Classifying Loss

As Matero writes, “all works of art and architecture are dependent on the condition of their physical form for experience and meaning.” Therefore, the best conservation practice is to prevent damage rather than to rectify it. A preservationist’s responsibility is to manage change—to manage loss. But what if a significant loss has already occurred? How much loss is too much for a resource to merit saving?

In Bluestone’s essay on early Dutch-American farmhouses in Flatbush, Brooklyn, he recounts the chronic demolition of 17th century vernacular architecture as the town’s population expanded. A significant preservation effort did not emerge until the vast majority of farmhouses had already disappeared. Two early structures, however, fell without protest in the later stages of town development. Bluestone attributes the local indifference to the fact that these farmhouses were not in pristine condition and had not maintained continuity of use. One of the farmhouses’ interiors had been chopped up into apartments. The other building had been converted into a gas station. Regardless, they were two of a very, very few early Dutch style structures remaining in the neighborhood.

The plight of these buildings was ignored because they were no longer ‘authentic’ farmhouse representations. However, as Matero notes, “a new definition of authenticity…encourages us to acknowledge that all cultural works have a continuing history, that they are used, damaged and repaired, cleaned and restored, and sometimes destroyed.” This raises the question, if all change (loss) is authentic, is all change/loss significant? Policy responses to this question are inadequate. When considering whether or not a later alteration to a building is historic, National Register nominations identify a “period of significance,” or a stretch of time during which any alterations that occurred have acquired their own historical merit. However, the borders of this timeline can be murky. For example, consider a c1900 house located in a district with a period of significance that ends in 1940. If the house’s rear porch was enclosed in 1940, that change is historically significant, and the owner should retain the feature as is. If the porch was enclosed just one year later, in 1941, that change is not historic, and the owner is free to reopen the porch, restoring its original form.

Assigning a period of significance to a district is a useful tool to help determine which buildings can qualify for tax credit funds and which cannot, but it prioritizes an arbitrary age value rather than critically analyzing the significance of resources and their associated loss and change. There does not seem any good way to codify significance, except on a case by case basis—and maybe not even then. Significance is, and will always be, a subjective and evolving idea.

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