preservation as a field and can be categorized as one of architectural elitism. The question thus becomes, how do we handle the dichotomy between architectural elitism and historic districts, and moreover, do we acknowledge the subsidiary buildings to the architecturally elite buildings as a culturally significant venue?

Bluestone writes about the architectural significance of the University of Virginia’s centerpiece, the Rotunda, as the most substantial building around which the University’s campus grew and developed. The building garnered much respect and awe from the intervening architects over the decades and now that the campus has been locked in around it, there is the question of how to preserve the subsidiary buildings to the rotunda. The value in their historicism falls in their proximity to the rotunda. Clearly they represent the authentic historic fabric of the proud development of the campus, but do they earn the care of the rotunda as well? This same notion can be applied to cities as well—many historic landmarks and buildings were once considered groundbreaking due to their prominence on the horizon and skyline, yet no long yield such a place with the growing built environment around them. The Seagram’s building in New York by Mies van der Rohe is a keen example of the surrounding skyline changing and a once great building losing its prominence to those around it. This question is difficult and sensitive partially because it entails limiting growth of the surround environ, but also because it involves expanding the role of architectural elitism to the area of more than just a building, but to its surrounding buildings.

One of the ways to view these conundrums is through the presence of the many specialties within the field of historic preservation. There are conservationists, historians, planners, advocates and more at the local, state and national level. We have the infrastructure to value all that needs to be valued and to assess that value therein. We additionally need to look at these practices through the lens of not simply preservation, but smart preservation where the choices made reflect the greater desire to build better communities and allow for neighborhood growth and development with an amalgam of architectural styles and ideologies embedded within.

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