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A saving grace

The modern American preservation movement is generally thought to have been sparked by the wanton destruction of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963. Remnants of the Beaux-Arts building designed by McKim, Mead & White —  allegorical figures made of marble, pink granite columns — were unceremoniously carted off to New Jersey landfills. The demolition provoked a new consciousness of the nation’s architectural patrimony and led to the creation of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965.

But the movement more likely began 100 years earlier in Boston, when John Hancock’s manor home on Beacon Street was razed to make way for a new wing of the State House. Despite attempts by Hancock’s heirs to donate the house or move it to another site, the ornate Georgian building was destroyed in 1863. The outcry that followed helped save the Old South Meeting House from a similar fate a few years later, and, in 1910, the Hancock House adorned the first issue of the newsletter of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) with an inscription calling its demise “a classic in the annals of vandalism.”

But what were these 19th-century preservation­ists trying to save, exactly? A physical structure, to be sure, but also an idea — a concept of “America.” In lamenting the home’s destruction, The Boston Journal wrote of “halls that had echoed with the voices and footsteps of the great and good men whose patriotism molded the American Revolution.” We save what we value, and in the late 1800s —  a time of terrific social upheaval in the country —  establishment Boston valued a romantic ideal of a more heroic and comprehensible past.

As Michael Rawson says in his history of Boston, Eden on the Charles, it is no coincidence that the Colonial Revival period arose at a time of anxieties about the place of Anglo-Saxon culture in a changing society. “The urge to look backward was particularly strong in Boston, where natives were grappling with the growing presence and power of the Irish,” he writes.

Local interest in preservation rose again in the 1960s, following the dislocations of urban renewal and the wholesale destruction of the West End. Beacon Hill was first designated a historic district in the wake of that trauma. Preservation cannot be divorced from the political or social narrative of its era.

So it is fitting that many of today’s preserva­tionists are as concerned with the story of a place as with the structure itself. Preservation today is more than a three-dimensional encyclopedia of various architectural styles. There is a new sense of responsibility toward telling the whole story, and everyone’s story—of an era’s depredations as well as its triumphs, of its vanquished as well as its heroes.

Broadening the lens in this way raises thorny ethical issues — of authenticity, gentrification, and taste. Slavish devotion to a strict “period of significance” ignores the patina of years, of potential new uses and more flexible adaptations. The elegantly restored Reina Sofía museum in Madrid —  where an 18th-century hospital building is enlivened by three exterior glass-and- steel elevators — would almost certainly not be allowed in the United States.

But adaptive reuse can also sandblast difficult history. There is something almost grotesque about the former Charles Street Jail, for example, where conditions were so vile a court ruled they violated the constitutional rights of prisoners. Today it’s a luxury hotel, complete with winking references like a restaurant called Clink.

The market, forever in search of the new, is not especially geared toward maintenance and restoration of existing buildings. But infusing preservation with contemporary values — including the R-values of energy savings — could help ignite a new appreciation for the old. ■

Renée Loth Editor