Preservation experts in three cities explain how and why a building is deemed worthy of protection.
Should we preserve it, or should we knock it down? Over the last 50 years, this has become a real question in towns and cities across the country. As urban areas continue to grow, and as local leaders increasingly embrace the historic buildings that communities were built around, it often falls to design boards or commissions—and the architects who populate them—to decide what stays and what goes.
Los Angeles boasts one of the country’s first preservation committees; the city passed the Cultural Heritage Ordinance in 1962, which led to today’s Cultural Heritage Commission. It is currently made up of five commissioners, four with ties to architecture: two architects, the president of an architectural firm, and an architectural historian. Their job is to review buildings based on a specific set of questions: Does it stand out architecturally? Was the architect or designer a master in his or her field? Was the property ever associated with anyone historic? And, finally, does it represent a broader social history?
If one or more of the above returns a “yes,” answer, the building is likely to be declared a monument and preserved accordingly. But even a negative response doesn’t mean the building is tapped for destruction.
“We don’t decide if something gets demolished or not,” says Gail Kennard, commission member and president of Kennard Design Group. “We accept applications from property owners and other interested individuals and groups, and then we deal with the merits of the building. Even if we deny a request for designation, that doesn’t mean we think it should be torn down.”
Being declared a monument means your building is deemed relevant to LA’s history and social fabric. But it also gives the commission partial oversight of the property to ensure no “character-defining features” are modified by overeager owners. And there are consequences for unapproved actions, even if your building itself isn’t declared a monument.
“If you own in what we call a ‘historic preservation overlay zone,’ and the property is considered a contributor to the zone, if you alter your house in any significant way or demolish it,” Kennard says, “you could face severe repercussions.” Those include a “scorched earth punishment” wherein owners who are investigated and deemed negligent or detrimental to a protected building are barred from any transactions related to their property for five years.
Of course, not every preservation decision is a matter for the local government. Barry Milofsky, a commission member and founding partner of M2A Architects, has worked in preservation for decades. He recalls one instance where design-centric recommendations couldn’t convince the owners to save the backdrop for one of our country’s most shocking moments.
“We were hired to explore reuse options versus demolition options for the Ambassador Hotel,” he says, “and we informed the clients that it could indeed be preserved.” The commission provided options for the owners, including adapting it into a high school or market-rate workforce housing, all while preserving Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination site and other rooms with deep ties to Hollywood history. The owners passed.
“It’s their building,” he says. “If the community steps up and exerts power or pressure, it can make a difference. But it begs the question: Is it the job of the owners to pursue their specific needs, or do they have a larger responsibility to society in general?”
The Queen City
Burlington, Vt., adopted regulations to protect historic buildings in 1973. Its leaders have a keen awareness that, as a New England city organized in 1785, they are stewards of many significant structures that define the country’s past.
“Historic architecture makes us who we are as a community,” says David White, the city’s director of planning and zoning, “and that’s not just Burlington.” This sentiment is shared by many residents, though some vocalize frustrations that anything notable has also been deemed irremovable. But White reinforces that this isn’t the case: “While it is not our preference to tear buildings down, we do recognize that sometimes that is the appropriate choice, and we want there to be clarity around the process.”
As with many burgeoning cities and towns, Burlington is dealing with issues of housing affordability and availability. When it becomes a direct one-to-one comparison— such as preserving a historic structure versus building additional housing units—White notes that the members of the city’s Design Advisory Board have to ask themselves a series of important questions.
“There are subjective questions like, ‘Does the existing building have true historic value?’” he says. “But beyond that, ‘Is the building structurally sound?’ ‘Can it be moved to another site?’ ‘What is the cost of tearing it down or remediating the site?’ And, at the end of the day, ‘Will whatever replaces this building compensate the community in some capacity?’ And ‘Will it serve a higher and better use?’”
History’s Real Value
In Charlottesville, Va., another city with a rich history, what to raze and what to preserve is frequently discussed as well. Mary Joy Scala, who served as the city’s preservation and design planner for 14 years, has seen architects recommend protecting buildings for a bevy of reasons. “Older buildings were built to last a lifetime, not 20 years,” she says, “and anyone interested in sustainable design knows that it is often better to reuse in some capacity than to discard it all in a landfill.” She references a neighborhood called Vinegar Hill that was destroyed in the early 1960s, noting that “people are still, rightly, talking about that. They’re asking, ‘Why did that neighborhood that belonged to us get torn down?’”
It’s not as if the city wants to forgo modernity entirely. In fact, Scala notes that Charlottesville encourages modern design for its new buildings. “Some localities do want their new buildings to look like the old buildings,” she says, “but when you mix, you get a much more complex and intriguing built environment—especially when the new ones draw on certain specific features of the old.”
Scala admits that the city is uniquely positioned to value preservation. Tourism is not only one of Virginia’s major economic drivers, but also one of the Charlottesville region’s major drivers—with historic buildings like Monticello comprising several of the biggest draws, as well as having the University of Virginia School of Architecture (and its highly respected historic preservation program) within city limits. It all adds up to a higher overall level of awareness among locals (and visitors) alike.
That said, she also recognizes that architects shouldn’t take this level of appreciation for granted. “It is so important to consider public education and outreach,” she says, “so the people living in and around these buildings understand why preservation matters. You can’t do that through regulation alone. If your fellow citizens can grasp the design thinking and the architectural reasons that fuel your recommendations, they’ll be that much more cooperative.”
Milofsky echoes that sentiment. Long interested in preservation professionally, he made that interest well-known and took on volunteer opportunities whenever they arose.
“It’s the same way you get clients,” he says. “You don’t sit in your office and wait for someone to ring your doorbell. You have to be active in what matters to you.”