Preservation ABCs: I is for Infill

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.

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I is for Infill

Randolph, Vermont. The three story brown building with the white cornice and tallest parapet is new construction, replacing a building block that burned. This building is an infill development.

Infill can refer to replacing a previous building that was demolished or filling a previously empty lot. Whether the building removed was historic or not, whether the lot was occupied or free of structures, when considering new structures in a historic district or adjacent to historic properties, what goes in that lot is just as important as (or sometimes more important than) what was previously there. Infill is about appropriate, complementary architecture. Infill does not have to be nondescript and completely subservient to existing structures, but it should not confuse historic and new development, nor should it detract from the integrity of a historic structure. It can take cues from the existing architecture, in terms of massing, materials, height, street frontage, etc.

Why do historic preservationists care about new structures? Simply stated, new structures have the power to affect the historic integrity of the surrounding historic environment. In the historic preservation field, we talk about existing structures and the seven characteristics that comprise historic integrity. One of those characteristics is setting. Setting illustrates place, its visual elements telling the story of a place. If a building’s surroundings are altered and the result is incompatible with the historic resources, then the integrity of those resources is diminished.

Imagine a strip mall or big box drug store (or chain restaurant, etc) replacing a three story brick building block in town, or being constructed adjacent to one, even just outside a historic district. Generally speaking, this would not be compatible. A downtown building block will have sidewalks and street parking perhaps, whereas a big box drug store most often has a large parking lot and a standard corporate image to its construction.

Appropriate infill allows our environment to be cohesive. It considers each place individually and allows that location to retain its visual integrity, which fosters sense-of-place. A good sense of place improves people’s appreciation of the environment, interaction with surroundings, and the livability of a community.

This Could Happen to You

Sprawl and poor development decisions pop up everywhere; infill that adversely effects its surroundings can happen almost anywhere, even in a historic district in picturesque Vermont.

Let’s use Fair Haven as an example. Traveling through Fair Haven, VT on VT Route 22A or VT Route 4 you’ll pass well kept historic buildings; the highways lead to a large open town green surrounded by historic commercial blocks, civic buildings, and significant homes overlooking the green, including two historic residences constructed of marble. This area is the Fair Haven Green Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Standing on the edge of the town green.

While driving into town from Route 4A West, something jumped out at me. See below.

Fair Haven, VT. Dollar General has moved in next to the public library.

What? Dollar General sits next to the Fair Haven Free Library, a 1908 Carnegie Library. And on the other side is the Fair Haven Grade School – in another historic building.

Fair Haven Grade School, Dollar General, Fair Haven Free Library.

This is located in the Fair Haven Green Historic District – a nondescript modern strip mall type shopping building sandwiched in between two architecturally significant buildings and adjacent to many more. It’s like a slap in the face – and it’s not even my town!

It gets worse. Take a walk further down the green and this is your vantage point:

The Dollar General sign must be at the very edge of the property line. Talk about ruining the view shed. Click and zoom in for the full effect.

Taken out of context, this library now looks like it’s the owner of the Dollar General sign. How did this happen? Granted it is just a sign, but in a state that outlawed billboards and in a historic district like Fair Haven, it’s unfathomable. You could say that a sign isn’t a billboard, but if you consider relative size to the building it’s in front of, that Dollar General sign might as well be a billboard. And to clarify, I’d have the same opinion regardless of the sign in front of the building. This is not an issue of Dollar General, although I was ready to be up in arms about yet another Dollar General. However, Google Maps shows the street view as a Ben Franklin store in the same building with an equally large sign in the same location.

Unfortunately, I cannot find any information about the development of this lot. The questions to ask are: (1) How did this happen? (2) Was it a question of zoning? (3) Why did no one stop it? (4) Why wasn’t a better infill design chosen for this lot? (5) Has the Town fixed the problem so this doesn’t happen again?

I’d consider this a cautionary tale, especially as small scale sprawl continues to be a threat. Since it’s not a strip mall, it’s easier to slip through the cracks. Chain stores are not necessarily the main issue here – poor “architecture” is the bigger problem of the moment. Be on the lookout, because poor development results in adverse effects to historic properties and districts and a decrease in quality of life (it’s all connected).