Preservation ABCs: G is for Gateway

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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G is for Gateway

This pony truss bridges is a gateway to the Woodstock Village Historic District.

A gateway is an indication on the landscape or in the built environment that you are crossing to a new setting. This indication is a tangible change in the environment. Think of a gateway like an entrance to someplace new; however, gateways are more than gates and fences, of course. A gateway might be a bridge, stone walls, landscaping or a settlement pattern that gets denser as you approach the center of town. A bridge is a gateway to a historic district because it anchors one side of the district boundary. Upon crossing that bridge, you are entering the village or historic district.

Gateways are important because they allow us to read the landscape as we travel and to recognize communities. Because of this, our historic bridges are important to maintain and rehabilitate. Removing a truss bridge or an ornamental concrete railing to be replaced with a standard highway bridge will change how you read the landscape. Historic bridges signify crossings and entrances.

Towns and neighborhoods do not need a bridge in order to have a gateway. Sometimes when an “entrance” to a village is less obvious, due to development and sprawl, towns will employ welcome signs and banners or other landscaping elements. The street might be narrower or sidewalks begin at a certain point. These are examples of reading the more subtle hints of the built environment. New development and even shopping malls today attempt to create the feeling of gateways by lining the traffic lanes with ornamental street lights and banners, using pavers or dyed concrete.

When you cross that gateway maybe you get the feeling that you are in a settled area, a more human scale area as opposed to the wide open spaces or the sprawl development. Take a look next time you’re traveling.

Think about this: how do you recognize when you enter your town? What does the approach into your neighborhood look like? Would you say that it has a gateway?

Street Light Maintenance

Underground utilities and decorative street light posts and fixtures are good additions to historic districts or any area that strives to clean up its appearance. Wires and cobra lights attached to tall telephone poles aren’t exactly human scale or friendly. Hence, towns often seek grants for decorative light fixtures. Developments, strip malls, parking lots, etc. that seek to be more than just a row of stores adjacent to striped asphalt include landscaping and light fixtures in their designs. It makes sense, right?

However, as we all know, maintenance is an important element of the built environment. By casual observation, I’ve noticed that many decorative street lights soon become filthy, filled with dirt or bugs. And without regular cleaning, these otherwise attractive light posts are no longer attractive. See these examples below:

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A quick cleaning would do wonders for these lights, don’t you think? And a better seal between the fixture and the light cover. Take a look at your town’s light fixtures the next time you’re out and about. What do you see? Perhaps it is time to make a recommendation to town officials that cleaning the lights should be added to the town’s work plan. Minor tasks like this easily fall off the radar, so a reminder might be all that is needed. What do you think?

Preservation ABCs: A is for Alley

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! 

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A is for ALLEY

Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia, PA. Photo source: Library of Congress. “GENERAL VIEW OF NORTH (LEFT) AND SOUTH SIDES OF THE ALLEY, LOOKING EAST” Click to go to original digital source.

What is an alley? An alley is a small, narrow street between or behind buildings, mostly in urban settings. Some alleys are for pedestrians only, some are for automobiles to access garages. What does an alley have to do with historic preservation? Alleyways are part of our planning and development history, giving us clues to how people traversed cities and used space. Also, think of it this way: as a culture, we are more likely to spruce front yards, building facades and the most publicly visible spaces that we inhabit. Alleys have the potential to show what the building looked like prior to improvements or stylized additions. 

Alleys are also working corridors. Often these narrow spaces between and behind buildings exist for services (trash collection, deliveries, vehicle parking) and are less traveled than the sidewalks on the streetscape. Because they are less traveled, alleys hold mystery.

Want to visit an alley? Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia, PA is a National Historic Landmark.

In Your Town: Trash Cans & Recycling Bins

Lately we’ve talked a lot about looking at and seeing your town/community/city in more detail than usual, and identifying what you like and possibilities for improvement. See these posts and discussions for starters: What’s Your Community Wish?Small, Public Spaces: Parklets; Street Observations: 10 Questions; On Your Streets: Curbs.

So, what do trash cans and recycling bins have to do with any of this? Well, have you ever found yourself walking around and wanting to throw out or recycle something? You don’t really notice the existence of or lack of such receptacles until you need one, right? Maybe it’s like looking for a bench. You don’t think about it until you really want to sit somewhere.

