Saturday, March 6, 2010

Look, it doesn’t have to be PRETTY!

Sigh. There seems to be some confusion among the public, and too many in the profession, that "historic" and "well-designed" are actually synonyms. I know, I know…not YOU, right? You get it. You completely understand that "historic" is about, well, history, and association with people, places or events that are significant in our past. It's great when a historically significant property is easy on the eyes too, but it just doesn't have to be, does it? We've all learned that even an ugly house that happens to have been the birthplace of an important leader, is going to be "historic" independent of its design. And that is the way it should be.
Still, I am often in the situation of facing down doubting people, architects, elected leaders, whomever, who arch their eyebrows, sigh, and utter some variation of "You think that is historic? Are you nuts?" Given the nature of my practice, with more than  a moderate sampling of bridges, dams, powerhouses, and whatnot, I get to work with plenty of, uh, "gritty" resources.  I get that, that, "look" more frequently that I care to admit.
[True confession] I don't really like Victorians. I think they are sort of fussy, but I can surely appreciate why people go gaga over the details on the best examples. But hey, to each his own, right. Instead, I tend to see beauty in resources that others see as awkward, or just don't see at all. Ambursen dams, for example. What a neat type they are. A "hollow" dam (you can actually walk through some of them, on this scary walkway). It's an elegant design solution (they take less concrete and can be built faster too). And they are rare…which is what made the first one I worked on, at River Mill, on the Clackamas River, significant (that and that it was actually designed by Nils Ambursen himself). But I will admit that while I happen to find Ambursen Dams fascinating, none of them are likely to make the next cover of Sunset, if you know what I mean.

When I give my "Our Friend the National Register" lecture (my basic general public lecture) I like to remind people that of the four eligibility criterion for listing on the National Register of Historic Places only one actually has ANYTHING to with the way the property actually looks, whether its "pretty" or well-designed. The rest have to  do with association, or potential information (for archeology) that are linked to integrity, but really don't have much connection to fine design. Those gritty resources are the really interesting ones, the ones that make our way of life tick, that make the people who built, or designed, or lived in the fancy house on the hill the money to pay for it. And is almost always the gritty properties that actually created the community, created the jobs that brought people there and kept them there too.  Or made sure the community wasn't isolated from the rest of the world. I think those places, the bridges, mills, dams, and powerhouses and transmission lines, are fascinating. Historic certainly, and maybe, if you squint your eye, a little bit "pretty" too.

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