Historic preservation may seem to some like a high brow art form only suitable for the nation’s architectural treasures- the artisans and craftsmen working to restore George Washington’s Mt. Vernon or an immensely talented artist restoring some Renaissance age frescos.
These things are all well and good and an important part of the preservation movement, but they are not the bulk of the work being done today. There is a huge part of the preservation world that is done quietly and without fanfare.
These are the projects that never make it into the newspapers and barely get a whisper of publicity other than on a personal blog. A homeowner restoring handful of original wood windows, another repairing a hundred year old plaster wall that has begun to crack and sag.
Most people never hear of these projects. They rarely win awards or get any mention outside your close circle of friends, but these projects make up the largest portion of preservation today. While they aren’t particularly sexy or newsworthy in many respects, this “practical preservation” is immensely important to all of us.
What is “Practical Preservation”?
Practical preservation is the grassroots. Individuals who pick up a putty knife themselves or hire a local craftsman to fix or maintain their old homes. You can call it renovation, repair, remodeling, upkeep, or anything else, but it is preserving our historic architecture one small piece at a time.
Without this practical preservation, a huge swath of our history would be lost. Yes, the big projects like Mt. Vernon, Monticello, the US Capitol would all be saved and maintained, but our local vernacular architecture would disintegrate into rubble and sawdust in just a few short decades.
Practical preservation doesn’t require a degree. It doesn’t require years of training or lengthy apprenticeships. Don’t get me wrong, these things are all excellent and have their place in the preservation movement.
[Tweet “Practical Preservation simply requires a passion to save and a willingness to do the work.”]
If practical preservation is the solution to saving more of our country’s architectural history, than apathy is the enemy. Apathy and disinformation have destroyed more of our history than anything else.
Why don’t we care more? Why does newer equate to better in our society today? These blanket assumptions are deadly to our towns and our buildings. I talked a few weeks about The Real Economics of Preservation and while facts are stubborn things, they don’t seem to matter anymore.
If we don’t care enough to speak up about our local history, then what makes you think it will be saved? If you care and teach others why they should care, then maybe the tide will start changing.
Local politicians may turn things on their head and do whatever it takes to get a new library built and named after them and there is often little we can do. Vote your conscience and do your best when it comes to public preservation battles. Picket the wrecking ball and protest the bulldozer, but the real power of practical preservation is seen in your own home.
What Can I Do?
Practical preservation can change a neighborhood and bring back the flower boxes. It’s eating the elephant one bite at a time. Sure, it’s slow, but at least it’s moving forward, and with the help of friends and neighbors, it won’t take long till you’re done.
Start with a window, just one window. Repair the rot, replace the putty, clean the glass, and tell me it’s not satisfying. Then try another and another…before long, your windows will be restored!
Tackle the plaster or the clapboards next. A little patch here, a little repair there and the ball of practical preservation keeps rolling down the hill. Don’t worry if it’s not professional grade, at least you’re doing it, which is more than most people can say.
Like most things in life, it won’t get done unless you do it yourself. The plaster will continue to chip and paint will keep peeling until someone turns off the TV and picks up a paint brush.
Slowly but surely, through practical preservation, we can restore our country. And that will be something worth watching.