This 4th of July I am thinking of why we save old buildings. I am fortunate to live in Rhode Island, which is one of the most architecturally diverse states with buildings spanning from 1680 to the modern day. Many buildings are still around by being well built, well preserved, or just saved for the practicality of saving. Some residents recognize this rich history and seek to save it, while most see and appreciate the architecture without knowing what it is. No matter which camp you are in, saving a building is not only good for history but it is really practical.
Rhode Island was a natural place for early inhabitants; with indigenous tribes finding Rhode Island perfect somewhat mild seasons, agriculture, abundant fishing, and lots of ways to make shelter; from stone to wood. Early European settlers wandered to Rhode Island for the same reasons, but also the deep harbors were perfect for protecting ships during inclement weather and later places of commerce. While early settlements relied on the indigenous population for survival, eventually they found their own means of survival and shelter, eventually interpreting shelter and function into a truly unique American way.
Rhode Island has many great early 18th century buildings, but there are places like Newport, Providence, and Bristol with fantastic clusters of early buildings. Bristol hosts the oldest continual 4th of July parade in the country, where people stake their place to witness bands, performers, and celebrities on the 2.5 mile trek. The streets are lined with every American style, from Federal, to Georgian, to Gothic, to 2nd Empire, to Queen Anne, to Craftsman and a host of other styles that no Bristolian takes for granted. These areas are well protected by a Historic District, but owners outside the Historic District are well maintained because they can and they should.
There are no poorly built historic buildings. Sure, many buildings have fallen into a poor state but these conditions can only exist for a few decades until the building must be fixed or torn down. There are many buildings that have been cobbled together, inappropriately retrofitted, or have inferior framing or foundation, but they continue to exist by stubbornly creative Yankee occupants or by well-intentioned owners with some capital.
There are many owners who truly feel it is their responsibility to maintain a property. They may not be people with deep pockets, but they do what they can when they can. Some may just replace a roof, or repair a gutter, or paint the outside, or replace a deck, but they are unknowingly being good stewards. Historic preservation is not only about where George Washington slept, but it is about saving what we have since nothing can truly be reproduced, only copied. It is about saving the small parts and pieces as well as the entire building. The hand plane marks, wrought nails, and crooked doors are what make an old house and old house. Saving a building pays homage to those that crafted it, and by golly historic preservation is also really good for the environment and the economy, since it conserves materials, saves landfill space, and uses more local labor than materials.
So when you are celebrating the founding of our country, remember, our built environment tells the story of where we were to where we are now. Buildings reveal a lot about us. Art, economic prosperity, industry, political ideologies, technology, and natural resources are all on display for everyone to see. The story is all around us. Happy Independence Day.