Do trash and recycling receptacles matter in our built environment, specifically our historic downtowns? Frankly, yes. For one thing, it keeps the environment clean. And secondly, it makes for a more pleasant experience, because our streets and parks feel whole. Meaning, if you have everything you need, you’ll likely to appreciate the place and your time there.

Concord, NH. Note the trash bin at the edge of the sidewalk and crosswalk.

Yet, many of our towns and villages struggle with the issue of trash and recycling receptacles because it can be expensive and labor intensive. And then where do you put them? As mentioned previously, many of our towns are not blessed with wide sidewalks and there is not room for such street furnishings, especially if you are looking for trash and recycling. But, there is no way around this. Trash and recycling bins are important to a healthy community.

Receptacles come in many shapes, sizes and styles, from cast iron boxes like the one below to decorative barrels to open barrels on a post to concrete and hard top plastic. We’ve all seen these, I’m sure. But have you ever thought about them?

One example: zero sort receptacles in Rutland, VT.

So the next time you are out and about, take note of your streets. Are there trash and/or recycling receptacles? Of what style and material? (Meaning, are they barrels, metal, open cans, etc.?) Are there enough? Are your streets clean? Are they necessary where you live?

Trash & recycling in Keene, NH (where there are large sidewalks and pedestrian spaces).

Understanding such a seemingly minute aspect of our built environment allows us, preservationists and beyond, to shape our communities for the better. A well-cared for community is one that people will love, and one that is worthy of people’s pride. And that makes for a better sense of place. Make sense? Can you think of other “minute” details that can make a big impact where you live and visit?

On Your Streets: Curbs

Have you noticed the street curbing (or curbs) lately? What is the material? Concrete, granite, marble, stone, or none at all?

I’ve pondered sidewalks before, but not really the curb material. Why bother to notice, you ask? From a transportation perspective, it’s interesting, because curbing is something specified in sidewalk and road construction plans. Curbs exist to protect pedestrians from traffic and to channel runoff.

Curbs typically exist in neighborhoods, villages, towns, cities, etc., as opposed to on stretches of highway and less dense areas of development. Their style, shape, construction methods, materials and age varies. Until living in Vermont, I never noticed granite curbing, which is popular (though not a rule) in recent sidewalk reconstruction throughout Vermont villages. Older curbs from the early 20th century are concrete. While home in New York recently, I noticed the curbs were either concrete or rough cut stone blocks with cement mortar. When living in North Carolina, I remember thinking it odd that in many neighborhoods, the lawn ran into the street without a curb, and many of the front yards were covered in (long leaf) pine straw in addition to grass. What is the reason for the difference?

A newer granite curb in a Vermont village.

I would guess climate factors into the decision, and availability of material. Vermont and New Hampshire are known for granite, and it is more durable for our harsh winters, road salts and other de-icing solutions and against plows. The climate in Southern Pines, NC was much milder compared to other places I’ve lived, and snow plows of any kind are rarely needed.

The older curbs in Vermont are often concrete, of varying composition. The smaller/less visible the aggregate (pebbles mostly), the newer the curb, is what I've found so far.

How about the height of the curbing? That factor depends on road speed and its correlation to pedestrian safety. Often, newer curbs will seem very tall (6-8 inches), whereas older curbs are very short. That is often a result of a different safety standards and/or how many layers of pavement have been applied over the years, thereby altering the height of the curb.

A lack of a curb also implies a less formal or a more rural development. I would infer that it is a less expensive method of road construction, since only road subbase and asphalt pavement is necessary, not curbs and sewer drain systems.

Curbs are a subtle element of the built environment and transportation system, but worth noticing because it could be an element that you never think of until it is different. Imagine how your town would look with different curbs, no curbs or the addition of curbs.

A good juxtaposition of concrete curb and granite curb with concrete sidewalk of varying ages, though all relatively recent.

Take a look next time you are out and about. If your town has a different curb, send me a picture! And if you really want to know more about curbs and all related features, read this chapter from the Federal Highway Administration’s guide to Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access. Or read about curb ramps from FHWA.

