Historic Districts are not frozen in time.
Ideally, Districts are busy, vital places where people live, work, socialize, and see community values reflected. Typically, buildings contribute to a district and share common characteristics becoming more historically valuable as a group than as individual properties. If we create, restore, and invest in Historic Districts, the Districts will continue to tell a story about a particular time period, a particular community, or perhaps a particular industry. So is new construction appropriate within a Historic District, and if so, how does one properly design and integrate the new building within the existing historic context? This posting will explore some factors and opinions on new construction in Historic Districts.
Some individuals argue that appropriate infill must be visually identical to nearby historic resources. Most architects in practice today have a condescending reaction against recreating previous styles as making “faux” or “Disneyland” architecture, even though western architecture for hundreds of years has recycled various stylistic revivals. It is not an absurd concept to design and build beautiful, high-quality buildings that reflect an older style and method of construction. Other individuals have no trouble placing a contemporary structure next to older structures, since modern buildings have a responsibility to reflect our shared culture and lifestyle.
Neither of these absolutes works for most situations. New buildings, as stated in the Secretary of the Interior Standards, do need to be “differentiated” from contributing buildings in a District to avoid a false sense of history. The question is how much differentiation is required? Though there are cases where a “missing tooth” in a very cohesive pattern of buildings should be constructed to resemble its historic neighbors, in other cases the visual diversity of architectural styles and periods within a District allows for more flexibility in differentiating new buildings. Historic Districts are listed on the National Register because they possess a concentration of buildings that are linked either historically, aesthetically, or both. One Historic District might represent a fairly large span of time, various architectural types and styles, and a number of different uses. Another District might be much more specific in its focus.
As Preservationists and Architects, we need to analyze the characteristics and contexts that are the same and the characteristics and contexts that are different about the resources within the District. Each case is unique and site-dependent. It is possible to allow for stylistic additions and change without showcasing the change; to temper the inclination to design an individually iconic building; and to limit a modern “intrusion” so as to respect and highlight the older buildings. Good design, high-quality detailing, and high quality materials contribute towards compatibility, and adaptive reuse and change is inevitable to the vitality of a Historic District.
Each jurisdiction having authority makes its own interpretation of what it means to be compatible. One recent example is an approval by the Historic Resources Commission (HRC) in Corvallis, Oregon. The Corvallis HRC approved a design for a freestanding metal and glass canopy in the heart of the national registered Oregon State University Historic District. The HRC concluded that there was no historic precedent for a freestanding non-building element, but found that the canopy was visually light and well-designed and fit into the open space pattern of development without detracting from the neighboring Contributing resources. The role of the historic consultant in this case was to construct an argument as to why the canopy was compatible in the District, and push back against earlier suggestions that the canopy become more “building-like” with masonry columns. An open structure with a veneer of building material would have created a less compatible design.
Each proposal for new construction in a Historic District should be informed by its context. There is latitude for new construction to be distinct, as long as the new work does not detract from the surrounding historic resources.
Written by Kristen Minor, Preservation Planner