The Public Humanist

Historic Preservation: Beauty or Honesty?

If you happened to be walking about any town or city with historic buildings, roads, and structures from several different periods, then chances are that there is an organization tasked with their preservation. Not only a tool for protecting the history of a locality, historic preservation also ensures the fluctuating character of a nation. However, questions do arise when thinking a bit more about the preservation of historic landmarks; for instance, what gets to stay, what is cleared for demolition and, furthermore, why? These are complications typical to preservationists, and the answers are not always clear.

In Salem, Massachusetts, preservation is crucial to the livelihood of the city. With the infamous Witch Trials of 1692, Salem has endlessly sought to preserve much of the history that brings in tourism and, frankly, money. A stroll down any of the near-downtown streets and alleys will assuredly find you some 17th century, black and modest house: a testament to Salem’s Puritanical roots. Beyond the fantastic of witchcraft, Salem also boasts a significant maritime history, being one of the largest historic trading ports with China. There is also revolutionary history seen in the red brick buildings as once-English residents began to shape a new character. Although this later history goes largely unnoticed and is less profitable than Salem’s witch history, it is no less important to the Salem preservationist.

I witnessed this first hand when I sat in on a Preservation Committee meeting of Historic Salem, Inc: an experience that inevitably led me here today. During the meeting, there was little acknowledgment of what Salem should preserve and what it could abandon. The Preservation Committee was unwavering in its commitment to preserve anything and everything historic in Salem, but, personally, this is problematic.

I found the Preservation Committee to be lacking in that it never considered that historic buildings could be ugly. This was best displayed by their top priority of preserving the abandoned St. Joseph’s Church on Lafayette Street. St. Joseph’s Church is a gigantic gray blob nearing downtown Salem, with an obscenely large crucifix on its façade. It is aesthetically abhorrent and does nothing to promote the history of Salem. Aside from its appearance, the abandoned church and its adjacent parking lot are both a waste of space, and an attraction for loiterers and users of serious drugs. Its demolishment would not only improve the general area, but with a reconstruction conscious of scale and architectural style, could make for something beautiful, useful, and new.

Their argument was logical although I found it lacking. According to the architects on the committee, St. Joseph’s has some unique architectural nuances that are apparently rare across the entire United States. But to the untrained (or should I say, enlightened and artistic?) eye, “St. Joe’s” appears to be a mishmash of Art Deco, Latin American Catholicism, and gray nihilism. I say, off with its head.

(A link to a video detailing the issue of St Joseph’s is here.)

This dilemma extends across the Atlantic to the sceptred isle of Britain. The University of York lies just outside of, arguably, one of the most beautiful and historic cities in the world. In a tragic twist of irony, the University of York is, arguably, one of the most visually displeasing universities in the world. Largely built in the 1960s, a majority of the university’s buildings are utilitarian gray blocks with little flair and almost no consideration for anything aesthetic. The one building erected during this period that sought any shred of uniqueness, Central Hall, turned out to look like a UFO downed by Royal Marines.

The tragedy of the University of York is that those very buildings recently made it onto the UK’s list of protected buildings; a governmental list that strictly prohibits their demolition. These buildings, while they may be a testament of how bland and depressing England may have been during the early Cold War, are probably best forgotten. The charmingly crooked Tudor-era shops and pubs of York city proper is what York should look like, and anything that newly constructed that diverts from that style should certainly keep that in mind. York is a jewel of architecture in this world and should not be marred by the likes of its University’s architecture.

Ultimately, these situations raise the question: what is the point of preservation? Is it to be an unwavering commitment to any and all history, even if the ugliness of the past prevents the beautiful construction of something new? The answer is not clear but the question remains, should history be beautiful or honest?

© 2014 The Valley Advocate