Historic preservation is the act of identifying, protecting, and enhancing buildings, places, and objects of historical and cultural significance.- National Trust for Historic Preservation
Historic preservation is a conversation with our past about our future. It provides us with opportunities to ask, “What is important in our history?” and “What parts of our past can we preserve for the future?” Through historic preservation, we look at history in different ways, ask different questions of the past, and learn new things about our history and ourselves. Historic preservation is an important way for us to transmit our understanding of the past to future generations.- National Park Service
One of the first efforts recognized in historic preservation is the restoration of Mount Vernon, the home of first president George Washington. After noticing the property was in a state of deterioration, a group of prominent women formed the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1853. They purchased the property, supervised its restoration, and managed and administered the site as a place where citizens could pay homage to one of its great leaders.
The success of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association influenced the establishment of similar organizations and efforts. This group set the tone for the era’s preservation activities, which focused on the houses of great American male leaders. During this period, private citizens and organizations were the primary leaders of the emerging historic preservation movement.
The Federal Government Gets Involved
The first federal historic preservation legislation occurred in the early 20th century as an outcome of the growing conservation movement. The adverse effects of rising industrialism coupled with the nation’s expansion westward stimulated great interest in nature, particularly in the Southwest and in native cultures.
As people became concerned about the looting of archaeological sites, Congress passed the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Act made destruction of nationally significant sites and antiquities a criminal offense, and it gave the president authority to designate properties as national monuments. Most importantly, by enacting this legislation the federal government acknowledged that it considered historic, cultural, and natural resources to be important and worthy of being preserved for the benefit of citizens.
The conservation movement also inspired the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, which grew to become a major player in both natural and historic preservation and significantly increased the federal government’s role.
View of Preservation Expands
While properties of national significance and those associated with great American leaders remained the prominent focus of preservation activities throughout most of the Progressive Era, ideas about what should be preserved expanded.
Preservationists began to acknowledge the importance of architecture and aesthetics in their own right, and interest arose in the history of ordinary people and everyday life. A significant turning point in the concept of historic preservation took place in 1931, when the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, established the first historic district in an effort to protect the town’s historic resources against the negative impact of automobile traffic. This action broadened historic preservation to include entire neighborhoods; it also acknowledged the importance of vernacular housing and the homes of local citizens as well as those of “great” Americans. Charleston also set a precedent in zoning legislation and the use of laws to establish, enforce, and protect preservation concerns at the local level.
There are four unique approaches to the treatment of historic properties: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and reconstruction. Deciding which of these approaches is best for a historic building is key to a job well done. People often throw out words like reconstruction and restoration to describe any work going into an older or historically significant property. However, the four treatment approaches discussed below are the stand and specific language used within the field of historic preservation in the United States.
- Preservation focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time. This is done with frequency throughoutCincinnati. Imagine a traditional single Greek Revivial house that was built in 1850, received Italianate ornamentation in the 1880s, and had an early-20th century addition built onto its rear. Today’s owner would be engaging in preservation by retaining all of the accretions of the building and maintaining the fabric in sound condition, with little to no replacement. Such buildings, coupled with having a little background knowledge, are excellent resources for interpreting cultural changes over time.
- Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to an historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property’s historic character. This approach is also commonly referred to as adaptive re-use or adaptive use. A prime local example of rehabilitation can be seen in the American Can Building in Northside. A former factory that made can-making machines. It was built in 1921 and closed in 1963 and after a few other uses was largely vacated in 1978. In 2011 after extensive work, the building was reopened as a mult-family apartment complex.
- Restoration depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods. This, too, happens frequently in the historic district; for example, a single house may have had its side porch infilled sometime in the 1960s, and returning the porch to its original form by removing the infill would constitute a restoration, albeit on a small scale. Perhaps the most well-known local example is the work at President William Howard Taft house on Auburn Avenue which depicts the house as it was when President Taft lived in the house.
- Reconstruction re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes – think of replicating a structure that is no longer extant. This method requires thorough research. One notable reconstruction of preservation yore comes from the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in the early-20th century.