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Madame Architect, “The Modern Preservationist: A Manifesto,” by Katherine Malishewsky, July 8, 2020

The Modern Preservationist: A Manifesto

published in Madame Architect, July 18, 2020

By Katherine Malishewky

Katherine Malishewsky is the Director of Preservation at MBB Architects. She has been integral to the firm’s work on significant historic buildings including Trinity Church Wall Street and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Have a hole in your shirt? Just buy a new one. You no longer like your toaster color? Just replace it. Your phone is two years old? Just trade it in for the latest model. In a culture where replacing is easier than keeping, the idea of fixing something is often overlooked and intimidating.

Ensuring the Relevance and Longevity of Existing Buildings

Imagine what the repercussions of this cultural attitude could be on those who work in the field of historic preservation. In a typical building rehabilitation project, for instance, the preservationist is just one of many stakeholders working as part of a collaborative team to ensure the longevity and relevance of an existing building. Having multiple vested stakeholders coupled with this modern zeitgeist means all preservationists must develop the ability to professionally advocate, to varying parties, the importance of retaining rather than replacing. This is a skill that takes time, patience, and flexibility to develop and implement.

Modernization of Historic Buildings

In addition to navigating cultural biases, the physical modernization of a historic building is itself complicated. The process requires finding a delicate balance between new and old by weaving 21st century technology into existing building fabric that was not designed to accommodate modern amenities. This is a challenge inherent in modernization projects that cannot be solved without a collaborative team and frequent dialogue.

A Modern Approach to Historic Preservation

To be a modern preservationist, one must learn to professionally advocate for a specific project goal while embracing the necessity for compromise. Though each modernization project is a unique puzzle, there are common pieces that these projects contain. The recent rejuvenation of Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City can serve as a case study to examine the complex nature of modernization projects and explore the role of the preservationist. Trinity’s history on its Wall Street site began in 1697 and the 1846 church that exists today is considered one of the best examples of Gothic Revival architecture in the US. Part of Trinity’s success as a parish has included its ability to adapt its site and architecture with evolving times while maintaining its historic character. The current rejuvenation project is the first comprehensive master planning and modernization project in over 75 years.

Balancing History and Modernity in Preservation

One of the most professionally challenging aspects of modernization projects is that being the preservationist will likely feel like being the bad guy, at least in the beginning. Modernization, or adding new things, is often the exact opposite to preserving existing things. The impetus of modernizing is to move forward and evolve, which for building owners and design teams is exciting and hopeful. Often though, the preservationist’s task is to be the policeman to a bank robbery, as Architect David Chipperfield aptly described the preservationist for the reconstruction of the Neues Museum in Berlin. Armed with thorough research and a learned understanding of buildings and preservation best practices, the preservationist must begin by explaining why and how a building is significant. Then, a preservationist must exhibit a willingness to listen and compromise.

Finding the Most Suitable Approach to Preservation

The zeitgeist of “newer, shinier, better” takes time and patience to work through, even when a building is loved by the owner, users, design team, and the public. This task requires that the preservationist must professionally advocate for preservation methodologies to work through this psychological wall. How far does one push to fulfill best practices while maintaining project goals and professional relationships? This can only be answered on a per project basis, but it lands somewhere between a light touch and a stern nudge. Importantly, one must remember that if the ideal preservation approach is not the most practical, it isn’t an attack to preservation ideologies. It was just not the most suitable approach for this particular project.

How Modern Preservationists Meet Project Goals

A crucial aspect for success is the importance of stating clear priorities from the outset.  At Trinity Church, the priorities included enhancing the overall worship experience, establishing the church as more welcoming, improving accessibility for visitors and clergy, creating more supportive spaces for the clergy, stabilizing the historic building fabric, upgrading technologies and infrastructure, and improving the building’s sustainable performance. Our mandate was to root these goals in historic research and precedence. Although such goals do not provide exact guidelines for detailed decision making, they do establish the direction in which the owner, design team, and contractor must work towards together. The preservationist’s role is to guide and recommend best practices while navigating conflicting interests and needs to meet project goals.

