We’ve been discussing historic preservation a lot lately, with many opinions on topics like the HUD building or Chicago. If we were writing the historic preservation law, what should it say?

I think we need to get away from necessarily preserving entire structures and toward preserving those elements that are important. If a building is in a distinctive style, but we can improve its function as a public space without taking away the style, we should allow that change. Today, except through the judgment of HPO and HPRB, any change to a historic structure is considered equal.

Let’s make a list of goals for what should be preserved. What are the reasons we might want to preserve a structure? What aspects of a structure are worth the greatest protection? Here are my ideas; what else should we include?

  • Uniquely notable sites. Buildings that are truly significant, such as being the sites of major events or widely known as iconic structures, are a part of our heritage and should be preserved.
  • Neighborhood consistency. Having architectural unity in our neighborhoods, especially among row houses, creates value by preserving the attractive and harmonious feel of a block.
  • Examples of architectural styles. Architectural tastes do change, and there is value in not completely wiping out the past each generation. We should retaining examples of old styles. (But I’d also argue that retaining an example doesn’t require retaining everything about it; we can have a Brutalist building without a dead and windswept plaza around it, and can preserve the building but not the failing aspects of the plaza.)
  • Well-functioning relationships to the street. When buildings interact well with the streetscape, we should preserve that characteristic; a change that reduces the number of entrances or the visual appeal of the facade at pedestrian scale should only occur with good reason, while a change that improves this quality ought to receive preferential consideration.
  • Irreproducible craftsmanship. This was suggested by commenter Steve: if a building uses materials or building techniques which are impossible or unusually expensive to reproduce, we should place a higher bar on changes that can’t feasibly be undone.

What else?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.