Hello Spring

It may still be mud season (it very much is), but all of a sudden everything is green and it looks like spring here in Vermont. Everything is so green and lush; buds are growing and soon they’ll be blossoming. It’s beautiful.

This picture does not do the day justice: sunny, skies as blue as can be, temperatures in the high 70s, and such a beautiful scene around Caspian Lake in Greensboro just the other day. Yes, there is still ice on the lake. Welcome to the Northeast Kingdom.

Evidence of flowers for spring, photograph taken last week next to my house. Blue & green - those colors say Vermont to me.

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Friday Vermont Links

Today is the annual downtown & historic preservation conference (combined this year!) in Poultney, VT. The entire conference sounds like fun, but I’m most looking forward to the Streets as Places theme.

Some news from Vermont:

The Vermont Division for Historic Preservation has awarded $186,000 in grant money for preservation and restoration projects throughout the state.

Lake Champlain has reached its record high water level and it seems as though the entire state is flooding. The Charlotte-Essex (NY) ferry is shut down due to high water levels. Rivers and lakes throughout the state are flooding towns across the state. This will create damage for all buildings and displace people and businesses for a time.  If you are aware of a historic building in danger, be alert, now and when the water recedes.

On the night of Sunday April 17, a fire broke out in the historic Brooks House on Main Street in Brattleboro. The five-story French Second Empire building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building was home to many businesses and apartments; their fate is unknown at this time.

On a lighter note, the site of the University of Vermont’s first baseball diamond will be recognized on April 30 in the Old North End of Burlington.

Have you heard of the Checkered House Bridge project in Richmond, VT? The metal truss bridge is going to be widened. You can learn more about this unique project on its website.

In connection to Vermont and its tourism, what are your thoughts on covered bridge preservation? A Richmond (Virginia) Times Dispatch article seems to debate the fate and purpose of such a thing. A necessity? An obligation? Too much money? Would a state like Vermont, known for its covered bridges, think it’s a frivolous expense?

A Very Fine Appearance: The Vermont Civil War Photographs of George Houghton was released earlier this month. The book includes over 100 photographs from the Vermont infantry experience during the Civil War. Photographs were all taken by Brattleboro resident George Houghton. You can buy the book in hardcover or paperback through the Vermont Historical Society.

Happy Spring! Happy weekend!

Soapbox of the Moment

I love country music. I do not love Walmart; I don’t even like Walmart. So when I hear on the radio that certain artists are selling their albums exclusively at Walmart or editions exclusively at Walmart, it bothers me.

This is nothing new. Many artists have exclusive deals with Walmart or other big box stores. A June 2008 New York Times article discusses how Walmart is the largest music retailer in the country; thus artists want to be on good terms with the company. This giant chain can do the marketing and more than the record labels can handle; thus sales increase. Examples used in  the article are about Journey and the Eagles. Other examples of artists that sell exclusively or exclusive editions at Walmart include Garth Brooks, Sugarland, AC/DC, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, and Carrie Underwood. Here is a post from savingcountrymusic.com discussing the Sugarland + Walmart deals, and the negative affects an arrangement has on local record stores.

Granted, everyone has free will and the right to shop wherever they please. So artists can sell wherever they want. What bothers me about country musicians, in particular, is that so many sing of small town America, the good ol’ days, local places and people – essentially, the local economy and close-knit communities. Well, last time I checked, Walmart does not contribute to local economies. Actually, Walmart kills Main Street America, whether it’s in a large urban area or a small crossroads in the middle of America. So how can you sing about the greatness of America and then have exclusive deals with the idea/business practice that is killing it?

Sure, you could go ahead and make the same old argument that America’s poorer populations don’t have any other options besides Walmart and that the poorest groups of people live out in the middle of nowhere and need Walmart. You could say that, but that is a horrible generalization – it’s as bad as me outright denying it. Under privileged and poor sections of our population live everywhere, so it’s not a valid point here.

