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Philosophy - Appropriate Design For Old Houses

“The present belongs to the living, not the dead.”
Thomas Jefferson


The following paper was written by Dan Duncan for The Design Review Committee of the City of Arcata, January 21, 2000.

The preservation of significant buildings in a community is the common goal of public agencies, historic groups, and the general public. To know what is and what is not a significant building we must identify the significant features which set a given building apart. Clearly, not every old building is significant simply because it is old. There must be something of architectural merit, and not simply its history, which renders a building significant, and therefore worth preserving as a feature of the community.

In any given construction project on an old building there are many conflicting pressures: The Building Code, the economic viability of the project, public sentiment, the various interested city agencies, Title 24, CEQA. We would hope that a balance of all these interests would be achieved so that worthwhile projects which are a clear benefit to the entire community would not get thwarted by the narrow interpretations of one interest group or another.

Blending the past with the present in building design, as in life, is an important and worthwhile objective. Old buildings evoke the charm of a former age. The stand for excellence in both design and workmanship. A designer who works with traditional styles has the particular problem of fitting the old with the new, and the new with the old, without prejudice to either period. Whether a project is a new building with an old styling (the houses in the Stewart School Subdivision), or an old building which is being renewed (the project at 11th & I St.), the problem for the designer is the same. To what degree, and where, is it appropriate to incorporate traditional features? To what degree, and where, are contemporary features practical and necessary? When a project is undertaken which consciously blends old and current styles, the designer needs to be sensitive to both periods. Indeed, the art of the traditional designer, the blending of the two periods, requires a standard of excellence peculiar to itself.

We suggest the term “restoration” be reserved for historic buildings alone, since that is the goal of the work on an historic building, namely to bring the building back to what it once was. To apply the term restoration to a building which is not historic is misleading since there is no clear former glory to which the old building is being restored. Most old buildings are just that, old buildings needing work, leaving the designer with the problem of deciding which features of the building merit preservation and which features do not. I offer the word renovation to describe the work on an old building which is not historic, since the term suggests both a recognition of historic values which may be present in it, as well as rejuvenation of the old structure for contemporary use.

An “old building” then is any building which has been determined to be without significant architectural or historical integrity requiring preservation as such. It is simply an old building with a style and a history, having merit on its own terms, and not because it represents a recognized period or style. Clearly, the identifying features of an old building should be preserved, but new design on the same building ought to be inspired by the new use of the building as opposed to its history. The history of a building with respect to its carpentry, or its changed styling during remodels, is not always something which it is desirable to replicate. Re-muddling (the misapplication of one building style onto another) was in the last century, and still is in the present century, a common practice.

An old building should be allowed, as part of its renovation, to be reborn. Unlike a historic building, which is grounded in the past, and stands proudly with its good old fashioned styling into the present time, the rejuvenated old building nods towards its past, but then lives for the present. The renovated old building, unlike the historic building, occupies its space with something of what it once was, but is not constrained by the old uses, or its old visage. In fact, many an old building would be improved by replacing its old visage because it has not only grown old, but ugly as well. Such old buildings when they fall into the hands of the present generation of developers and designers and builders, if they are to survive, will be rendered according to the current standards of excellence in beauty and design.

In short, the current generation should not be held back by the past. We should give the past its due, to be sure, but then we should make the most of the opportunity to create within a building's given limitations. The object should be to make the best building possible using our own standards of excellence, not the standards of the past.

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