Preservation ABCs: U is for Utilities

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.


U is for Utilities

This photo show two types of street lights and a traffic signal, without wires strung between structures. Imagine how different it would look with wires.

This photo (taken in St. Paul, MN) shows two types of street lights and a traffic signal, without wires strung between structures. Imagine how different it would look with wires.

Our streets, towns, and cities have telephone lines, fiber optic cables, cell towers, water lines, sewer lines, etc. These are utilities, and they are a fact of life for just about everyone (unless you’re choosing to live “off grid”). Utilities are most often above ground if you’re referring to wires and cables (see this discussion), whereas water and sewer lines are underground. All come into play in all sorts of projects, whether new construction, rehabilitation, or transportation, to name a few. The locations of utilities are important, as is the sustainability of utilities. Are underground wires the better choice for weather related problems?

While utilities wires are a necessity to modern life (until everything is wireless someday), the fact is that there are more wires than in the past. And these wires can obscure viewsheds to and from historic buildings (example seen here). Traffic signals, telephones, cable: sometimes these can be overwhelming in our view. Consider these questions. Should traffic signals have mast arms or overhead wires? Should street lights be attached to telephone poles or separate structures? Where should a traffic signal control box be located? To which part of the house should the utilities connect?

Not sure what you think? The next time you see a telephone pole, count how many wires are strung across it. How would your neighborhood look with wires or without wires (hence, they are underground)? The next time you are in a downtown or neighborhood core, look around. Do you see wires?

What do you think is the best solution? Undergrounding utilities is expensive, but makes an incredible difference, whether people consciously realize it or not.


The Perfect Case for Undergrounding Wires


Imagine this building without the telephone pole and multiple utility wires. Waterbury, VT, 2012.

We’ve talked about utility lines previously, in terms of practicality. But what about philosophically and aesthetically? To me, the picture above represents the perfect example as to why undergrounding of utility lines is a good idea. Documentation is fairly difficult when there are telephone poles and wires in the way, don’t you think? And that is quite often the case on main street.

What do you think? Granted, utility wires and telephones poles tell a part of our history and technological growth, but they have not always existed. And who is to say that our future will include utility wires or should include above ground utility wires? Will there ever be a case for keeping wires because of historic significance? Do you think they are appropriate to keep or should we embrace new technology and remove the utility wires?