The Rear of a Building

Have you ever thought that the rear elevations of buildings are often neglected, sacrificed, or overlooked? This unfolds in a myriad of ways:

First, alterations are mostly made to the streetscape, since people want the public to see their style, updates, etc. The back of the house or the building always seems to be next on the list, and if it is the current project, it will receive less attention than the front of the house. This leaves the back of a building with a story to tell. Perhaps the windows or siding is original. Or in city blocks, alleys give hints as to the former arrangement and alterations of doorways, shed roofs, and coats of paint. This is where you can learn the most about a building (according to Prof. Gary Stanton of UMW during vernacular architecture field trip in downtown Fredericksburg).

Second, consider that the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation (#9 and #10) often relegate additions to the back of a building in order to preserve the streetscape, massing, feeling, and historic architecture. Suddenly, the rear doesn’t seem to matter too much. An addition will block the original wall and sometimes, especially on city lots, goes on and on until it is larger than the original historic structure; a view from the side elevation loses all perspective in size. The rear of the house has been sacrificed.

Third, the majority of architectural surveys occurs from the street or public right-of-way, so the back of a building is just left out. Those stories from the back are ignored.

I don’t mean to say that additions should be in the front of the building or that additions should be outlawed or that we should all start traipsing across private property just to get a good luck at the building. After all, architectural history centers on buildings facades; the facades are how we read the styles, generally speaking.  Rather, I’m just suggesting that we shouldn’t forget about the rear elevations of our historic buildings, in terms of research and in terms of rehabilitation, maintenance, or repair. And we should give them more thought. Why should the front get all of the attention? Many of us spend a lot of time in the backyard.

What do you think? Do additions need to be even more sensitive? Or is this something we just have to deal with as the needs of houses and buildings changes? Do you think that more than the streetscape matters?

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2 thoughts on “The Rear of a Building

  1. Interesting topic…I think it all matters, but I don’t see the preservation community getting a lot of support for more stringent standards for additions or the rears of buildings from the general public. This topic came up recently when I was working on a set of design guidelines for a local town that was interested in preserving an alleyway. There was much discussion about the alley’s current significance and the inevitable future development, but as it turned out many thought that restricting the alley would be taking things too far. However, alleys are fantastic from a research perspective and I greatly enjoying traversing them in urban areas.

    • Erica, I agree on your point about the preservation community not getting even more support. I think alleys are entirely different than just the rear of an individual house, so you bring up a good point. I’d say we would win more support for alleys first; like those in Philadelphia. Thanks for your thoughts.

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