Historic Preservation Goes Awry

By Leigh, Catesby | The American Enterprise, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Historic Preservation Goes Awry


Leigh, Catesby, The American Enterprise


When Congress passed a historic preservation law for the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., it was explicitly intended to protect handsome buildings erected in the city's "early years"-meaning the late 1700s and early 1800s. That's not quite how it has worked out. Today, a 1930s trash incinerator its towering smokestack are being "historically preserved" as the centerpiece of a hotel, residential, shopping, and entertainment project budgeted at $160 million and counting. The boxy brick incinerator is located near Georgetown's Potomac River waterfront. Beautiful it ain't. Yet the city's historic preservation board has categorized the incinerator and its smokestack as as a "contributing element" of Georgetown's historic character. So the developers have gone to enormous lengths to protect these useless industrial relics from the blasting and excavation needed to build underground parking and a 14-screen multiplex theater.

The architectural scheme for the surrounding 600,000-square-foot project calls for replicating the incinerator's contours. The result is an unappealing agglomeration variously clad in brick, stone, and glass. The project also includes three undistinguished nineteenth-century houses on the site, adding to the visual clutter but serving to keep the preservationist bureaucracy happy. The incinerator will house the hotel's reception area, restaurant, and a couple of meeting rooms. The smokestack's lower portion may serve as a wine cellar, while providing diversion for people lining up for tickets and popcorn in the multiplex's lobby.

The Georgetown Incinerator Project, as it is fetchingly dubbed, is but one indication that historic preservation in America has gone seriously awry. Preservationists seem increasingly incapable of separating the wheat from the chaff.

The preservationist impulse wasn't born yesterday. When the great poet Petrarch returned to his hometown of Arezzo, in central Italy, he was touched that the local authorities had decreed no change should be made to the house where he was born. The year was 1350.

The modern preservation movement's roots lie in the estimable desire to maintain buildings and sites that have extraordinary significance for various reasons: Either they are associated with great men and women or great events (as with George Washington's Mount Vernon home, Civil War battlefields, or the immigration facilities on Ellis Island); or they have archaeological importance (as with the pre-Columbian Casa Grande ruins in Arizona); or they are architecturally distinguished (as in the case of Manhattan's Grand Central Station). In recent years, though, preservationists have wandered into much murkier waters.

Political correctness is often a factor. Thus the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, a dark little dive, has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places because it is a gay bar associated with the cause of homosexual rights, since its clientele rioted during a police raid in 1969.

Yet preservation's problems run deeper than politics. With increasing frequency, preservationists fail to make the sometimes difficult but always necessary distinction between what is of historic importance and what is merely old. The term "historic" implies a demanding standard. Leaving aside sites of major archaeological significance, a building or place specially designated "historic" should somehow be intertwined with our highest ideals. A place like Grand Central qualifies because its beauty and magnificence are emotionally linked to noble aspirations.

The problem with current preservationist philosophy is that many of its exponents, like most of America's cultural elite, have abandoned the idealism long characteristic of Western civilization, an idealism which nurtured enduring conventions in art along with enduring truths in human affairs. This idealism has been supplanted by a relativism which leads preservationists down a slippery slope. …

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