When History Is Only Skin Deep

Is preservation of facades really preservation?

Facade-only development projects, like this one in Glasgow, Scotland, are becoming a trend.

Credit: Sarah Heffern

In the booming neighborhood anchored by the MCI Center sports arena in Washington, D.C., four rowhouses stand like a row of teeth supported by brace-like scaffolding. Behind the facades stands … nothing. No walls, no floors, no ceilings. Just a large, deep hole, part of a nine-story condominium and retail complex that will incorporate the historic exteriors into its street-level storefront.

Preservationists call this type of renovation a facadectomy and the trend itself facadism or facadomy. The practice of retaining only the front face of historic buildings while the remainder of the structure is demolished is a controversial practice.

"Maintaining a four-inch depth of a brick facade is not preservation," wrote Donovan Rypkema, a Washington D.C.-based consultant who specializes in the economics of preservation, in the spring 2001 issue of Forum. "We ought not to settle for this Halloween preservation—saving the mask and throwing away the building."

Allowing facadomies challenges the credibility of the preservation movement, Rypkema says. "Every time some historic preservation commission accepts a facadomy as 'historic preservation,' it not only makes it more likely to happen again, it also has taxpayers and elected officials shaking their heads in wonder and saying, 'This is what preservation is about?'"

Yet facadism is becoming more and more prevalent. It's no coincidence that the number of facadism projects grows in a strong economy, Rypkema says.

"First, there must be a strong enough market that a case can be made for a facadomy, because it is ludicrously expensive," he says. "Second, there has to be enough surface interest in preservation for someone to recommend this solution. Third, the community's preservation ethic cannot be strong enough to demand a true rehabilitation project," he says.

Most growing cities either have no strong preservation movement and therefore construct completely new buildings or are completely intolerant of facadism, according to Rypkema. He cites Charleston, S.C., and New York City as examples of places where growth has been on the rise without a rash of facade-only projects.

"[Facadism] illustrates a compromise, if your idea of compromise is that no one ends up entirely happy," says Randy Cotton, associate director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, about the York Row project under way in his city. Philadelphia will be getting a retail complex and its tallest apartment building, fronted by a row of early 18th-century row houses. When the proposal was first brought forward more than five years ago, the city was in danger of losing the York Row houses altogether. "We looked at the totality of the project and talked [the developers] into saving the buildings back to the roof ridge line," Cotton says. "They gave up something, and we gave up something." 

Fifth & Forbes

Credit: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

On the other side of Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation faces a similar struggle. The mayor's 1999 plan for redevelopment of the Fifth and Forbes section of downtown called for 64 buildings to be destroyed to make way for new construction that would lure retail chains. This plan was so controversial that it landed the neighborhood on the National Trust's 11 Most Endangered List in 2001. The city replaced that plan in April 2002 with a recommendation comparable to one that was originally put forth four years ago. The new proposal combines saving entire structures with the occasional facade-only rehabilitation.

"We battled to save most of the buildings considered historic and we were, for the most part, successful," says Arthur Ziegler, the foundation's president. "Only a small percentage will have just the facades saved. The first effort is always to maintain the entire structure. Sometimes, changes are needed to meet modern criteria, tenant criteria, or building code criteria."

Susan West Montgomery, president of Preservation Action, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying and advocacy group, says that if preservationists had not given into developers' early demands, some buildings would have been lost in the short-term, "but then this would not have become an acceptable method of preservation," she says. Instead, builders have been given "an easy way to say preservation is being done when it is not."

Now that many cities are experiencing revivals, Montgomery believes many buildings would have been rehabilitated anyway, without the concession of having only their facades saved. The willingness of preservationists to compromise left behind the wrong legacy—"the veneer of history. Preservation is supposed to be about maintaining the true historic fabric," she says.

"Tenants get in and think they are somewhere historic, but they are not," Montgomery says. "They're not treading on the same floors, looking out the same windows. It's a disservice to those who think they are participating in the march of time."

In Pittsburgh, Ziegler has found that many who initially oppose a project are often satisfied with the finished product. "Many people are happy with the result. They complain before the fact. I've complained before the fact. I wish the entire building was going to remain there. But when the entire project is done and people see the result, they are generally happy."  

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