Restoring Legibility to Historic Buildings

As with any continuously operating building, the owner often does what is required to update a building without impeding function. This tends to result in ad hoc additions and repairs with a resultant acceptance of function over fabric. For the last 75 years, Trinity Church has undergone limited scope projects, repairing and modifying the church on an “as needed” basis. When the church decided to undertake the comprehensive master planning and modernization campaign, the building was peppered with miscellaneous conduit lines, mismatched wall repairs, and challenging circulation, among other issues. Comprehensive modernization is required when the owner can no longer continue to function in a historic space with only limited scope interventions. Though a preservationist is taught to always save historic fabric, one cannot neglect the owner’s practical needs and the potential for imperfect preservation to achieve them.

From Amalgamation to Legible Architectural Whole

With most modernization projects, one will find that the older a building is, the more additions and alterations it will likely have. At Trinity, the church as it stands today is an amalgamation of the original 1846 building and three additions, dating from 1877, 1913, and 1966. Each structure was designed to accommodate additional programmatic and religious functions. The interiors have also undergone numerous modifications over time to facilitate the evolving church messaging. Additions and alterations create a challenge of determining historical significance. For example, which part of a historic building would be modified or removed to facilitate ADA accessibility? Does one prioritize only the original material if the building in fact lived most of its life under a later, though also historic, modification? A preservationist needs to navigate the abstract, as they are typically the team member charged with identifying and advocating for key significant elements while determining which others might be altered to facilitate new building needs.

With time and patience, the project team begins to function as a unit with a universal appreciation for the building’s past and excitement for the possibilities of its evolution. An established set of expectations becomes understood by the team so that dialogue becomes easier and compromise occurs more efficiently. Rest assured, when owners and users see their historic building looking better than it has in decades, it is the preservationist that feels most fulfilled.

How Preservation Connects Past, Present and Future

Ultimately, the act of preservation brings a building into the present, but the act of modernization prepares it for the future. This type of project allows for unique solutions and approaches that will mark a new phase in a building’s life. For Trinity, this meant such things as designing a hidden ADA lift within historic millwork, accommodating accessibility while preserving historic character; and concealing thousands of linear feet of conduit under historic flooring for new cameras, LED lights, and hearing loops so conduit would not visibly obstruct the restored interiors. It also meant improving energy efficiency and envelope performance without compromising the conservation of historic materials. For preservationists, modernization projects are layered with professional challenges. However, these project teams introduce new tools, mindsets, and skill sets not traditionally associated with preservation, helping push preservation to modernize itself.

Though not all preservation projects are modernization projects, many of the points above still apply. There will always be stakeholders with varying intentions for historic buildings and there will certainly be times when full modernization is not required. The reality is that every project has some learning curve in defining how a building is significant and articulating what is most important.

What Makes Us Modern Preservationists

It is not the challenges of working on preservation projects that are new, but rather what has defined this generation of preservationists is unique. Preservation as the profession we have today was not truly established in the US until the 1960’s. Since then, the field has created university programs with professional degrees and certifications, formalized national standards and “best practices”, created professional organizations, founded local committees and advocacy groups, and helped expand national, state, and local legislation for the protection of buildings. Our mentors accomplished a remarkable amount when they wrote the guidelines for the preservation practice. Today, we are some of the first in the profession to follow established expectations of what it means to be a “good preservationist”. We are trained to follow the rules established before us.

Therefore, what makes us modern preservationists, in part, is that when we cannot follow perfect preservation practices, we feel like we are not a perfect preservationist. However, with time and practice we learn that this is not the case. “Imperfect” preservation is not, in fact, an imperfect approach, but rather a reality of working with existing buildings.  Every well-conceived “one-off” solution executed in a project is one step the field of preservation takes towards evolution.

Because of this, a modern preservationist embraces her skills of collaboration, advocating, compromise, and communication to redefine the meaning of preservation.

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