To whom are we conveying the significance of an historic structure?

When you evaluate the integrity of a building, and think about whether it’s in good enough shape to convey its significance, to whom do you imagine it conveying that significance? Or, of course, failing to convey it?

Having served on Landmarks Commissions and other preservation related groups for nearly 10 years now, I find that this is the main challenge of preservation. Most people hear that something is a landmark and their interest stops there. What they usually don’t understand is that there are several criteria for designation – and thus WHY something is historically significant. When I say “most people,” I am referring to the general population that does not deal with landmarks on a day to day basis. However, I have even seen this in some preservation professionals.

As a thoughtful preservation professional, I feel that this is one area where we fail to achieve our goals of preserving our history for future generations. If we can’t articulate our values in the form of why something is important to our society, then how are others ever going to be able to understand? In addition, understanding of these values can help guide us to preserving what is important as we work on a specific structure. Understanding of why something is valuable can actually lead to more flexibility in what you can do with a structure, and flexibility is something that we need a lot more of if we are to break through the perception that preservation is making places museums. Look to the examples of how the Europeans live in their ancient cities.

Integrity of a structure takes this appreciating the value of a structure to yet another level. Because there are, again, several criteria for integrity, and you need not have all seven to “have integrity,” and unless you deal with integrity issues on a regular basis through designation processes, you’re very unlikely to be familiar with them. Again, some preservation professionals and even most preservation architects are not familiar with these issues. And, again, if we can’t articulate our values, how will others be able to understand.

I believe that the right audience for preservation must be the general population rather than an elitist group of knowledgeable (or wealthy) people who have time to care about the issues. Why? Because we should all care about these issues. I believe that the lessons learned from our history are important enough to inform us about our future. I believe that understanding of value to one small segment of society can contribute to one’s appreciation of another society that we may, on the surface, think is weird, strange, or even abhorrent. Preservation is a tool that can help to teach tolerance and appreciation of others. And that’s something we need a lot more of in this world today!

As someone else challenged me, so shall I challenge you: Do you really think that designation criteria and integrity criteria are working to actually convey meaning? And do we just have to keep using what we’ve got? Or is there another system for thinking about how we preserve our history?

What follows here are the comments of several other professionals interested in Historic Preservation.  Enjoy! – Brian

Jennie Dotts • Significance accrues to all bldgs over time and individuals–not institutions–give them meaning. The process of landmark commissions conveying significance/status (along with a plaque) has a place, but it is a top-down, antiquated preservation strategy. That’s why my preservationist partners and I developed Old House Diaries (, a website that allows everyone to document the history of a bldg, tell its story, store and share documents, photos and videos. Our hope is that this will build a recognition and appreciation for the places we value. The diaries could someday save the life of bldg or inform its renovation. You are right in saying that the general public–not only an educated elite–is the audience for preservation.


Robert M. Kelly • I’m more inclined to think that the general population is often blind-sided by drastic old building alterations. Face it, we rarely see it coming. The problem is many-sided, as Brian sketches out. No amount of crowd-sourcing and petition-gathering would achieve as much as more LAWS to avoid the senseless destruction of buildings that should/could/would be saved…if only they were protected, as they are by the laws in Great Britain.

I’m all for better education of the public, but web campaigns and bake sales and letters to the editor are not the solution, because the housing stock of worthwhile is vast, the time is short, and politicians are too easily swayed.

We need better laws which will protect these resources up front, even when they are most obscure and have no champions.


Jeremy Wells • Brian, I think you touched on the most important concept in your response: meaning. Preservation doctrine has arisen around a value system promulgated by experts representing a rather narrow socioeconomic class in which meanings are assumed to be objective and invariant. Unfortunately, we often don’t go to a lot of effort to understand alternate values from a broader range of stakeholders, even if they represent the dominant values associated with a building, place, or landscape. We assume, as professionals, that our value system is indeed objective, but what if, as Waterton, Smith, and Campbell (2006) assert, “the conservation values of experts might be just another set of cultural values”? What I’m getting at here is that we need to evaluate our own value system as much as public values, with the clear objective that preservation/conservation should be intended to benefit people first, and the object second. After all, without people, what point would there be to engage in conservation?

In addition to making too many assumptions on value systems, preservation doctrine also assumes, erroneously, that meaning is somehow an inherent part of a heritage object, when, in fact, we, as cultural groups and individuals, actually put the meaning there. Surely, some useful changes to preservation practice could arise from this basic realization.

There’s been some very interesting work on this subject done by Randall Mason, Laurajane Smith, and Salvador Muñoz Viñas, among others.


C. Jane Cox • This is such a core issue of how preservation gets accomplished on a day to day basis, but one that is rarely discussed, or challenged. How refreshing to read these comments.

As a preservationists in a local government, we are challenged on a weekly basis with finding that the State has determined a resource ineligible for the NR yet we have information that easily demonstrates association with a locally significant pattern of history or association with a locally important person that was missed when the “out-of-towner” evaluating the resource.

Our conundrum then is when the developer trots in with the States determination, that more often than not was evaluated as part of a large package of State review under 106, and leans heavily to evaluating only under Criteria C. We point out the local history connections, which is more often than not missing in the evaluation, and it practically takes an act of congress to get it re-evaluated. While the fact that the field is still skewed so heavily towards architectural merits is another thread, the static DOE on file is an impedence when new information or a new perspective 20 years on changes the significance evaluation.

Buildings in our files evaluated 20 years ago may have in fact gained significance in the intervening years, but a developer armed with a DOE form from the State makes saving the building an uphill battle. Likewise, when a community’s values shift and change, they may see significance in a building that was not considered valuable by the “Professionals”. How do I tell a community that we can not help them save what THEY think is important because an architectural historian from three states over decided 20 years ago that the house was so commonplace it lacked significance.

Not an easy nut to crack with the existing system….

Eugene Aleci • Policy and therefore review procedures can apparently ONLY be based on what are presumed/constructed to be “objective” checklist criteria. This is the “game” that has been established by our legal/scientific approach to everything. If it can’t be quantified by matching a set of criteria, then it has no real value.

It seems that when we reduce historic significance to this checklist approach, and given how inadequately staffed and funded our state SHPOs and local HP orgs tend to be in most places, then we’re really at a disadvantage from the start. Once developers, property owners and their lawyers or site-planners see this, we’re unlikely to win the legal debate, almost from the start; since we’re playing on their field and without their endless resources.

I think building up the community-based approach like the house diaries is a really good one that should be developed, to make these designations more relevant to all. A local college’s art history dept and curriculum gallery division is recently developing a curated museum walk of our city’s local architecture, which will eventually use mobile hand-held devices, digital-satellite mapping, and interpretative content to help people readily recognize and learn why buildings in the city-scape are culturally valuable and have meaning.

David Gaby • As we all know there is a pseudo-scientific checklist for “Significance” built into the MHPA and other statutes and regulations which does over-rely on architecture, and also over-relies on connections with certain ethnic groups….

Reliance on these narrow “principles” does not make preservation systematic. It essentially, combined with the reduced resources in State preservation offices, is depriving preservation of potential constituencies among the general public, people who want to preserve what they understand as heritage. If we continue to use these checklists to deny protection to buildings that are significant locally, as noted in others comments, we are betraying our own heritage as preservationists.

We should instead be lobbying at every level for broader interpretations of “Significance” that can make preservation relevant to a broader group of people, and at the same time using the tax incentives, the energy and sustainability arguments noted by Eugene, and other arguments to make preservation an element that adds value to a project for a developer, rather than one that adds costs and delays.

Larry D. Jones • “I believe that the right audience for preservation must be the general population”, this was the key phrase in the opener for this thread.

