FIFTY AND FABULOUS
May is Preservation Month and we want to say, “Happy Birthday,” to all our old buildings turning 50 this year! One of my favorite SNL skits is Molly Shannon’s “I’m Fifty!” I couldn’t help but think of this hilarious moment when writing this post.
Whether you’re a fan (me! me! me!) or not, it’s hard not to take notice of the vast range of Modernism buildings in America approaching the 50-year mark. The 1970’s represent the end of the Modernism movement and boy does it end with a bang! I’m looking at you Brutalism with your fortress-like massing, angular lines, and raw aesthetics. But wait, let’s back up a moment… what’s so special about turning 50?
If I ask my family members, they might roll their eyes (family trait) and shrug when I ask about the benefits of turning 50. In the preservation community, we are focused on buildings that are 50+. When a building is 50 years or older, it can be eligible for a listing on a local, state, or national register and deemed “historic.” So, let’s revisit those Brutalist buildings that are celebrating their big 5-0 this year. Based on the fifty-year rule, every Brutalist building could qualify to be on a historic registry, right? Wrong. Not all old buildings are built equally. In order to be listed on a historic register, the building must have significance in American history, architecture, engineering, art, or culture. A building, for example, may be significant because of its association with a remarkable person. We are all familiar with the phrase, “George Washington Slept Here,” and perhaps a few of you are Turner Classic fans like me and have even seen the movie. The question then becomes, how do I know if I have a building that qualifies? The first step is to stop by your local library, do a quick internet search, or contact your favorite preservationist (I’m currently raising my hand if you can’t see me).
The National Park Service has a guide online to help you research your property:
Another helpful resource when considering a historic register is the Preliminary Eligibility Questionnaire, provided by the Ohio State Historic Preservation Office. It’s a great tool to gauge the significance and historic integrity of your property.
Okay, let’s say your 50-year-old Brutalist building checks at least one of the criteria boxes on the questionnaire. Where do we go from here and more importantly, why do we need to do anything?
THE ROAD TO PRESERVATION
Preservation goes far beyond saving bricks and mortar. It’s easy to understand why people assume that preservationists are just about saving buildings, but at the end of the day, it’s about saving our heritage, history, and legacies. Architecture is a visual timeline of our past and creates a sense of place. It’s a representation of where we’ve been artistically, socially, and technologically. It’s easy to display such a variety of antiquity in an art museum, but what of our built environment? Am I the only one who gets goosebumps when visiting Charleston or Boston? I think we’ve established my love of books, but nothing can replace the feeling of experiencing history along the Freedom Trail. I’m thankful for those before us who recognize the importance of our heritage and chose to honor these significant places in our country. Not every building needs to be Paul Revere House quality, but even the small effort of saving a Brutalist building built 50 years ago will mean something to those who come after us. They may say, “that is the most bizarre architecture style I’ve ever seen,” but hey, at least they can have that experience. Say you are the owner of that bizarre Brutalist building. One way you can ensure its longevity is to list the building on a historic register. Whether it is a local, state, or national register, the process is practically painless. It requires research, writing skills, photographs, maps, drawings, some patience, and most importantly, a preservationist to navigate the system (again, raising my hand). If a historic register is not in the cards for your project, that does not mean you don’t have a noteworthy building. Regardless of the historic status, the act of saving and reusing an old building is historic preservation.
You may be wondering what possible benefits come from historic preservation. Well, here is my shortlist:
- Buildings connect us to our past and create a sense of place.
- Buildings create learning tools for architects, students, and communities.
- Preservation helps boost the economy in local communities through tourism and new jobs.
- Preservation can be a catalyst for growth and investment.
- It’s beneficial for our environment by conserving resources and reducing material consumption and waste.
- Historic buildings listed on the National Register can take advantage of a 20% tax credit on qualified rehabilitation expenses over a five-year period.
- Historic buildings listed on the local or state register can take advantage of a 25% tax credit on qualified rehabilitation expenses over a five-year period.
- Many historic grants are available at the local and national levels. Here is a small sample of available grants:
- The Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credit Pipeline Initiative
- CLG (Certified Local Government Grant)
- Ohio History Fund
- African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund
- Hart Family Fund for Small Towns
- National Endowment For the Arts
- Save America’s Treasures
- National Fund for Sacred Places
BIRTHDAY WISHES FROM A BUILDING: KNOW THE FACTS
There are many stereotypes behind preservation, and I know when I attended graduate school for Historic Preservation, there were many questions as to my career choice. Don’t get me wrong, I probably have lived up to many of the labels, I mean I already admitted my love of Turner Classic movies. I was also that person who lived at the library and surrounded myself with stacks of old books. Misconceptions that preservationists are constantly struggling to disprove are: controlling building owners, not supporting renovation work, opposing contemporary design, and implementing unreasonable guidelines.
Preservation is a word that I find has many meanings. Yes, there are buildings that we preserve in time because we want to honor an event or particular era. The majority of preservation work is rehabilitation work and is a balance between new and old. Preservationists are masters in the art of compromise. I’ve heard a lot of chatter from building owners who do not want to spend resources replicating a building detail or feel they cannot alter their building. Guess what, there is no law or rule forcing building owners to replicate, restore, or preserve any building element. That includes buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Did your mind just implode? I’ll say it again, if you have a building listed on the National Register, you are free to make whatever changes you wish as long as you use private funds. The National Register of Historic Places is an honorific program and does not carry any restrictions. That Brutalist building you want to convert into a community center, go ahead and modify as you see fit to make the project successful. Preservationists want you to think outside the box and reuse buildings in a creative way. Granted, we also like to keep the historic character intact but the beautiful thing about architecture is that you can use it as a tool to blend new ideas into old designs. How cool is that? Buildings are a constant reflection of how we live our lives and what a lovely way to honor past architects and people by bringing them with us into the future.
BIRTHDAY? BUILDING? BLOG? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
I’m sure you’re wondering how this impacts you. I get it. For many, an old building is just that, an old building. It’s dirty, the paint is peeling, the roof is no more than a sieve letting rainwater through, and I can guarantee the building comes with a furry or feathered tenant. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? But, if we look at buildings through an innovative lens, we can see opportunities for development, economic growth, social stability, and as an added bonus, the opportunity to keep resources out of landfills. Is that to say that every 50-year-old building needs to be saved or recognized as having historic significance? Of course not. Not every building is fit for a historic register or even rehabilitation. Sometimes the damage is so severe that there’s no way to salvage the building. The takeaway that I want you to leave with is knowing that preservation is not here to hinder building owners or impede progress but rather to combine our wonderful history with our present needs as a society.
BIRTHDAY GIFT TO YOU…
RESOURCES I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
National and Local Landmarks
- Ohio Online Mapping System (Local and National Districts, individual National Register buildings, OHI Forms (Ohio History Inventory Forms), Previous tax credit projects)
- Cincinnati Local Historic Districts (conservation guidelines and approved applications)
- Cincinnati Local Landmarks
- National Register Database and Research
- Library of Congress Sanborn Maps
- Cincinnati Public Library (need a library card)
- Sanborn Key
- Hamilton County Maps
- Cincinnati Public Library (general research link)
- Cincinnati Public Library (Williams Directory - Cincinnati)
- Cincinnati Public Library (ProQuest: Cincinnati Enquirer (1841-2009) (need a library card)
- Preservation Briefs
- Building Styles