San Francisco Owners of Historic Houses Fight Creation of Historic Districts

Vince Viloria/CC BY 2.0

One of my favourite twitter feeds is @NYTOnIt that pokes fun at the New York Times, "Because sometimes stories in newspapers are just *that* obvious." Tweets like " people don't actually keep that New Years resolution to go to the gym, and The Times is ON IT" I was going to suggest that they cover a recent story, An Unlikely Group Rebels Against Preservation Districts, all about how rich people in San Francisco in historic houses are upset when they don't get to do what they want to their treasures. Matt Smith writes:

Garage add-ons that extend beyond the front of a house are a potential no-no. Windows that are inconsistent with a building’s original materials and architecture are another. [A woman who wants to replace her windows and fix her garage,] Ms. Beckstead said there are enough rules in place already. “Every house on this street has been redone,” she said, “and we’ve seen the difficulty each homeowner experienced.”

I didn't think this was much of a story, since it is happening everywhere. But I retweeted it and this started some interesting discussions, with some very interesting people, including architectural critic Paul Goldberger. He tweeted:

PG: Preservation fundamentalism will strangle legit preservation.
Matt Cole in Chicago asked: What is example of legit preservation vs. preservation fundamentalism?
PG: Preservation Fundamentalism can be refusal to allow any alterations, or insistence on saving mediocre bldgs.
MC: Challenge becomes line where no alterations may be right choice & who is actually judge of mediocre.
PG: Of course, power always issue. I think landmarks shd be in 2 classes: the sacred untouchable; and the rest

What is fascinating in those five tweets is that they summarize the whole crisis in historic preservation right now, whether it is about heritage buildings being "sacred untouchable" heroic buildings in a parking lot or whether they are part of a larger context. Whether the property rights of the individual owner trump the right of the community to protect its character and texture.

Most importantly, there is much more to preservation than just the "sacred untouchable" buildings; there are the lessons to be learned from the design of the communities being preserved. I call it Heritage Urbanism:

Where we restore the urban fabric and rebuild our communities to work the way they used to. Where we learn from those who designed them before there was oil, about how to live after oil.

They designed windows that last a lifetime instead of 15 years, in communities where people didn't need garages sticking out past the front of their buildings because they could walk to the store. Sometimes the buildings are what Paul Goldberger might call mediocre, but you can say that about most of what replaces them.

I don't like preservation fundamentalism anymore than Paul Goldberger, but that is not what is happening here. This is noblesse oblige, people who knew what they were getting into when they bought their places and just don't like people telling them what they can do. Read it in the New York Times.

Follow me on Twitter and Friend me on Facebook

Tags: Ban Demolition | Preservation | San Francisco

Best of TreeHugger 2014

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK