Preservation Photos #127

Preservation in Progress! at the St. Albans House in St. Albans, VT.

Remember the St. Albans House from grad school semester three? Well, there is good preservation news from St. Albans. A developer, Jim Cameron/Green Dolphin LLC, has purchased the property and with a variety of partners the building is undergoing a substantial rehabilitation project. Visit the St. Albans House Facebook page to find the latest photos and updates from Wanamaker Restoration.

The Case of Ugly Architecture

Are some buildings too ugly to save? The New York Times asked in last Sunday’s paper, and spurred discussions throughout the architecture, buildings, preservation and sustainability crowds. The PreservationNation blog has a post on the issue; conversations are all over the internet. Therefore, you may be poised and ready to weigh in on this discussion; but, it is worthy of conversation as modern architecture is questioned on its historic significance and demolition of any building is considered.

Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY. Click for source.

The building that is stirring the debate this time is the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY, designed by well known architect Paul Rudolph in 1967 in the Brutalist architectural style. In addition to many perceived flaws, the building was flooded by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and has since been vacant. Orange County officials want to demolish the building and construct a new office complex. Interestingly, the cost of demolition and replacement far exceeds that of rehabilitation. More often, you hear about buildings being demolished because the proposal for rehabilitation exceeds new construction. (You may have your own opinions on the truth of such statements.)

When we’re talking demolition v. rehabilitation, there are so many factors at play, which is evident by the grassroots group Save the Orange County Government Center (SOCGC). This group is in favor of saving the building for reasons of architectural significance, financial and historic preservation. If you want to talk about an old building (i.e. not historic, but simply one that is already built), then sustainability and use of resources comes to the table. In this case, all factors collide.

The Orange County Government Center is now on the World Monuments Fund Watch List 2012.

The Orange County Government Center is determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (i.e. historically significant) by the NY State Historic Preservation Officer. See additional (and better) photos via Arch Daily and ZeoSpot. See more of Paul Rudolph’s buildings in this NYTimes slideshow. Lloyd Alter, of TreeHugger.com, writes about the Orange County Government Center in addition to many articles on Paul Rudolph buildings, which are being demolished at an alarming rate. Clearly, this is not a new issue.

Yet, this issue is larger than the preservation and rehabilitation of a single, significant building, regardless of the architect.

As I learned from Professor Gary Stanton at Mary Washington, and who I love to quote, “Your personal taste in buildings is not an appropriate evaluation for buildings of the past.” In other words, “ugly” should never enter the conversation. Doing so is a step back (by a few decades!). If the building is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, then it is historic and significant, regardless of how you feel about its appearance. It is entirely inappropriate to bring “ugly” into the discussion about significant architecture; it belittles historic preservation and adds to the false belief that preservationists only want to save the “pretty” buildings, thereby making everything look perfect. That is incorrect.

However, let’s be clear: can you talk about ugly and big box stores? Sure. Go ahead. That subject will come up again in our lifetimes. But you cannot compare an architect designed Brutalist building to a generic box of a building. Not every building – no matter the architectural style – is historic. Perhaps it is better to say that in terms of historic preservation, you cannot compare historic buildings to old (or not old!) buildings.

I’ll admit; I am not fond of Brutalist architecture. But my opinion does not matter in the grand scheme of our architectural history. I can appreciate the building for its architecture. I compare it to what I learned in film studies in college: a movie can be good because of its cinematography, its writing, its directing, etc., but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Or I can like a movie that isn’t considered good. You have to understand the difference. In the same line of thinking, there are buildings I like that are no historically significant, and there are historically significant buildings that I do not like. Does that make sense?

As many have said, society once despised the Queen Annes and Shingle styles of the Victorian Era, or the streamlined Art Deco of the 1930s. Architecture styles exist because society wants to attempt new design and to change its surroundings. If we collectively wiped out entire styles because we were tired of them, then the world would continuously look exactly the same. And where would be now? We’d all be living in McMansions or high rise towers.

The morale of the story?  Please do not use “ugly” in your vocabulary when you are discussing historically significant buildings. It has no place. Keep your personal opinions to yourself, which should not affect a building’s determination of significance.

Abandoned Vermont: Clarendon House

This beautiful 1820 Federal Style (Italianate additions added later) is not lived-in, but it is well cared for by its neighbors in Clarendon, VT.

1820 Federal Style House.

Interior end chimneys, symmetrical massing, fanlight and door lights, marble lintels and sills are characteristic for Federal architecture. The paired brackets and 2/2 windows are Italianate details. Often owners modernized their houses with in-vogue details, just as we would do today.

The porch details are also Italianate. Clearly, I should clean my camera: lens blur again.

The adjacent barn.

Behind the house and barn, down the farm road.

Another view from the farm road.

Looking up from the front door. There is something haunting about a worn curtain blowing through an old broken window. Note the Flemish brick bond, a sign of wealth (it was more labor intensive and skillful than other brick bonds).

