This Is Not How Preservation Works

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This week in the Georgetown Current, Georgetowner and former ANC Commissioner Ray Kukulski offered his thoughts on the appropriateness of modern architecture in Georgetown. He raises several interesting points, but the premise of his views is based upon a mistaken view on the role of preservation and its governing principles.

Kukulski asks whether buildings like the one above, which Eastbanc has proposed for the intersection of Pennsylvania and M St., are appropriate for a historic neighborhood like Georgetown. He writes:

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever asked our community as a whole if Georgetown should retain its historic character. I’m doing so now…Do Georgetowners want new buildings to blend in with the historic fabric of our village, or is modern architecture with materials that do not match the traditional color palette or design of our late-19th- or early-20th-century buildings acceptable? Do international visitors come to immerse themselves in history or to see modern architecture they could see at home?

The Old Georgetown Act was not passed in order to keep the architecture of Georgetown in a style that Georgetowners want. It was passed by the United States Congress on the belief that historic Georgetown is a national treasure and should have almost unique federal protection. While it sometimes acts like one, Georgetown is not a homeowners association. The opinions of Georgetowners are immaterial.

In practice, the Old Georgetown Board and its parent body the Commission of Fine Arts occasionally listen to the opinions of neighbors when deciding to approve or reject a proposed project. But listening to Georgetowners is not in its mandate. Its mandate is to preserve the historic character of Georgetown.

So why not listen to what Georgetowners think would help preserve historic Georgetown? Because most Georgetowners only understand the part of preservation involving old buildings. Everyone easily understands that it’s in the interest of historic preservation that we don’t knock down a 100 year old home wily-nily. And most understand that allowing a dramatic change to the facade of an old building also could compromise the historic character of the neighborhood.

But the part most people start to struggle with is what to do with brand new buildings. Many (maybe even most) want new buildings to look just like the old ones. This is contrary to governing principles of historic preservation. The idea is that if you allow a new structure to imitate an old building, you are diluting the value of the old building. Taken to the extreme you have Disneyland, where everything is pleasing and nothing is authentic.

The proposed buildings Kukulski cited definitely don’t try to mimic old buildings. And that’s why the Old Georgetown Board has viewed them largely favorably (although it has yet to approve any of them) (also, the proposal for the condo at the Exxon next to the Key Bridge is dead). Personally GM doesn’t care for the Eastbanc proposal above. It’s just too blah. But GM has no illusions that the laws should enforce his aesthetic preferences in the name of historic preservation.

In GM’s opinion it is a reflection on Americans’ insecurities that we believe that the proximity of a boldly modern building will negate the historic value of an old building. Take a trip to a grand European city like Vienna and you’ll see how seamlessly a new building can blend with an ancient one without compromising the integrity of either of them:

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So by all means, weigh in on whether you like the proposed buildings or not. But don’t expect the federal authorities tasked with following historic preservation guidelines to care.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “This Is Not How Preservation Works

  1. Part of a quote bugs me” Do international visitors come to immerse themselves in history or to see modern architecture they could see at home?” There’s an assumption there about other places not having history, it feels that’s some kind of ‘something”-ist, reflecting “something”-ism. Also, I’m sure there is a study of why visitors come, but it really doesn’t matter why because you’ve already mentioned the Old Georgetown Act.
    The drawn brick building shown, looks historical, historically 1970-ish. I think there is a building on the University of Florida campus that looks just like it.

  2. MGT

    The unspoken driver behind historic preservation is that so much of modern architecture and urban design – such as it is – produces what’s generally regarded as ugly crap. I think every community (regardless of location or “historic character”) has the right to make and enforce standards of public decorum, including in its buildings and the physical environment. Architects exist to serve the needs and desires of local communities, not the other way around. If architects and builders don’t want to face resistance, they should design attractive and useful projects that people will accept. A comment in the linked article mentioned the TD Bank at Wisconsin and Q, I think that’s a great example.

  3. kerlin4321

    I agree that we can and should welcome exciting new design that works with and enhances our historic fabric. Despite being no architect or member of the Old Georgetown Board, it is clear to me that the most egregiously NON-exciting and appropriate design is the EastBanc proposal. The celebrity architect appears to have tasked his underlings with designing a bunch of shipping container/ shoe boxes, the red brick facing being his only “nod” to Georgetown’s heritage. Surely someone of his stature can do better. And we Georgetowners who don’t have (and apparently are not qualified to have) any say in these matters still need to push for something better.

  4. I think there can be compromise when it comes to melding old and new – my office is in the McKinley Building, which I think (yes, I am biased) is a perfect example of modern and historic architecture combined.

    http://www.american.edu/buildingAU/mcKinley.cfm

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