Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.
Callowhill Historic District in Reading represents a synthesis of architectural styles from the 18th century to the mid-1900s. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-213

Callowhill Historic District in Reading represents a synthesis of architectural styles from the 18th century to the mid-1900s. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-213

The roots of historic preservation run deep in this country, especially in Pennsylvania. Taking hold in the 19th century as a response to unchecked modern development, the field has grown into a multidisciplinary profession, but what galvanizes concerned citizens to oppose the demolition of historic properties for new construction remains much the same today as two centuries ago. After the U.S. capital was moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania considered selling the State House — known today as Independence Hall — for private development. In 1816 the City of Philadelphia, recognizing the building as the place where the nation was born and thus an emblem worth preserving, purchased the entire block to save it from destruction. Jumping forward to 2016, preservationists in Philadelphia were caught off-guard when a proposal was put forth to demolish five 18th- and early 19th-century buildings along the city’s historic Jewelers’ Row to make way for a multistory residential tower. As the fight to save the buildings continues, preservationists contemplate the future of historic properties in Pennsylvania’s communities.

If the past teaches, what does the future learn? This question was posed to participants at the 2016 Pennsylvania Statewide Conference on Heritage during the 50-year anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, the most significant federal legislation for historic preservation to date (see “Before and After the Act: Historic Preservation in Pennsylvania,” Winter 2016). Thinking forward to the next 50 years, it’s important to question if the historic preservation movement, ethic and profession will continue to evolve to match the cultural expectations of 21st-century citizens. According to Daniel Bluestone, director of the Preservation Studies Program at Boston University and author of Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory: Case Studies in Historic Preservation (Norton, 2010), “preservation has been and ought to continue to be fundamentally about constituting a politics of place and a place-centered citizenship in which buildings and landscapes provide the grounds for us to critically understand and thoughtfully negotiate the relationship between the past and the future.”

Contemporary architecture has a place in our historic communities, but we must decide where and how we want it. Myriad preservation professionals and advocates argue that American culture has become standardized and our communities are increasingly indistinguishable from each other as a result of the domination of corporate brands and the lack of creativity in stock architectural plans in new construction. They wonder whether any of these buildings will be worthy of preservation.

When a historic resource is threatened with change, those engaged in historic preservation are more often than not finding themselves reacting to issues such as lack of investment and neglect resulting in demolition, development pressures in a growing market, insensitive alterations to historic properties, and competing interests of private industry. As we plan for the next 50 years of historic preservation, there is much we can learn from history and how our communities evolved.

Architecture as an artistic expression. Susquehanna Art Museum, Harrisburg, Dauphin County.

Architecture as an artistic expression. Susquehanna Art Museum, Harrisburg, Dauphin County.
Photo by Andrea L. MacDonald

American communities were not constructed overnight and certainly did not develop homogeneously. Many were planned with a grid or around a town square, and others developed more sporadically and were centered on opportunities, often clustered around natural resources, such as coal or iron, to advance political, economic, cultural or social interests. Our Main Streets and surrounding neighborhoods reflect a mix of architectural styles that span centuries and are representative of the tastes, interests and aspirations of the original builders and owners. This can be seen, for instance, in the Callowhill Historic District in Reading, Berks County, where buildings in a variety of styles from the 18th century to the mid-20th century coexist, including Federal, Late Victorian, Commercial, Renaissance Revival, Art Deco and Moderne.

Physical construction took place over time, and architecture played a central role in the psychological building of communities. Headlines of the early 20th century proudly announced the town’s newest buildings: “The Pride of the Valley” (Hotel Lykens, Lykens Borough, Dauphin County, 1924), “North Eastern Pennsylvania’s Most Modern Hotel” (Hotel Altamont, Hazelton, Luzerne County, 1924), and “Contains Beauty Plus Comforts” (Embassy Theatre, Lewistown, Mifflin County, 1927).

There was an undeniable excitement around the prospects of new architecture rippling through young American communities. Architecture has meaning and the power to make a statement with materials, design, technology and the embodiment of tradition. Historic civilizations are often associated with their surviving architectural achievements, which represent progress, prosperity and stability. Ironically, buildings considered to be gaudy and pretentious in their own time are often the ones being fought for today. So that begs the question, what examples of recent architecture will be worthy of preservation?

Historic properties became an interest of national policy through the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906, the Historic Sites Act of 1935, and NHPA in 1966. NHPA authorized the National Register of Historic Places, which has become known as the “official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation.” As a way to judge a wide range of properties that may be significant in local, state and national history, the National Park Service developed the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. Properties with architectural significance may be eligible for the National Register if they embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction; represent the work of a master; possess high artistic values; or contribute to a larger district. (It’s important to note that historic preservation efforts have never centered exclusively on architectural values or significance.) Requirements for listing in the National Register include that a property must have stood the test of time, which generally means built more than 50 years ago, and it must have sufficient integrity, or enough original features, to convey its significance.

