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Balancing Building Preservation and City Modernization

In San Diego, the historic cinema, the California Theatre, opened on April 22, 1927. A relic of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, it had gold-leaf ceilings, murals painted throughout and a giant organ beside the silver screen in an auditorium that could sit 2,200.

It was the heart of cinema culture, dubbed by the press as “the cathedral of the motion picture.” When it closed in 1990, it was slated to be demolished, but it stayed, abandoned for over 30 years. Now, after numerous bureaucratic hurdles, it’s going to be turned into the city’s largest condo tower.

The reason the once treasured structure sat for nearly 30 years, untouched was due to protests from the preservation group, Save Our Heritage Organization, who wanted “a faithful reconstruction.” The developers, the Caydon Property Group, initially planned to only keep the façade, but SOHO wanted more. In the end, the two sides came to the agreement that the original cinema lobby would be reconstructed, including replicas of its murals, and left open to the public. The original building will be demolished, save a few exterior walls, and in its place will be an exact replica of the original theater will be constructed. Exact, except of course for the 474-foot condominium tour that will now sit on top of it.

The once loved theater sat empty for three decades before a deal was struck on its reconstruction and renovation.

This is just one example of how old, historic properties can be turned into useful buildings. Some say historic preservation is outdated and halts urban development, that they’re ruining cities. Is a new approach needed to historic preservation? If so, how can endangered space be saved without alienating people in a city, or a neighborhood?

“As we see from the history of the preservation movement here in New York City, buildings matter to people because they embody the stories of the city and the individuals who’ve made up the city over time,” said Brad Vogel, executive director of the New York Preservation Archive Project.

“Conducting research using archival materials is crucial to getting it right when renovating historic buildings,” he tells Propmodo. “Adaptive reuse is best when the building in question can still tell its tale to the future.” 

Countless new buildings, from condos to office towers, are being built out of the shells of historic buildings and facades. It’s becoming more common, even though here’s a great deal of red tape. But if these plans are able to meet bureaucratic standards they become a successful mixture of modern and historic, a symbol of the past contributing to the present rather than holding it back. And they always have a great story to tell.

Granted, museums do this all the time. Just look at the Museum of Military History in Dresden, Germany, where Daniel Libeskind renovated a 19th century armory building in 2011 with a modern facade, or the Brooklyn Museum, a Beaux-Arts building from 1895 that was renovated with a glass entrance in 2004.

This trend of building new structures inside the shell of historic buildings is called facadism. Clearly, facadism can help preserve old buildings in a way that still meets modern standards of use. If done wrong it can create “an architectural Frankenstein.” But if it’s done right, it can help cities further develop their historic buildings and meet the growing housing needs of a city’s population. In Toronto, it is encouraged, while Paris abhors it. The big question is, what role does it play in helping cities grow?

As Faraaz Mirza, an architect with Kwan Henmi Architecture, once said: “We decided from the start that if we were going to keep the historic facades, we wanted them front and center to the experience of the building,” adding that: “In urban environments, I like a surprise. I like to see things that almost don’t fit. They’re not the best buildings ever, but we’re going to clean them up.”

Historic designations can hamper how we’re able to renovate, which limits how we can enjoy them. Dealing with historical distinctions of a building is no easy feat, only a small portion of the real estate world is willing to try its hand at.

It would certainly do most cities good to collaborate with this type of developer. When historic preservation fuses forces with developers and the city, it helps develop a city responsibly. Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council in New York, focusing on historic preservation. “We protect, preserve and enhance historic neighborhoods and buildings in New York City through advocacy, community outreach and education,” said Bankoff, who is currently working to save a home in Washington Heights with abolitionist history (“it’s a long haul but we’re cautiously optimistic,” he notes, as Chirlane McCray, the first lady of New York, has shown her support).

“We try to make sure buildings don’t get ripped down,” said Bankoff, “the eventual fate of a building itself is way down the line. Usually, it’s in dire threat of demolition.”

