Preservation ABCs: V is for Viewshed

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.


V is for Viewshed

The viewshed of historic downtown Montpelier, VT.

The viewshed of historic downtown Montpelier, VT. {click for sharper image}

Viewshed can be applied broadly, depending on the resource, but an easy way to understand it is like this: (1) Consider the historic property. (2) What would its surroundings have looked like during its period of significance? (3) Evaluate what changes would adversely affect that view from the historic property? (4) What is the view to the historic property from other locations?

For example, a neighborhood of small bungalows overlooking the lake would have an altered viewshed if high condominiums were constructed between the houses the lake. Think of the monstrous beach houses that block the views of the older, smaller homes. Or a historic farmstead – house, barns, outbuildings, fields – would lose its viewshed if all of the neighboring properties were developed.

This isn’t to say that all development can destroy the integrity of a viewshed; rather, new development must be done in a considerate manner with designs compatible to the historic character of its neighbors. How do you protect a viewshed? Identify what is in view from/to the property. An easement might fit the purpose of protection, or design ordinances on a municipal/town level.

Take a look at the photograph above. Both sides of the streets are lined with historic building blocks, and all are contributing properties in the Montpelier historic district. What if one of those building blocks were removed due to development pressures or fire, for example? The view of the district would be altered. Sympathetic and compatible infill would need to be constructed in order to save the integrity of the district.

Why does viewshed matter? It relates to the setting, association, and feeling of a historic property, which are three of the seven aspects of integrity, as per the National Register of Historic Places, the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Change the viewshed and you’ve altered the integrity, and quite possibly the significance of that historic property.