A Fractured Fairytale of Preservation Parables and Possibilities

Posted on: February 25th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Earlier this month, an email popped into the inbox of individuals subscribed onto Forum-L, the email list for members of National Trust Forum, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s professional membership program. It’s the kind of topic that may seem like a simple question on the surface, but eight days and 28 messages later it proved to be a hot button discussion.

The question: Does an old addition gain significance if it is poorly designed?

The situation: A conversation between a neighborhood association and a local preservation commission regarding an 1890s structure with an addition dating back to the 1920s.

Our email list members presented many a solution—asking about context, significance, and what the intentions were for the home if it was not restored or rehabilitated. Some inquired if the structure and the addition contributed to a historic district, or if it was listed the National Register. Most, if not all emphasized the need to document the addition regardless of the decision.

A few days later, in response to the variety of responses, Forum member Dan Becker presented all of us on the list with “A Fractured Fairytale of Preservation Parables and Possibilities” — his take on the spirited discussion. It had "blog post" written all over it, so here it is:

Once Upon A Time, there was the 100 block of North Bloodworth Street in Oakwood. Echoes of an 1880s neighborhood of commodious frame domiciles were pressed into post-WWII rooming houses, later beset with societal ills where you would not want to be caught dead stroller-rolling your precious patrimony of precociosity, because you might find yourself dead.

The late 1960s design answer to such vexing virulence was of course a bisecting four-lane submerged Boston-style expressway squeezed between the flanking feeder streets with access ramps zooming up and down, bringing the downtown-saving automobile quickly and efficiently into a cavalcade of car parks flanking what remained of downtown after you demolished one-third of it to build the decks, ensuring that there was no there there when you got there.

Well. A society of peoples was aggregated and incorporated and then a nattering nabob of anointed neighbors (all three of them) began neighing and braying about this new thing called "historic district." Miracle of miracles there existed at City Hall leadershipness and workerbeeness whose ear canals were not calcified by mass quantities of ear wax who instead of horsing around heard this calamity of citizenship, mounted their stirrups, and cantered forth like Hoss and Little Joe to seek the bonanza borne of study and analysis. And the highway was smote asunder.

Lo and behold, indeed a corral was erected around the pasture of forlorn beaten-down nags, and the ragged splinters began to be glued together not from the boiled-down remains of carrion's victory, but with grease gleaned from elbows. Yea verily forsooth from the valley of the shadow of death arose the staff that comforted many who would fear no evil from those that lived next door.

The society of peoples began to light candles every Xmas; neither did they place them under the bushel but brought them out into the world to sponsor tours that showed the admissions-paying hordes the light that shineth upon the house. And they gathered up the ducats and plied the usurers and landlords with untold fortunes to pry the palaces of perdition from their greedy fingers.

Hence they entered into the morass and with their own hands and horns blasted down the rabbits warren of walls of Jerry Co. and opened up the eyes of all that entered unto the riches of possibility. And it was good.

Excepting that they had to part with the pitiful palaces for a pittance of payment as the price of potential prosperity. But the parting was not without promise, and families, single families, secured their American dream, one by one, year by year.

Indeed the scales were lifted from the eyes of many and they saw. They saw!

Yet as time went by some who looked upon the promised land were riven by the heresy that was nailed to the doors of some houses. Brass numerals! Nonesuch that was ever owned by they who curried chickens in their rear yard pens. Alas, gazing upon such skullduggery might be your ick, but others may jest that the joke is on you.

How indeed to ply the ducats. That is the eternal question.

Four square and 60 years ago, someone's father brought forth, upon this block, a remodeled house, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all houses are created.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that house, or any house so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those porches that gave way so that one family of many might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow this construction. The brave carpenters, living and dead, who struggled, here, have constructed it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.

It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored builders we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full week of construction - that we here highly resolve that these crafters shall not have nailed in vain; that this block shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this neighborhood of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The thing before, now sight unseen,
who is to know the tale?
Is it better to tell the story anew,
or will a reprise regale?

-- Dan Becker
(or, as he signed himself on the message: "dan mr mixed metaphor not edward everett horton becker")

Forum members can read past message from Forum-L on Forum Online which is now located at www.preservationnation.org/forum—if it is your first time visiting the new site please follow the instructions here.


Dan Becker is the executive director of the Raleigh Historic Districts Commission in North Carolina.

Priya Chhaya, program assistant for the office of Training and Online Information Services at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, provided the context for Dan's story.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.