Pioneers of Place

Giorgio Cavaglieri and his colleagues helped turned theory into reality.

When I first started working in this field, there was a fairly short list of places that people spoke of (using the affectionate but reverent tones employed when referring to a beloved grandparent or favorite movie star) as preservation icons. They were examples of adaptive use that demonstrated how a skilled, imaginative architect or developer could turn an outmoded old building into a lively and economically viable showplace.

Although new projects were added to the roster from time to time—a school that was turned into apartments, a church that became a concert hall, a railroad depot reborn as a fern-bedecked restaurant—a select few occupied permanent slots on the list because they were considered extraordinarily successful or innovative. San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square was one of them, along with Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Pittsburgh's Heinz Hall, Washington's Old Post Office—and New York City's Jefferson Market Branch Library.

As a hardcore fan of high Victorian Gothic, I've always considered the Jefferson Market Library a terrific piece of architecture—a bold, self-assured, in-your-face building with a commanding tower and enough gables and turrets and finials to keep a building-watcher's eyes busy for hours. Built as a courthouse in the 1870s, it went through a couple of other uses before finally winding up vacant and abandoned by the early 1960s. There was talk of demolition, but a spirited citizens' campaign eventually persuaded the city to save the place and turn it into a branch library in 1967.

The job of effecting the transformation was awarded to architect Giorgio Cavaglieri, who died in May. Although he's not exactly an unsung preservation hero, he's certainly an insufficiently sung one. When he tackled the Jefferson Market project, adaptive use was still a fairly new concept, and preservationists were hungry for bricks-and-mortar proof that old buildings really could be reborn with new and economically workable uses. We used to call it "ground-truthing"—an evocative label for assessing the validity of a theory by testing it in the real world. By keeping this hulking red-brick white elephant intact as a neighborhood landmark and giving it a functional role in community life, Cavaglieri offered a hefty hunk of ground truth for the concept of reuse—and among those who took that truth to heart were lots of people who didn't even consider themselves preservationists.

The result isn't perfect, of course. Just as the original 1870s building is unmistakably a product of its time, so is its 1960s rehab. Some of the new-old juxtapositions now seem a bit forced, as if the architect were grabbing us by the lapels and saying, "See how sleek and modern this light fixture is—but observe how beautifully it fits with this 19th-century brickwork." Would the rehab be handled differently today? Almost definitely. Does that matter? Not so much. We can argue over the merits of this or that aspect of the makeover—I'm not even sure that the project would meet today's Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation—but we can't deny its impact.

The same can be said for the other places that once made up the canon of preservation icons. Admittedly, some of them have long since lost their novelty and become something perilously close to clichés. "Festival marketplaces" sprouted everywhere in the wake of Ghirardelli Square (wherever you go, you can—if you really want to—buy scented candles and eat designer tofu in a building that used to be a textile mill or a train shed or a tobacco warehouse), and the success of Heinz Hall helped encourage cities from Boston to Honolulu to turn old movie palaces into performing arts centers. Still, the very fact that these places spawned so many imitators is evidence that they really merit their emblematic status, even though they're no longer new and startlingly fresh. They opened our eyes. They pointed the way.

The word icon gets tossed around pretty freely these days, but in the case of the places that Giorgio Cavaglieri and his colleagues pioneered, it's the only word that fits.

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