Back Page: The Price of Perfection

Restoration can mean loss as well as gain.

Here's a little insider tip: When you're looking for a thought-provoking (and sometimes startling) preservation read, you can almost always find one in John Ruskin, the British art critic and reformer. I'm telling you, the man is a veritable fountain of pith.

I had occasion to wrestle with a bit of Ruskinian wisdom recently. As I was driving out of town for the weekend, I realized that my route took me near a much-publicized, award-winning preservation-revitalization project, so I pulled off the interstate to take a look at it. Sure enough, it was impressive: On a scruffy street in a long-decayed urban neighborhood, a row of restored buildings gleamed. Most of them had endured decades of hard use and neglect, but you'd never know it now. Brickwork was freshly scrubbed, woodwork freshly painted. Signs advertised cheery apartments on the upper floors. At street level, some of the spiffed-up storefronts were already occupied, while others were decked with "opening soon" banners that promised a plenitude of cappuccinos and iPods and designer shoes in the coming months. It all looked bright and hopeful … and disturbingly brand-new.

That's when Ruskin popped into my head. The words are from chapter six of his classic book The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849:

Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed. … [I]t is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture. … Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end."

OK, it's a bit of a rant, and that capital L turns the last line into the thunderous climax of a pulpit-pounding sermon. But behind the take-no-prisoners rhetoric, Ruskin suggests that we ask ourselves a few questions about what we're up to. For instance: Is it possible that when people—including preservationists—wax rhapsodic about their deep-rooted affection for old buildings, what they really mean is, "Of course I like them … as long as they don't look old"?

Somewhere along the way, we've drifted from the basic concept of preservation. Instead of just doing what's needed to keep a building's integrity, stability, and usefulness, we're all too eager to slam it with the architectural equivalent of a face peel, a tummy tuck, and a hefty dose of Botox. It's downright disrespectful. An old building looks the way it does because it's old, for Pete's sake, and stripping away all evidence of its age just turns it into a newly minted replica of itself. If Antiques Roadshow teaches us anything, it is that patina is a highly desirable commodity—true of buildings as well as Chippendale chairs.

Don't get me wrong. I know that crumbling mortar and rotten wood have to be replaced, roofs fixed, windows reglazed, and foundations leveled. But does every surface have to be scrubbed, scraped, planed, sanded, shined up, and laminated so that the old building winds up looking as new and slick as a peeled egg? If so, I dread a future in which older neighborhoods are indistinguishable from theme parks.

Years ago in Charleston, S.C., I walked on East Bay Street one day with Frances Edmunds, the city's grande dame of preservation. The area was in the throes of heavy-duty revitalization, with blocks of old stores and warehouses being transformed into upscale restaurants and shops. As Frances surveyed the bustle of bricklayers, sheetrockers, and sign painters, her voice got wistful. "You know," she said, "someday we may be sorry we didn't leave one of these buildings alone, just as a reminder of what this place used to be."

She understood something that many of us have lost sight of: "Looks old" may be a terrifying phrase to hear if you're a lingerie model or a TV anchorman, but it isn't necessarily a bad thing if you're a historic building.  

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