Maximilian Ferro, FAIA • ….Recognition of the significance of the past is a romantic notion which has its roots in historicism, tradition, cultural hegemony and the search for roots…all hard to find in an increasingly multi-cultural, socially mobile and dynamic society which worships progress. When HP finally entered the American lexicon, it was a bureaucratic movement, inspired by youthful envy for the grandiloquent but insincere protestations of European Government Authorities who, having just rebuilt all of Europe after WWII, were spewing self-serving moral homilies about new rules based on ridiculous principles….

Preservation springs from nationalist pride and current admiration of stylistic precedents…. …Without the will to reconstruct, preservation is utterly futile….

[I]nstead of having a government that make sanctimonious proclamations against aping the past, give us good planning commissions that encourage well-designed buildings in past styles, and the recreation of lost integrity. Then and only then would real historic fabric be appreciated and safe from dereliction.



Robert M. Kelly • [The] ideas of compatibility and right purpose and integrity are not rocket science but rather common sense.



David Gaby • At the same time I think that perhaps Max’s pessimism about the NPS and the SHPO’s should be married to Jennie’s interest in Democracy. What is needed is not just expertise in the distinction of the various types of columns (or window sash, or fenestration ratios). What is needed is for “Preservation” to reclaim its popular mandate, which derived from the public’s outrage at the wholesale and useless destruction of the 1960s, which included “Urban renewal” as much as Penn Station.

To do this we have to discard the useless and often corrupt distinctions about “Significance”, that is really a cover for snobbery and preservation of ‘Insider agendas”, and make sensible preservation of the built environment both a tool that is available and appropriate to people associated with the large mass of existing buildings, but also one of the leading forces showing the way to a “Sustainable” future….

…[T]he professional community’s attitude towards the assessment of “Significance” is important. The nitpicking approach, with discussion of whether there is artificial siding and so forth, is one of the tools the corrupt bureaucrats are using to intimidate community people. Every time this happens we lose potential constituency for preservation.

As professionals we should not ignore ignorance, especially among those who claim to be “Preservation architects, etc.”, but we should first condemn all those who pose as experts of whatever kind to justify needless waste of our existing built environment. Instead we should adopt a standard that ALL buildings are significant if they seem significant to members of their user communities, and that the “validity” of a structure for preservation should be based on whether it is well-enough preserved to represent its era or type within its cultural context (i.e. it is recognizable as an old house, etc.).



Brian Rich • I would like to bring it back to the question of meaning and “to whom are we conveying significance.” David and others have interestingly pointed out in their comments that often discussions with SHPOs and other officials about value and meaning of a landmark boil down to a question of whether something (apparently insignificant to us) has been changed.

I think that sometimes this is just where some people want the debate to be. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily where the debate should be. I rather measure value of a building from the point of view of what we feel when a structure is gone. Do we say “good riddance,” or do we say “goodbye old friend; I’ll miss you.” If we respond in the latter manner, then that building meant something to us – simple as that.

The Urban Renewal movement is happening again – in a way. Specifically, the sustainable design movement has some people thinking that we should demolish all the old buildings to make way for new, super efficient structures that will save the planet. Well, I’m preaching to the choir when I say that we know existing buildings can be renovated in sustainable ways and help save the planet quicker than replacing the old structures. I believe the sustainable design movement is misunderstood by too many people and that we can do sustainable rehabilitation without having to achieve a certain level of certification.

Of course, there are economic benefits, social and cultural benefits to rehabilitation of existing buildings too. If you want to know more, check out some of my presentations on the topic on my LinkedIn page.

So, if we really want to go this way, how do we codify David’s statement: “ALL buildings are significant if they seem significant to members of their user communities….” How do we regulate feeling in a manner that is not subjective and subject to every potential special interest group that wants to sway a decision one way or the other?

Maximilian Ferro, FAIA • I used to boast that there wasn’t a dog house or woodshed in the country that I couldn’t put on the Register. The NR just gave you an excuse to exercise your scholarly bullshit, and, when the SHPO’s became politicized, the same scholarly bullshit worked just fine the other way. One person’s significance is another’s lack thereof. The whole concept of significance has long been a farce, and needs to be replaced by the concept of appropriateness, which ties individual structures to historic environments.

Julie Paul Brown, AIA, LEED AP • I would like to put forth another related question: Why do we feel the need to “legislate” preservation? Is what we really seek a preservation “ethic”?

Recognizing the value of existing buildings we know is beneficial in multiple ways. “Meaning” is one of them, but as Brian first posed, it is also the most difficult to understand and substantiate…meaning for one may be irrelevant to others. And as Max notes property rights are fiercely defended. Asserting significance -or appropriateness over someone else’s property is a difficult stance to take. I would fear that either would privilege too much over “style” -which I would argue historic buildings are about more than just their style of architecture. They are evidence of what has endured…materially, emotionally, politically. Without at least 1 of those 3 qualities(material durability, emotional attachment, political will/power) they would no longer exist.

David Gaby • I especially think that the concepts of “Appropriateness” and “Environmental Value” should be thought through more fully. At the same time, though they were not INITIALLY involved in legislation, USGBC has been aggressive about setting standards, which have gotten themselves incorporated into funding formulas and code thinking. We in HP should be doing the same, and I think we should begin formulating a program to do this with all deliberate speed…

Jeremy Wells • [W]hen you describe that you “measure value of a building from the point of view of what we feel when a structure is gone,” I’m thinking about people’s emotional attachment to historic places. From my research, this is the real reason why people value historic places, but our regulatory tools have no ability to assess, much less recognize, this aspect of value. It’s an interesting challenge, actually, to “objectively” describe something as subjective as people’s feelings for places.

Maximilian Ferro, FAIA • Perhaps legislation is the wrong road. What we really need is to think about what we are doing, and to have more concern for the Community. So rules could be replaced by public planning, and Form Based Codes could enable entire neighborhoods and environments to reflect the aspirations of their inhabitants.

A Elizabeth Watson, AICP • In our heritage development practice, we create management plans that include interpretive planning – essentially, figuring out how to convey the meaning in a community’s or region’s story. I’ve found the whole process fascinating as a planner, wondering if we couldn’t harness it more for “ordinary” planning, to enrich public education and civic engagement, and placemaking in general. In the case of the challenges here, I wonder if adding some interpretive planning to existing historic preservation processes would help get ahead of the curve – all those too-old surveys; nasty surprises when something unregarded for years turns out to be important somehow, just when a developer decides it’s time to make changes; a public that’s tired of conflict over changes; a preservation message that’s getting lost, with resulting losses in the conflicts; etc.

[W]e’ve recommended organizing neighborhoods…  …to work on the stories to be told and the means to tell them (not just outdoor interpretive signs, perhaps community arts expression, lots of other ways). Those conversations could lead to an understanding of the city’s history and environment, and shared knowledge of structures and spaces and programs that had and have meaning. The first result would be educating residents and visitors about these places, the second would be implementing a plan of action for undertaking improved interpretation. Ultimately, a process like this in a given community could lead to preservation activities with renewed determination to share the stories AND to save those things that have great meaning to the current population…. …I feel certain that if one were to build a preservation-interpretive planning process from scratch, that better and even more meaningful preservation could result.



Virginia Greene • There can be contextual guidelines for contributing vernacular fabric that supports a general cultural backdrop. This sometimes defines a neighborhood or downtown and can celebrate America’s craftsmen who are oftentimes overlooked.



Brian Rich • How long do you save an unoccupied building before determining that it’s just needs to go away?  30 days?  A year?  More?  It’s difficult to discuss this in the context of establishing meaning for a place because even though a place may have meaning, it does not instantly mean that it is ripe for occupation and will be immediately rehabilitated.  There are several other economic, social, and environmental factors that go into rehabilitation of a building that it may be decades before one is rehabilitated.  Nonetheless, nostalgia can serve a role because the character of an area is kept in tact to be handed down to others in the future.