Nor is this a position of being a snob, someone who is above Walmart or the products they sell or of associating with shopping there for whatever social stigma you can think of. No, if I believe myself to be above Walmart, it is because I am above destroying Main Street America and contributing to the poor planning and suburban sprawl.

Back the point. What can we do about this? What did I do about this? Sugarland is my absolute favorite country music group. I was disheartened to find that one of their albums was sold only at Walmart.  I did not buy that one. Is that the answer? Probably not, but that was my stand on the issue. For now.

My bottom line? I’m disappointed in country music, as the lyrics and messages of the songs are clashing with actual practices of the artists.

Happy Earth Day

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Do you normally associate Earth Day and historic preservation? By now you’ve probably heard the buzzword combination of sustainability + historic preservation. The greenest building is one that’s already built. (This is credited to Carl Elefante, if you’re wondering.) Read his article  in the Summer 2007 National Trust Forum.

Think about it. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that an existing structure does not demolition, removal of materials, manufacturing and delivery of new materials. That’s why an existing building is a money saver, generally.

Would you like to proof for yourself or to convince others of this? Check out The Greenest Building created by the May T. Watts Appreciation Society.  On this site you can use an energy calculator to determine the embodied energy in a building and the energy used and lost by demolition. Compare existing energy v. new energy.

Also check out the May T. Watts blog, The Greenest Building is the one Already Built, which has relevant information, despite its lack of updates. The blog talks mostly about embodied energy and how to calculate it.

“Preservation saves energy by taking advantage of the nonrecoverable energy embodied in an existing building and extending the use of it.”

– ASSESSING the ENERGY CONSERVATION BENEFITS of HISTORIC PRESERVATION: Methods and Examples, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

Have you read the National Trust’s position on sustainability? In a nutshell it is this:

Historic preservation can – and should – be an important component of any effort to promote sustainable development. The conservation and improvement of our existing built resources, including re-use of historic and older buildings, greening the existing building stock, and reinvestment in older and historic communities, is crucial to combating climate change.

Browse through the National Trust’s Flickr set called Reuse It! — some images are more heartbreaking than others (like an abandoned school in Montana or an abandoned train depot in Texas), but some are fun (art deco buildings in Iowa). A lot of pictures show buildings just dying for a new use; they are in still sound and in cities and just need a vision.

Aside from the actual building materials, existing structures are already sited with infrastructure and opting for new development means new roads, utility lines, further trips for emergency services and so much more.

Earth Day is about making the earth a better, healthier planet and taking care of our environment. Historic preservation wants to do the same thing. While the environmental and preservation approaches may have differences, they share the overall vision. So this combined movement of sustainability and preservation may be complicated in instances when “green” methods interfere with historic features, but it’s a learning process and we’re on the right track. Like all of the best ideas, it’s a combined effort to see it through.

SAVE ENERGY. SAVE HISTORY.

Let’s not keep repeating the fate of Land’s End.

Land’s End

By now, everyone has heard of the tragic demolition of Land’s End, one of Long Island’s Gold Coast mansions. This particular mansion happened to be the one that provided inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby.  The Gold Coast of the 1920s stretched from Great Neck to Huntington Bay on the Long Island Sound.

Can you imagine living among stars and lavish parties, so much wealth all in one room? The images are remarkable. F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the roaring 20s. Land’s End represented that time.

Have you watched the CBS Sunday morning video yet? I hadn’t until yesterday. I didn’t want to see a building demolished (abandoned, still standing buildings pull at heart enough as it is). But I finally watched it. And it is heartbreaking. You can see a short video by News12 or a longer (much better) video clip on CBS.

Click for video.

A realtor, Bert Brodsky, and his son bought the $18 million property seven years ago and claimed that the upkeep was too much. So they let it fall. And eventually were able to have it claimed “beyond repair.” Now they plan to construct five $10 million dollar homes. At the end of the CBS Sunday morning video the realtor/owner said that he was sad, but life goes on.

CBS Sunday morning video

What a horrible loss to our heritage. How is it fair and allowed that someone can purchase such a significant property, likely knowing of the upkeep, and then just let it fall to pieces until it is just bad enough to be declared too far gone? It makes me so angry. I have to think that it was carefully calculated, particularly when developers are involved. How about you?

For more information, images, and video read the post and scroll down to the links of the blog 80,000 words. One link is to a New York Times article about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her flickr set has devastating photographs of the end of the demolition. The strong, lonely chimneys are astounding.

Visit Old Long Island for pictures, and then follow Zach’s lead to Jen Ross’ demolition photos. She has an earlier set of the house in its sad, abandoned state. They are tragically breathtaking.  It is worth your time to browse.

Lake Champlain Bridge Photo Update

You can read the full construction updates on the NYSDOT project webpage, but for those who are only interested in the short version of the story, here are two of the latest pictures that I’ve taken on site for use in my preservation monitoring reports (also available on the NYSDOT webgage).These are large files, so click and zoom in for amazing clarity and perspective!

April 14, 2011. The view from Vermont. Seen from background to foreground: Pier 3 (tall pier), Pier 4 (with forms), Pier 5 with falsework), Pier 6, and edge of Pier 7.

April 14, 2011: View from Vermont.

Note how it is finally looking like spring after this long, cold winter.

Flamingo Kitchen Kitsch

Here is some sunny Friday fun for you. I’m channeling sunny Florida today, all the way from sunny northern Vermont.

Just when I think there couldn’t possibly be any more flamingo products in the world, my mother-in-law (to be) gives me a flamingo tea set as a gift. You think I’m kidding. I’m not. I’m also not kidding when I say I love it.

Casual Flamingo Tea Set

A fancy bone china flamingo tea set.

And now look what I’ve found:

Flamingo mug from Pier 1 Imports.

What will they think of next? Actually, I probably do not want to know. Options are endless on sites like Cafepress and Zazzle. There must be some fine line that I should avoid crossing, right?

Anyway….

Who wants to have a flamingo tea party? Or a coffee party? Mugs can serve both purposes. We can have a leisurely afternoon and discuss buildings, communities, and saving the world.

Happy Friday!

Historic Preservation Basics No. 7

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.     No. 5 = The National Register of Historic Places (What You Should Know). No. 6 = The History of Historic Preservation.

No. 7 = The Basics of Documentation

Much of our work in historic preservation involves recording our past, often by way of documenting the built environment. When our environment is documented, we can connect it to people, events, and other places and tell our collective history.

Simply put, documentation of a historic structure involves three parts: (1) historical research, (2) measured drawings, and (3) photography. Each has standards established by the National Park Service / Historic American Buildings Survey, and these standards remain the industry practice. An excellent source is the book Recording Historic Structures by John Burns, which teaches the reader the HABS/HAER/HALS standards for documentation.

This post will not outline the standards, but rather, give you and introduction to what documentation involves, and hopefully inspire you to start practicing on your house.

Keep in mind that more than buildings can and are documented; sites, structures, objects, districts, landscapes… they count, too! Saying historic “building” just streamlines the discussion. Now, let’s begin.

(1) Historical Research

What is the history of ownership of the building? Who has lived there? What functions has the building served? Is there any available information about how it has changed? Are any historic photographs to be found? The extent of research  and details will vary by project (i.e. funding, time, purpose), but the goals are the same.

How do you find this information? Many of these items can be found at your local library.

a) Deed Research (City Hall, Town Offices, County Clerk’s office — depending on where you live. A few lucky places such as Cumberland County, NC have their land records digitized). Some locations will require that you pay for your time and photocopies. Some are charging now for digital photograph permission, too! But if you are a student or an educational endeavor, you can probably ask to have the fee waived.

b) Historic Maps – Beers, Wallingford, Sanborn Insurance Maps, Plat Maps. Check your library and ask for help. In some cases you might find them online through sites such as the David Rumsey Map Collection. Maps will help you date your property and sometimes identify former landowners.

c) City Directories – These are usually only for larger cities and not small towns (like Sanborn Maps), but they can provide information on the use of the building and the owners.

d) Miscellaneous town records and files at the town library, historical societies, state archives.

e) Newspaper articles – Head to the local resource room at your library and get cozy with microfilm. After you’ve used it a time or two, the nauseous feelings should subside.  Historic newspapers often had much more social content that our current papers. You can learn a lot about the local area and its people.

f) Oral history – Ask around! Word of mouth will lead you to the best sources. Asking interviewees to describe buildings and places will often give you great information.

