06/12/14| The Rewards of Historic Preservation

Historic Preservation and Cultural Resource consulting is sometimes dismissed as an honorable though not particularly cutting-edge undertaking for a design-based studio such as ours. We think otherwise. Public landscapes and spaces are ephemeral either through inattention, succumbing to competing spatial/economic pressures or mismanagement (and yes, design has a hand in that as well...not everything old is good, and in contemporary terms, much of the new is mediocre if not bad). Public spaces need constant attention and periodic renovation/renewal. And too many design plans either don't survive the political and funding cycles of public work, or are implemented as cost-constrained phased work that may or may not accrue critical mass impact, in the sense of an intended inter-relatedness of systems. Too visionary on the client or designer side? Maybe, but think Olmsted,  Burnham or Kessler and the lasting values of their visions!

But also think of the sometimes wayward/sometimes brilliant  '60s (now historic) and the current challenge in seeing past the aging trendiness of that period to value the mid-century modern masterpieces it generated and that are being revisited today.  We had the pleasure of guiding the National Register process for modernist work in Columbus, Indiana, and it has been rewarding to see how the National Landmark status achieved by that nomination/listing  continues to inform the community of the need for continued stewardship of the overall resource. In that case it was doubly rewarding since earlier in our careers we either knew or had worked with/for designers of many of the nominated multiple properties.

Most recently we have been able to revisit the (Kessler) Fort Wayne Park and Boulevard System Historic District, which was listed in 2010. Our original client has brought us back to help respond to a road improvement project that they rightly perceive as a threat to elements of that system. While our alternative plans for that project may or may not be successful, it has been rewarding to be called to help defend the resource, not in a Stop the Project sense, because aspects of the proposed improvement really are needed, but as a creative alternative that blends state-of -the-art traffic engineering and urban design to hopefully achieve a win-win for both our client and for the public agency...as cooperating rather than adversarial parties. The alternative plan respects the 1912 Kessler-Shurcliff  historic system and neighborhood while making it relevant to today's connectivity imperatives which have evolved considerably in 100 years.  But good bones, recognized, respected and cared for, can prevail.

Post-script: the Fort Wayne alternative was begun too late to affect the juggernaut of a major road project that had been rumbling towards a funded conclusion for years. Our lesson: the National Register system relies too much on the assumption that safeguards for listed properties are adequate protection against narrowly engineering-based infrastructure planning. The historic nomination process is too object-based and insufficiently informative to larger planning contexts. Great cultural resources are sitting ducks to dumb-growth initiatives.