On a very general level, our society uses the word “historic” to mark something as notably old. Historic properties beloved by the public such as Mt. Vernon are usually successful and deemed historic because either an important event happened there, an important person was there, or an important theme is associated with the space. [see related National Register Criteria for Evaluation]. Historic preservation disciplines who evaluate historic properties use guidelines set by the National Park Service to convey a property’s “historic” integrity. The seven criteria used to assess integrity are location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. So the next time a peer or colleague remarks that a particular structure or feature is “historic” in the context of historic properties, challenge them to elaborate based on the criteria established by the NPS and U.S. Department of the Interior such as the guidelines above. It’s a great way to generate a discussion about what makes a place special or unique. One of my favorite historic properties for example is Fonthill Castle in Doylestown, PA which is very significant in workmanship and material as an early example of a poured reinforced concrete domestic home.
As someone who has worked for, lived in, and written cultural landscape and designation reports for historic properties [such as Castle in the Clouds below], another important aspect of this “historic thread” is understanding how organizations are interpreting their historic properties. If the organization is applying for grants, historic designations, or even planning construction activities, they will likely need to consult The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Furthermore, they will often hire a preservation consultant to assess their property for significance and recommend an approach to keeping an historic property. The NPS lists Four Approaches to the Treatment of Historic Properties: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. Each of these four distinct, but interrelated approaches to the treatment of historic properties have their own individual standards and guidelines to follow.
Preservation focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time.
Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property’s historic character.
Restoration depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods.
Reconstruction re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes.
Apart from being an established and necessary standard for property trustees and historic preservation professionals to know and execute, I think anyone associated with historic properties should have an understanding of an organization’s approach to maintaining and using their site. Especially for organizations that are open to the public and history is their biggest asset, the ability of all stakeholders to be able to tell the organization’s story and where they’re headed is a powerful tool.
In 1771, owner David Franks maintained a portico at his summer home, Woodford Mansion in Philadelphia. The porch was eventually torn down, but the organization is interested in reconstructing the feature to help interpret life during this period. Left: artist rendering; Right: physical model. http://woodfordmansion.org/index.php
For a historic house and garden such as Philipsburg Manor, for example, the gardeners, docents, and curators should all know the distinction of each approach and its applicability to their work. In this instance the property follows a largely Restoration approach by maintaining the property to elicit the 1750s era. However, to tell the story of how its African American slaves used the site, a slave garden was recreated [or reconstructed] on the historic grounds. Being able to communicate the relationship and rationale between these two different approaches is highly important in respect to accuracy and interpreting history.
Failing to successfully communicate such a relationship is likely counter to the organization’s mission, which likely includes some type of learning and education component. Additionally, it could cause some difficulties when you decide to apply for historic preservation awards, grants, and nominations. For example, if you were to win grant money from a historic preservation foundation earmarked to preserve an old kitchen of a historic house, but instead used those funds to rehabilitate by adding a new section for upgraded kitchen facilities, there’s a chance you could be in trouble. If the foundation asks for a report of your preservation efforts and you send them an update of largely rehab activities, then they could ask for their money back!
Additionally, guidelines are important because they outline important prescriptive techniques aimed at maintaining the integrity of your structures. In some cases, not following these standards could lead to irreversible damage.