Historic Preservation Basics No. 4

Series introduction. No. 1 = Ideas You Should Not Believe About Historic Preservation. No. 2 = Vocabulary for Translating and Holding Your Own in a Preservation Conversation. No. 3 = Let’s Talk about Architecture / The Very Beginning of Describing Buildings.

No. 4 = Let’s Talk about Buildings A Bit More

Historic Preservation Basics No. 3 introduced a simple outline for learning how to approach a building; how do you talk about the buildings around you? Now you have the basics: number of stories, roof shape, windows, footprint, and then details. The first four are easy; as they say, the devil is in the [architectural] details.

Let’s first establish that architectural details can be structural or aesthetic. Details matter because architectural styles are read through details, shapes, massing, and materials. So, the more you can identify on a building, the more likely you are to clearly match it with a style. (A slight disclaimer: the majority of buildings will fall under more than one architectural style; just be able to support your reasoning.)

If you want to become familiar with architectural styles, pick up a copy of Virginia & Lee McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses or another style book. Read it. Mark it. Refer to it constantly. Professionals do it all the time.

Again, I will not write a book here. Instead, let’s look at details. The intent is to train your eye to pull out details and to know where to look.

1. Door/window surrounds

How are the doors and windows accented? How are they set in the building? What surrounds them? Are there columns? Moldings? Arches over the windows? Pediments (think triangles) over the windows?

Madison Heights, VA. June 2008.

This set of double doors is striking, right? It’s a feature that you don’t see everyday or on modern houses, so you know that you want to mention it when talking about the building. Each door has 14 panes of glass over an inset panel. There is a four light/pane transom over the door. You could also mention the screen doors. The molding is hard to see in this photograph, but you can see some detail near the transom, indicating that it’s probably part of the style.

2. Windows

What are the shapes of the windows? Of the window panes? What are the materials?

Burlington, VT. August 2008.

The 1/1 window in this picture is likely a replacement window, based on the materials not the fact that it is 1/1. (Albeit, this replacement is not nearly as bad as white vinyl windows.) The interesting feature about this is the cast iron lintel (above the window) and the cast iron sill.

3. Decorative Details

Different styles will have varying levels of details. To find details, just pick out anything that seems beyond the standard box frame that you would draw for a building. Look for anything that doesn’t seem structural (as in, the house could stand up if it were removed).Note the surfaces and materials of walls and details.

Thousand Island Park, NY. August 2008.

(This house has so much to talk about! But let’s start with the details.) You can see the stickwork in the gable (thanks to the thoughtful painting) and the turned balusters (porch railings) and turned, decorative porch support posts. The porch roof has patterned shingles. The screen door detailing flows with the details.

Shelburne Farms Inn, VT. September 2009.

This image shows false timbering (the stripes in this image between bricks and the stucco, which beckons Tudor style usually). Note the diamond pane windows in the bay and the brackets under the eaves (the overhang of the roof).

4. Roof

Aside from the shape, what are the roofing materials? Is it patterned? Is there anything distinctive about it?

Montpelier, VT. October 2009.

This church steeple has a distinctive patterned slate roof; obviously, you’ll talk about it in your building description.

5. Massing

Another important part of describing buildings involves the massing, or how the elements of the building fit together in terms of scale and proportion. It isn’t always something that you can describe, but something that you can judge. Consider the massive McMansions and how large they are. Then compare them to pre-mid 20th century homes. The massing or scale of the elements of modern homes is exaggerated and often looks wrong.

Burlington, VT. April 2010.

Burlington, VT. April 2010.

Massing, shapes, elements, and sections of the buildings are just one thing to keep in mind. What else can you notice about this pictures? Window size, window panes, roof details? Wall materials? Porch entry? Chimney location?

While this is just a brief overview of talking about buildings, hopefully it gets you thinking the next time you’re looking around your built environment. Once you are comfortable picking out elements of buildings, pick up an architectural style book and start browsing through the styles. You’ll probably find that details such as lots of stickwork or 6/6 windows can help you find the style of and date your building. In addition, construction techniques and interior details can help your categorize and date your building, too. For now, just enjoy the buildings and know that quite often, the details tell the story.

Readers, this was a short list – feel free to add!