To Bankoff, there’s a variety of different kinds of facadism that is being done today. “Complete facadism is what they typically do to buildings in Washington D.C., but there are other kinds where a church, for example, is reconfigured into a residence,” he said. 

Facadism is a hot debate in city development—a double-edged sword that can be wielded to help historic buildings as well as tear them down. “When people rail about facadism, it can be a situation where you’re only left with the façade with a completely new building,” said Bankoff. “New York University is good at doing that. Where they save one wall and say: ‘See, aren’t you happy we saved it?’ Which is ridiculous.”

Lindsey Wallace is the director of strategic projects at National Main Street Center, an organization that revitalizes historic commercial districts across the country, says facades can easily be done right. 

“The best way to ensure the renovation of an older or historic building is done correctly is to follow the federal preservation guidelines outlined in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties,” she said. “These standards also come with Illustrated Guidelines to better demonstrate appropriate techniques to repair or replace features while maintaining the structure’s historic and cultural integrity.”

But ‘facadism’ where the face of the building is the only thing saved is not exactly a renovation. “In the preservation field, ‘correct’ renovations are most often referred to as rehabilitations,” said Wallace. “And on the flip side, there are also many examples of facadism—by which I mean, when only the exterior facades are preserved and the entire interior and some of the exterior is gutted and thrown away. I just want to be clear that facadism is not a “correct” historic rehabilitation approach.”

New York City has a lot of old buildings, many of which are at least 80 years old and many have been completely gutted. “We don’t think that’s a facadism situation,” said Bankoff. “When you’re taking out interiors of a building, but still by effect, if it looks like a historic building, that doesn’t trigger any local preservation ordinances. New York City regulations are ‘you can do what you want inside of a building,’ it’s the view of the building from the public way that matters.”

At times keeping the exterior of a building while completely replacing the interior is a case of out-of-site out-of-mind. One example is the Stealth Building in Manhattan, the 1857 built structure with the iron facade (with new columns designed by artist Michael Hansmeyer) is a prime example of an adaptive reuse of historic preservation. The building was gutted, renovated, and rebuilt with a two and a half story penthouse to the top of the landmark building, completely hidden from street view.

The Stealth Building lives up to its name

“It’s a valid viewpoint,” said Bankoff. “It endures the entire urban experience where buildings are built into multi-family residences, to single-family residence over the course of its life, as long as the building is retained, that it still has its historic street front.”

So, at what point are cities okay with changing buildings? On one hand, less than 4 percent New York City’s buildings are landmarks and preserved buildings. But cities have been changing consistently since the beginning. Plus, many cities, states, and countries have aggressive climate goals that require building modernization. Few will argue that leaving historic buildings to dilapidated, as was the case with the California Theater in San Diego, is a good way to preserve the past.

“It’s a fallacy to think just because something is historic you can’t touch it,” said Bankoff. “Of course, you can, you’re supposed to, you have to maintain the building. If you have a wooden building it’s going to be affected by weather and climate. It needs maintenance and replacement.”

Even with brick buildings, there still is entropy and climate changes, he notes, and of course, there are new technologies that are needed in buildings, like air conditioning and heating systems (which count as technology).

For Bankoff, it all comes down to how it’s done, back to that whole ‘faithful reconstruction’ argument. “The question is, when you’re altering or modernizing or modifying an older artifact, are you doing it respectfully?” he asks. “Is there an eye towards maintaining or enhancing what is precious about it, or are you throwing out everything?

Every city seems to have its own rulebook “There’s a number of rulebooks with the Department of the Interior,” said Bankoff. “The Secretary of the Interior has, over the past 50 years, established standards working on a national level, New York City has its own unwritten standards of preservation, anything that is in effect has to go through the Landmarks Preservation Commission.” 

Much like our cities, what is considered acceptable changes over the years. We have and will struggle to find the best balance of memorializing the ones that built before us and the needs of the people in the present. There is

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