Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Historic Preservation Manifesto

The Sacramento History Blog isn’t updated too much, but it's a model of blogging on urban history. Last year there was this particularly good post:

Historic Architecture Liberation Front

(a repost from an American Bungalow magazine issue last year, from an article entitled “Confessions of a Radical Preservationists” by Jane Powell). It had this excellent preservationist manifesto:

1. All historic buildings are created equal, and endowed by their creators with the inalienable right to remain standing, be properly maintained and not be sacrificed on a whim, be that the whim of an individual, a government, an institution, or a corporation.

2. To paraphrase a Buddhist motto: No matter how innumerable historic buildings are, we vow to save them all.

3. Historic buildings should not be sacrificed in the name of "economic development," which is almost always code for "profit" or "power."

4. "Smart growth" that demolishes historic buildings and replaces them with inappropriately dense "infill" is not smart at all and will eventually be as discredited as the "urban renewal" of the 1960s.

5. There is no essential difference whatsoever between building more density in urban cores (at the expense of historic buildigns) and paving farmland. Both are driven solely by the pursuit of profit.

6. Historic buildings are not to blame for whatever social ills may be associated with them. The building did not choose to become a drug house or to have irresponsible owners.

7. 99% of contemporary architecture sucks.

8. There is no bigger scam than window replacement.

9. NIMBY really stands for Not Intimidated Much By Yelling.

The one I like the most is the one in bold. This is a Dayton issue.

People associate old city houses here, the old stores and shop buildings too, with social & economic ills, and don’t see them as part of the cultural patrimony of the community , or as elements of a larger urban fabric or environment that give a city its character. They are just junk to be torn down, because they aren’t ‘historic’.

Now I’m realistic enough to know that they are going to tear down a lot of Dayton, but I think attentions should be paid to these old buildings and neighborhoods before they die.

Attention must be paid.


The Urbanophile said...

I can't agree with that manifesto. This idea that the choices of one generation are privileged above all others is one I categorically reject. The world belongs to the living in usufruct. There is an obligation to not destroy it. On the other hand, one generation has no right to bind the next. The people who built those old buildings destroyed whatever was there before in order to create them. Why do why have any less rights than they did? We don't believe the social policies of previous eras are appropriate to this one. Why should we believe the built environment is as well?

This idea that we either have to pay deference to the past or, on the other hand, make huge sacrifices today in the name of amorphous future generations is crazy. In effect, we are saying be glad that previous generations didn't do what we are advocating that the present generation do today.

I believe in keeping the best of the past certainly, but think we need to have a forward looking vision of the our society. A backwards looking people are one who've proclaimed their best days are behind them.

Jefferey said...

It did say it was "radical". The title looks to be a pun on Earth First leader Dave Forman"s "Confessions of a Eco-warrior".

I'm intrigued by what the entire article says (this apparently is just a part of it).

Some of those points are maybe more relevant to places like Sacramento, where there is development pressure in the old city. For a place like Dayton, the issue is loss to abandonment, where the city becomes vacant lots.

Anonymous said...


The folks at American Bungalow sent me a link to your post- if you like, I can send you a copy of the entire article.

I am fond of Dayton- my father's family was from southern Ohio, and my uncle's family lived in Dayton for years. We used to visit frequently before my family moved to California.

Blaming buildings for the ills associated with them seems to be universal.

Jefferey said...

Jane, thank you for your post. Yes ,I would be very interested in the article. and thank you for offerting to send it. You can send it to

Small world that there is this Dayton connection with you having had relatives here.

Depending on when you visited here you may not recognize the place as it has changed a lot, it seems.