Discussion: Additions, Design, Significance … Opinions

When a historic house has been altered by an addition, how do we decide what to do with the addition? If the house is being restored to a certain time period, then a modern addition can be removed without regret (because it is not historic)? However, how do you approach a historic addition of a historic house, one that has altered the original image?

Take this house for example: An 1890s front gable house has a 1920s side addition, which altered the roof structure to pyramidal. Now the house looks like a wide four-square, the building lacks symmetry, and has terrible, unpleasing fenestration. The proposal: remove the addition and change the roof to front gable. The opponents say: the 1920s addition has gained significance and should not be removed. The supporters: remove the 1920s addition. Poor design should not be preserved because it is old.

Who would care to dissect this issue? I know everyone has an opinion on this.

Andrew Deci, PiP contributor and Spotsylvania, VA planner, shares his thoughts:

I’m troubled by an argument based on ‘poor design’, ‘ugliness’, or unattractiveness–how can we impose our contemporary values on a structure of the past?  Certainly, if there is significant research to back a restoration to a specific time period (and the addition does not stand on its own as significant), by all means, move forward.  But if that addition represents a change in values, planned design, or community philosophy, think again.

I think we do our field a disservice if we move back to a time of preserving that which is found important by the few or that which is ‘pretty’.  This conversation certainly harkens back to the recent work at Montpelier, where an old addition of GREAT design and significance WAS torn down.  My personal thoughts–a travesty.

More thoughts to be shared as they come in. Leave a comment or send an email.

[Thanks to Andrew for sharing this issue and your thoughts!]


One thought on “Discussion: Additions, Design, Significance … Opinions

  1. Mark Alan Hewitt says:

    I am an architect, historian and preservationist who is writing a book about house additions. I share some of your concerns about how to handle “additions” to historic houses. One of the conundrums that haunts us is the silly notion that all additions must be done in a style that is “of its time.” Architects in all previous epochs thought nothing about this and simply built according to what they though compatible. Better to think, as Steven Semes has said, about an architecture of place, of context. If the original house was culturally appropriate to its place and client, there is no reason to an addition in a competing style. And, if the addition, done in this spirit, is sympathetic, there is no reason to remove it.

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