Preserving the Very-Recent Past

The original, sunken stoop was well on its way towards hazardous.

Two houses built in the 1970s have been in my thoughts recently, and are leading me to define my thoughts about preservation and importance.  The first is an architect-designed, Japanese-influenced, contemporary home where I was asked to design a replacement for the failing front brick stoop.  Because of a leaky water main, the stoop had slid down 5″ from its original location, leaving a treacherous, 9″ front step.  The owners (full disclosure: they’re family) wanted to add a railing where there had never been one, and wanted something that fit in with the original architecture and detailing.

The new, completed deck and railing.

For me, investigating the original, simple ornamentation was just sinking into a new architectural idiom.  It was obviously different from the 1920s Durham patterns, but also obviously present.  Finding a detail from the eaves, repeated in a slightly different scale to create a railing was a perfect solution, and much like sussing out the appropriate front porch pattern in a neighborhood.  With clear architectural merit, it does not matter how old this house is – it is important.

The other house? A late 1970s tract home set outside of town is the new home of a friend, who invited me over to give a little advice for their renovations.  This house doesn’t seem to have any distinguishing features and walks the dangerous line between cool-vintage and out-of-date-ugly.  In 20 years, it will be fully over the border into quaint and charming, but right now it’s… questionable.

1/2 Bath - can you say 1970's?

Not my friends' bath, but might as well be... (thanks, flickr!)

Talking and walking through the house, we decided that it needed to be pushed towards the mid-century, and that the new owners will retain the pieces that already seem cool and not mourn the rest.  The new elements they bring in will try to play nice with the original features but not be slavish to the era either.  So while there are no distinctive elements, hopefully the house can be shepherded along towards importance – it’ll have to get there by making it through the years, not via some architectural design that set it apart from the beginning – but it will make it eventually.

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2 responses to “Preserving the Very-Recent Past

  1. I am curious to know why these two projects made you define your thoughts on preservation and importance. As a preservation I find that buildings do learn and that it is our task/challenge to help determine how they learn and to not make any major non-reversible change unless we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is the best change.

    • What a good question… The majority of my projects are on older houses that are already in national register districts, so it was striking to me to have these two 1970s houses on my plate at the same time, both not yet ‘historic’ in the official sense. Further, they were so different in terms of their perceived importance: the architect-designed vs. the tract building. I found that it was obvious what should be preserved already for the architect-designed home, while picking out the significant details (read: what will be exciting to see in 20 years) for the ranch was a little trickier.

      I agree that buildings indeed learn, and do my very best to use a light hand in bringing an house forward to 2010, with reversible and evident changes wherever possible. For both of these, it’s little tweaks here and there that make the difference for the current home-owners… neither house will be irrevocably altered by the current residents.

      And thanks for checking out my blog!

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