Historic research will often be incorporated into a historical narrative about the property that serves the purpose of recording a fair history.

(2) Measured Drawings

Measured (to scale) drawings document the building as-is. The level of detail might vary, but a full set of drawings will include elevations, sections, and details. Every part and detail of the building is measured. Most are done on CAD nowadays, since it is faster than hand drawing and easier to transmit and share. In order to learn standards and proper methods, it is best to take a drafting class. For instance, different line thicknesses are used to denote types of walls. However, if you aren’t documenting a building professionally, you can do your own “measured drawings” at home. These would probably more akin to field sketches. Draw/sketch your floor plan, elevation, or detail as best as you can. Record your accurate measurements on your sketches.

When sketching your building, think of it from largest to smallest. Draw the outline or frame of the building. Start at the bottom and work your way up. Then include doors and windows. Draw and record details (window frames, cornice details) in a separate drawing so your numbers don’t get mixed together.

Measured drawings are not required by every project, but if a significant resource is to be demolished, measured drawings often serve as a form of mitigation for the loss. For buildings of national significance, the measured drawings would serve as an important research resource for the present and the future.

There is too much to say about measured drawings, but here are a few tips: 1) It is much easier with three people (one for the measuring end of the tape, one for the dumb end (aka zero end), and one to record); 2) Accept that you will probably have to go back more than once because you will inevitably forget to measure a detail; 3) If necessary for your understanding, redraw your field sketches with clear numbers and delineation; 4) Sometimes it helps to photograph a detail with the tape measure in the picture; and 5) Decide if you are rounding up or down and to which segment of the inch.

(3) Photography

Photography is perhaps the most prolific form of documentation, and some would say the easiest, thanks to the aid of digital cameras. However, good photographic documentation requires more practice than a point-and-shoot camera. Standards are changing in terms of which mediums are accepted and which types of ink, but the basics of what to photograph remain the same. To effectively document the building, be sure to include all elevations and corners (N, S, E, W elevation and NE, NW, SE, SW corners for example). These corner shots are often called record shots . Do your best to get both elevations in the picture. It is best to take an image with as little parallax distortion as possible. In other words, stand as far back as you can in order to get the entire plane within the photo frame and do not tilt the camera.  You may find yourself standing on stone walls, cars, or hanging out a window. Just be careful and do not trespass (unless you have permission)! After elevations and record shots, photograph details. Perhaps the door frame is significant or the portico columns. For interior rooms, it is important to have the ceiling, walls, and floor within the frame.

Photographs should be accompanied with the name of the subject of the photograph, the property and its location, the direction from which the picture was taken and to where it is looking, the date, and the name of the photographer. This is the basic necessary information, but, again, keep in mind your SHPO may have different requirements.

So the three main components of documentation are historical research, measured drawings, and photography. Once you are familiar with the tree (and now you are!), you can learn the standards of your organization and start practicing. Many preservation programs have classes in documentation if you are interested professionally. However, if you want to document your own house, you do not have to be a professional. Check out those deed records, draw your house floor plan, and take good, thought-out photographs. It’s fun!

Some Resources:

HABS, HAER, HALS Guidelines from the NPS

Recording Historic Structures by John Burns

Documentation cheat sheet by State of Minnesota

Sacred Places overview of Measured Drawings (very helpful!)

Vermont Division for Historic Preservation – Requirements for Photographic Documentation of Historic Structures

When in doubt, speak with your State Historic Preservation Office or State Historical Society.