The mercury glass doorknob with reflections.

The side porch.

Functioning shutters.

The side porch door. Italianate details here are the brackets and the two rounded glass panel door

Brick houses are always strikingly beautiful, especially in Vermont where most of our houses are clad in wood. The house is a mystery, as it almost looks lived-in. Thankfully, the neighbors seem to own the property and maintain it. All it needs is some love and probably some electrical, plumbing and heating upgrades. I think I’d call this house Empty or Lonely rather than Abandoned.

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p.s. I’ve been asked why I do not provide more specific information about location and history for the buildings in the Abandoned Vermont series. My answer? It is for privacy reasons, particularly for those buildings that are so vulnerable and sitting alone down a dirt road. For the majority of these buildings, I do not know the story of ownership or its current state.  Abandoned houses are fascinating, but I do not encourage breaking and entering. I may have found their history in the State Register, so I’ll provide the town and year of construction; but, as for more specific information: it’s not something I feel comfortable leaving for the entire internet to find. Not everyone who is looking for abandoned houses is a preservation friendly, house loving being. I hope you understand. 

Improving Sense of Place

The previous sense of place posts have discussed how to define and how to measure sense of place, as a concept and as something more tangible. Sense of place is an empirical concept, but one that is understandable and applicable by those who study communities and the combined cultural and built environment.

The point of studying sense of place through casual discussion or scholarly analysis is to improve sense of place, and consequently improving quality of life. What makes one place better than another? And what does better mean? Each community or group of people is going to have different definitions for what sense of place means. I think that is one of the most important ideas to remember; sense of place and quality of life is not a standard one-size-fit-all idea. Some communities may want to focus on one aspect over another, whether economic health, transportation, schools, community centers, cultural events or something else.

The town lines up for a parade down Broad Street in Southern Pines, NC, December 2006.

Once sense of place is defined and measured for each community, how can it be improved? What makes a better sense of place?

No matter the goal, achieving it will require the combined effort of the municipality, local organizations and community members, including many volunteer hours (as that seems to be how much is accomplished). An important step will be for the community to identify what it needs and what it wants, and to rank its priorities. Projects can occur simultaneously, but knowing which is a higher priority can focus efforts.

That probably sounds vague, but it is the simple process of identifying what you want and outlining how to achieve it.

For example, if a town lacks a center, then zoning and development patterns are possibly the problem. In that case, getting the municipality to understand that the town zoning needs to be amended will be important. If a community lacks organized festivals or cultural events, then a non-profit organization or a group of concerned community members may be up for the challenge. If a community wants local businesses, then it must develop a plan to attract business owners. Pop-up businesses are a great way to kickstart enthusiasm and economic development in a community. Creating a sense of place can develop into a very in-depth topic, pulling in marketing and “branding” of a town.

Main Street in Middleburg, VA.

Of course, these businesses and events need somewhere to occur. This is an excellent opportunity for rehabilitating or restoring historic buildings (or even old buildings) and cleaning up community parks and green space. Improving sense of place can happen one event at a time, one building at a time. Resources such as Project for Public Spaces and the National Complete Streets Coalition offer guidelines for creating healthy communities. Each town or community will interpret the information differently.

The most important element of improving sense of place is people; the community needs concerned, dedicated residents who want to be proud of where they live.

What do you think? How can you improve sense of place? Do you have any concrete solutions?

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Next up (next week) for the sense of place series: inferences and assumptions about places you’ve never been. Anything else you’d like to discuss?

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.

Preservation Photos #126

A water fountain in a cemetery in Rochester, VT dedicated to Charles Wesley Emerson (founder of Emerson College in Boston, MA).

Measuring Sense of Place

Last week, the Sense of Place mini-series began by discussing how to define the concept “sense of place.”  I wrote that asking questions relating to the five sense can help you to understand and define a place, and commenters added their own thoughts. It’s a topic open for scholarly and casual discussion, one that is gaining popularity and understanding. While preservation includes discussions of sense of place, the topic of sense of place could be its own dissertation. Therefore, I’m letting you know that I’m not an expert; I enjoy pondering the concept, learning about it and talking with you about sense of place. So let’s continue.

Beyond defining sense of place, how do you measure it? How do you classify this somewhat abstract concept? How do you know if a place needs a sense of place improvement?

First, ask yourself if you can define sense of place for your locale. It may seem obvious, but if you cannot identify this particular place, then it probably lacks a sense of place. Typically, I think of many suburban locations as lacking a sense of place. If you have driven along Long Island highways, particularly central Long Island, you probably know what I mean. Basically, the highways looks like Anywhere, USA filled with car dealerships and chain stores and restaurants, all with the same, standard plans. (This isn’t to say Long Island is the only place that looks like this; it is just what I am familiar with.) However, imagine my pleasant surprise when I came across Build a Better Burb, an organization dedicated to improving sense of place on Long Island through Main Street revitalization, regional planning and housing solutions. Finally!