James Shive • “To only save older buildings that have a new use – at what point are these buildings determined to have “no new use” – after a 30 day period? A year?”

Indeed. New ideas for new uses or rehabilitation reuse can come along at any time. The keys are to: (a) preserve the building though actions like mothballing; (b) work seriously at the process of finding those new ideas, and (c) work even harder at marketing the ideas, once they do come along. Surely there are buildings which, through decades of sheer neglect, may well reach the end of their useful lives. However, there is no reason (and I say no excuse) for letting them essentially become victims of “Demolition by Neglect”.

James Shive • “There can be contextual guidelines for contributing vernacular fabric that supports a general cultural backdrop. This sometimes defines a neighborhood or downtown and can celebrate America’s craftsmen who are oftentimes overlooked.”

Indeed there can, and indeed there should be just that. The challenge is getting it into local guidelines, where it applies. They have to be crafted to meet the local situation and the local resources, but still within the general SOI guidelines, which, as far as I am concerned are the only real statement out there on general guidance. Unfortunately, perhaps far to often, especially locally, preservation commissioners and preservation officers are woefully unaware of even the contents of the SOI standards and guidelines. Likewise, they are too often too influenced by local pressure to “make the standards workable” by local developers and local governments. What too many perhaps do not realize is that there are a lot of folks out there, willing to invest in communities if they demonstrate a real understanding of and appreciation for real preservation.

Jeremy Wells • Eugene – One thing to keep in mind about the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and the seven aspects of integrity, and what I tell my students, is that they were originally created only to be used for federal historic tax credit projects and the National Register. The way that the Standards/Aspects have been uniformly adopted across the country by all manner of governmental and private entities was unanticipated and never intended.  This is not to say that the Standards/Aspects can’t be broadly applied to non-tax credit/non NR projects, as arguably they have helped save historic fabric in many buildings and places as well as identify them, but my issue is the way that they have been uncritically used. It’s as if the assumption is/was that if the government says so, then it must be the way things should be. Here’s a good question: other than those who have received training in historic preservation, does the average person that looks at the Standards/Aspects even understand why they were created and what their intent is? In other words — and this is just my theory — too many people simply use the Standards/Aspects “because they have to” rather than understanding the particular goals being achieved. Even something as fundamental as understanding that the primary goal of the Standards/Aspects is to retain fabric and character-defining features from the period of significance of the structure is not necessarily clear.



Brian Rich • What’s most important here is to carefully read the laws implementing these criteria. We recently had an designation hearing that we had to continue to another date because some in the audience (including some sharp eyed lawyers) actually read the Code. The way the code was written in this case, it grammatically implied that any designation had to meet all 7 criteria in order to be designated. As I understand it, the NPS intent is that some, but not all, of the criteria have to be met in order to make a structure eligible for designation.

Relative to our discussion about to whom we are conveying significance, this can become even more confusing for those who do not understand why a structure is designated. When the condition of a building can be pristine or severely deteriorated, and yet still be designated as a landmark, does this help or hurt the cause of preservation?

Jeremy Wells • Brian,

You bring up an excellent point about conveying significance through integrity/condition. The expert/objective perspective as embodied in preservation doctrine (e.g., the Standards, Venice Charter, 7 aspects of integrity) divorces structural/aesthetic/use value from physical authenticity value (i.e., retaining historic fabric from the period of significance of a structure/place). In my experience, this is one of the fundamental differences in a lay versus professional perspective in preservation: a “ruinous heap” can have oodles of historical integrity/physical authenticity, but yet have little or no potential use value. An easier way that I use to describe this to people is if human beings have altered the fabric of a building or place less than 50 years ago, that’s bad. If mother nature did the same thing, it’s typically not important or can even enhance the patina of place that makes things feel old. And we sometimes wonder why a lay audience doesn’t get the preservation argument…