Preservation Round-Up: View from the Street Edition

Posted on: May 19th, 2011 by David Garber

A block of Washington, DC's fast-changing H Street NE. (Photo: Flickr user tedeytan)

Another reason we love preservation? Because it helps deepen the context and expand the stories of the streets, neighborhoods, towns, and cities that our work is part of. The further we go in the past, the more important specific places were for where buildings were located. People relied on weather patterns, natural light, and horse-drawn carriage travel distances. This house was built on that hill because it needed a view of that field. This building was built on that axis because it needed sunlight in that room. This community was built on that land because of that soil. It’s easy to forget those contextual needs in an age when we can light any room at any time, buy any kind of fruit in any season, and travel great distances in a short amount of time. But there’s a richness to the historical context. Today’s round-up is the “View from the Street” edition because these stories are just as much about place and placement as they are about the structures themselves.

What got me thinking about this? Earlier this week, Knox Heritage released their “Fragile Fifteen” list of endangered historic places, and most of the buildings listed are treasured because of the way they add historical context to the changing areas around them. Interestingly, most of their sites are at or controlled by the University of Tennessee (alumni, raise your voices!), whose master plan eliminates many old and original structures. Another, the Martin-Russell House, in danger of being moved:

The Martin-Russell House has remained at its original location for 175 years, a rare feat in this part of the world. Its location was determined by the modes of transportation employed during the era it was built and it still stands at a heavily traveled crossroads.

But chin up, friends, there’s a lot of good news to be had.  The High Line Park in New York City is a total triumph of contextual preservation and adaptation, and Phase 2 of the elevated railroad-turned-urban-oasis is opening in June. Enjoy this crazy awesome video that celebrates the new section of emerald goodness:

Across the country in Los Angeles, the Glendale City Council approved the design for the Museum of Neon Art. If we’re talking about views from the street, this museum is kind of the perfect fit. You’re going to want to click through to see the renderings of this building (and, if you’re anything like me, fall in love with the Virginia Court Motel Diver sign that will serve as the museum’s figurehead). Most of the signs were designed and built for very specific contexts that no longer exist, so it will be interesting to see how the museum celebrates and examines the signs’ original homes.

Here’s a fresh idea: new art designed for an old building context. In Ensched, Netherlands (but this would most definitely work in America, too), URBANSCREEN came up with the idea to project a video onto a building’s façade that examines the relationship between inside and outside, privacy and publicity.

It’s easy to think of built context apart from people and population context. For the neighborhoods surrounding Washington, DC’s fast-changing H Street NE, it’s impossible to separate the two. Sarah L. Courteau at The Wilson Quarterly wrote a piece called “New to the Neighborhood: How can you be called an urban pioneer when you move to an inner-city neighborhood where families have lived for generations?” In it, she talks about the people, relationships, and power struggles at play as her neighborhood transitions.

Walking down H Street, it’s hard not to feel a heady sense of inevitability. Change! Progress! And to hold the conviction that all the choices I make about how I live—the way I keep up my yard, the restaurants and shops I patronize, the kinds of foodstuffs I buy at the local grocery store—are contributions to a joint project of incremental improvement that’s spread among thousands of households.

The places we interact with and invest in are all part of larger contexts, and preservation and adaptation are important tools for giving those contexts character, new life, and an increased communal pride of place. What are the pieces of your community that need to be highlighted? In what small ways can you give depth to the story of your street, neighborhood, or city?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

General, Modern Architecture, News Round-Ups, Revitalization