Fortunately, the National Register program has evolved along with the profession, yet there are countless examples of seemingly significant properties that do not meet these national standards. A notable example in Lower Alsace Township, Berks County, is Stokesay Castle, constructed in 1933-35 as a Tudor Revival country estate. Its design was heavily influenced by a medieval manor in England bearing the same name; however, it was adapted to a banquet hall in the 1970s and the additions and landscape modifications to expand parking options overwhelmed the original construction, stripping it of its former function as a country estate and making it ineligible for the National Register. The National Register program has been criticized by some as hindering pragmatic preservation efforts by valuing appearance over economic and community interests.

Integrating traditional and new architecture to meet the needs of a contemporary community. Codo 241, York, York County.

Integrating traditional and new architecture to meet the needs of a contemporary community. Codo 241, York, York County.
Photo by Andrea MacDonald

Ada Louise Huxtable (1921–2013), an architecture critic and author of The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion (New Press, 1997), argued that historic preservation practices are not always a good thing. Huxtable contested that preservationists “invented a new past” through a “sanitized and selective version” of what really happened. She was not a fan of reproductions, such as Colonial Williamsburg, because of the stories that were erased to depict and interpret a limited period of community development. “To lose history is to lose place, identity, and meaning,” Huxtable lamented. “But continuity can be achieved only if the past is integrated into the contemporary context in a way that works and matters.”

Preservationists have long understood how buildings shape our sense of place, but common ground has yet to be reached on how much the future should be interwoven with the past. In her reviews published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Huxtable was known for zingers and one-liners but was always committed to “the principle that every age produces its greatest buildings in its own image.” She believed in testing a building’s concept and materials by looking at it up close, “kicking a building” and comparing it to her reference of time.

Many schools of thought surround historic preservation. The reasons why a historic place resonates for some but not for others are inconclusive. Translating the sentiments of Bluestone and Huxtable into current historic preservation programs and practices is likewise not easy. Determining the appropriate way to measure which historic places are worthy of preservation and who is responsible for making that decision is a source of continued struggle within the profession. The word “preservation” itself has become associated with favoring love of the past over the needs of the present or future. Perhaps as a result of these indecisions and no clear national leadership charting the future of historic preservation, periphery groups and increasingly popular organizations, like Strong Towns, have bubbled up over the past decade to redefine revitalization in our historic communities. The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model of development that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient. Architecture in these reimagined models often plays a distinct role and encourages human-scale design that is locally inspired. Scholarship is pointing to the fact that architecture of the past built a valued connection between people and places. The outstanding question is how best to capitalize on what we have learned, so that we can expand those existing community relationships between people and place, while infusing 21st- century ideals into an architectural legacy worthy of preservation.

Stephen Swarney, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, has contended that the cards are stacked against architects to have a meaningful impact on today’s landscape as a result of increasing regulations, availability of stock plans on the internet, and the ability for architects to charge a reasonable fee for a creative set of plans. Technological innovations coupled with advanced construction methods and materials — expansive use of glass and steel, curvaceous and aerodynamic forms, 3D printing — have the potential to dramatically change the world of architecture, yet the average client is reluctant to pay for design.

 

Architecture designed to inspire. Sharpsburg Community Library, Sharpsburg, Allegheny County.

Architecture designed to inspire. Sharpsburg Community Library, Sharpsburg, Allegheny County.
Photo by Andrea L. MacDonald

In some Pennsylvania cities, however, there is intelligent and purposeful architecture being integrated into traditional communities. A current trend resonating as a statement of cultural relevancy has been the melding of historic and contemporary spaces. In Harrisburg, Dauphin County, one block north of the city’s Broad Street Market and within the Old Uptown Harrisburg Municipal Historic District, the Susquehanna Art Museum opened its new location in the former Keystone Trust Company’s 1916 Greek Revival building and an interconnected modern section of 20,000 square feet of exhibition space. On the northern edge of the National Register-listed York Historic District, Codo 241 blends old and new using copper and glass to join an early 20th-century historic mercantile building, forming a new apartment complex. This prominent urban corner, which stood vacant for years in York, is now punctuated with cladding that provides a visually striking amalgam of colors, shades and textures. Outside downtown Pittsburgh on the main artery in Sharpsburg, Allegheny County, nestled along the Allegheny River, is the Sharpsburg Community Library. The renovated building announces itself with bold colors and geometric shapes. This contemporary local landmark’s transformation was designed by Arthur Lubetz of Front Studio Architects. Lubetz believes “Architecture isn’t just about architecture. It’s about philosophy, sociology, emotion and art.” Perhaps the thoughtful blending in these examples of architecture in historic communities will one day rouse future preservationists to initiate measures for increased recognition, protection and preservation.

 

Andrea L. MacDonald is the director of Pennsylvania’s State Historic Preservation Office.