While one community may have a stronger sense of place than another, I’d say that it isn’t something necessarily up for traditional comparison. The idea isn’t to give every place the same feeling and measure it by the exact same standards. Perhaps a good way to measure is by cultural/social feeling (mentioned by Karri). If a community hosts events, has people out and about in all forms of transit (depends on location) with daily interactions, features a variety of businesses and has a welcome vibe, then it must have a strong sense of place. Right?

We preservationists talk about local businesses over and over, but for good reason. An important measure of sense of place could be the ration of locally owned, independent businesses vs. chains of corporate America. Common sense will say that the more local businesses = a stronger sense of place.

Another measurement could be the overall happiness  (though measuring happiness is another difficult subject) and level of involvement from community  members and frequency of events. A town with residents who care and want to create a home will shine and be a welcoming place and appear as a nice place to live. And since individuals compose a town, when they are involved, they will shape the town and sense of place.

How to measure sense of place is a good question. It’s one to which I do not have an answer. For now, I’ll leave my opinion on this matter as: understanding how to define sense of place, allows you to recognize the strength of a place and to empirically measure sense of place. This paper from the University of Queensland, Australia suggests empirical studies, for example. But, as for the charts and graphs type of measurements, I don’t believe it’s that kind of concept.

And while these may be subjective measurements and opinions, perhaps sense of place is a concept best understood and measured subjectively, in order to maintain the individuality of places. Maybe a measurement is based on how in depth you can define the sense of place for the community. What do you think? What would you like to add to measuring sense of place?

Pop Quiz Answer

If you didn’t catch the most recent Preservation Pop Quiz, read it here.

The answers from readers touched on key points. Here is the original photo.

What can you decipher from this photograph? Click and zoom for additional clarity (this is a large file).

As John guessed in the comments, this appeared to be an old road alignment and perhaps bridge. And Ellen & Jen suggested this area had been hit by the August flooding, and Jen presumed the younger trees suggested a recent change in the landscape. All around, everyone had great answers for reading the landscape.

And the answer? The picture above shows an old road alignment, which you can decipher from two key points. First, in the picture above (and see below for a more central view), the sloped bank that has a rise to it is a bridge abutment. If you look closely you can see how the road slightly curves in towards the old abutment. Second, the utility wires cut across the river rather than following the road. Often when bridges and roads are realigned, the wires remain in place, which can often be a helpful hint.

Here are a few photographs and aerials to aid in explanation.

Looking at the old bridge abutment.

Looking west.

This area was heavily affected by the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. Throughout Vermont you can see rivers with more cobbles and rocks than pre-flood and banks that have been ravaged by the strong currents and await restoration.

Standing above the river, you can see the path of the old road - based on the utility wires, not the grassy path in this picture.

Where is this? The bridge abutment is part of the former alignment of VT Route 73 in Rochester, VT. Route 73 intersects with VT Route 100 further north.  See these aerial maps below.

Route 73 (Brandon Mountain Road) would have turned in the center of this image, and connect to what is now State Garage Road.

The current alignment of VT Route 73 and Route 100.

Old bridge abutments are everywhere – be on the lookout! Thanks for reading and playing.  If you like reading about old road alignments, check out Jim Grey’s blog Down the Road, where he often writes about old alignments of the National Road.

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p.s. Look for the next Sense of Place post this afternoon. 

Abandoned Vermont: Clarendon Church

Located in East Clarendon near the Kingsley Covered Bridge and Kingsley Grist Mill, this ca. 1890 Queen Anne church sits lonely on the side of the road. It’s not hidden in the woods or down a dirt road, which makes me wonder why it’s not being used. I cannot find any information about the owner or the fate of this building. Based on other images I could find, this church has been boarded up for at least six years (though I’d guess many more). If you have any information, please share.

East Clarendon Church. (Please excuse the blur from the lens.)

The applied woodwork on the steeple reminds me of a snowflake.

Weathered clapboard with barely any paint remaining.

No signs of use, but at least someone mows the lawn. If you look closely, you can see that the slate roof is still in good condition.

This church is a great candidate for adaptive reuse. Hopefully something will be done soon, as junction between the steeple and front facade reveal deterioration, likely from snow and rain accumulating.

This church is listed in the Vermont State Register of Historic Places.

Preservation Pop Quiz

Today’s quiz is inspired by the types of questions that Prof. Bob McCullough asks of his History on the Land students. He provides a picture and asks students to read the landscape. What do you see in this picture? What does it infer? What does it tell you about the landscape?

What can you decipher from this photograph? Click and zoom for additional clarity (this is a large file).

Have fun! I’ll post my interpretation, too. Other Preservation Quizzes from PiP:

Note: The Sense of Place mini-series will continue on Monday.