Transformers Highlight the Absurdities at the Heart of Historical Preservation

Last week, the Old Georgetown Board indicated that they would reject the application of Newton Howard to keep the two gigantic Transformers sculptures he installed in front of his house on Prospect St. in January. This decision should really come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the OGB. But the decision nonetheless highlights some absurdities at the heart of historic preservation in Georgetown.

First of all, to fans of the sculptures, the end is not imminent. Howard has sworn to keep fighting. And the decision is not even technically final yet. Even after the OGB issues its formal decision, it is really just a recommendation for its parent body, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The CFA normally just rubber-stamps the OGB, but not always. And in either event, the decisions take time. (So, so, much time.) We’re still probably at least a month from the CFA issuing its decision. And even that is just an advisory decision. DC itself is really the only body with the actual authority. It complies with the CFA generally, but a homeowner can appeal the CFA’s decision to DC. And when that happens, the Mayor’s Agent holds a hearing and issues the final decision. (And even that can be appealed in court).

But in all likelihood, these bodies will decide against the sculptures. Because, come on, look at them! It’s obvious they can’t stay in a historic district.


But let’s explore that a little bit.

The Citizens Association weighed in against the sculptures, and laid out the case against them:

Prospect Street like many residential streets is characterized by attached houses built to the property line abutting public space. While planters are normally found in this zone, monumentally scaled sculptures are not. There is also no historic precedent for displaying sculptures on public space abutting the primary facade.

Surely it detracts from these ancient historic homes to have a metal sculpture of two robots next to them? Right?

Well these homes aren’t actually that historic. They were all built in the middle of the 20th century with a faux “federal” style to appear older than they really are. Here’s what this block looked like in the 1930s:

The south side of the street was just a dusty hillside, but for E.D.E.N. Southworth’s old cottage (which was itself torn down in the 1940s). One good “tell” that these homes were all built in the age of the automobile is that they all have garages, which is about as historic as a Transformer statue.

None of this is to say these homes aren’t lovely. And they surely aren’t cheap. But they’re basically fake old Georgetown homes. Should they come down with the Transformers?

These homes themselves are aberrations. Built up to the property line or not, they have little real historic value. There’s really nothing there to be preserved.

And what irreparable harm is supposedly caused by these sculptures? They obviously are not causing the physical destruction of an historic building (or even a faux historic building). Actual destruction of historic buildings, like Penn Station in New York, was the original raison d’etre of historic preservation. The horror people felt at losing this irreplaceable structure is still felt to this day. But what building exists no more as a result of the Transformer statutes? None.

And these sculptures don’t cause some sort of irreversible degradation of an historic building. It’s not as if the top half of Dumbarton Oaks is being lopped off. These sculptures are not even permanently attached to the building. They are less permanent than a coat of paint (which, by the way, is not a change that the OGB even has authority over).

They are just a couple tons of steel temporarily parked in front of a house on land that is technically publicly owned.

Wait a tick, that sounds familiar!

There’s something else made from a couple tons of steel that routine gets parked in front of this house on land technically publicly owned!

How exactly are Toyota Corrollas consistent with the historic character of Prospect St.?

They’re not, of course, it’s just people really like cars. And they’re willing to put up with whatever (including 40,000 deaths a year!) to keep them around. Nobody thinks having them around somehow ruins the historic district. In fact, some people in Georgetown park their cars on the public space in front of their homes and…nothing happens!

The irony is that if the Transformer sculptures were actual Transformers, then the homeowner could just change them into a yellow Beetle and a semi-truck and park them on the street, and nobody would even notice.

Or, more ridiculously, the homeowner could just buy a large pick-up truck, pop the Transformers onto the truck bed, and park them outside his house year round. All for the whopping $35 annual parking pass fee that DC charges.

Unlike the first situation, however, people would notice this. And they’d probably complain. (There probably wouldn’t be anything they could do about it though).

And that’s because nothing about this entire absurd situation has anything to do with historical preservation. It’s all about the preservation of a preferred aesthetic and the use of the state to enforce that preferred aesthetic.

People in Georgetown often don’t object (in fact they prefer) that new buildings look old-timey. This instinct actually goes against the dictums of serious historical preservation as laid out in the Secretary of the Interior standards. New buildings, and additions to old buildings, are supposed to reflect their era and not be easily confused with the historic structures around it. But when the rubber hits the road in Georgetown, those recommended practices are often eschewed in the interest of maintaining a Main St. USA aesthetic.

Remember the Apple Store fight?

First off, this is the building the store replaced:

So right off the bat, this was a historic abomination. This building, constructed in the 1980s, had all the historical fabric of a pair of nylon Jams. (The fact that it was not remotely historic is why Apple was able to knock it down in the first place.) But to unsophisticated eyes, it blended in with the genuinely historic buildings around it. And that was good enough for it to get approved by the OGB.

But when Apple came forward with a proposal to actually construct a building of our time, they were soundly rejected by the OGB:

Instead–after haggling with the review bodies for years–Apple settled on a design that is basically just a bland pastiche of other genuinely historic Georgetown buildings:

Even sophisticated eyes might not pick up on the fact that this building is essentially a fake. It does what most people apparently wanted it to do: completely blend into the background.

And that’s all about preserving an aesthetic of history, but not the reality of history. In fact, it cheapens the reality of history. It shows it to be completely disposable and replaceable, so long as the “feeling” is the same. You can see the same story with the rowhouses built next to the Wormley and Phillips schools. If you didn’t know they were all built within the last 25 years, you’d think they were built in the 1880s.

And that’s how we end up defending a row of historic-y million dollar homes from a couple statues that could be removed tomorrow–without having left remotely the same scars on that dusty hillside that those homes themselves have wrought–and still claim we’re preserving history.

Of course these sculptures are absolutely ridiculous. But they’re incredibly fun. Stop by on a weekend and you’ll see groups of people grinning ear-to-ear taking photos in front of them. They are obviously not historic. But that’s all the more reason we shouldn’t be using historic preservation laws to banish them. Unlike the Apple Store, nobody would be confused about when these were built. They are extremely of their time. To leave them up would do not one iota of harm to the history of Georgetown, nor any of its extant buildings.

But they don’t fit the aesthetic. And despite being built out of car parts, they are not actually cars. And for that sin they will be torn down.

There’s an old joke that the U.S. government is nothing but an insurance company with an army. It could similarly be said that Georgetown is nothing but a home owner’s association with the force of law.



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4 responses to “Transformers Highlight the Absurdities at the Heart of Historical Preservation

  1. MGT

    Historic preservation is a fudge, made necessary because the architecture profession is allergic to ancient principles of pleasant urban design.

    I agree that in this particular case it seems petty and silly – but far better that the rules are too strict, than too lax. Everyone is subject to the same rules and this guy could have easily cleared the statues beforehand – he has only his own laziness and/or insouciance to blame.

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