The Challenges of Preserving American’s Historic Buildings

As in many places, there are significant challenges in preserving America’s historic buildings. Here, Jennifer Gedding looks at these challenges and what can be done to address them.

The art deco Hall of Waters in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. Source: Americasroof, available here.

The art deco Hall of Waters in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. Source: Americasroof, available here.

America has an astonishing array of fantastic architecture, often designed for business, despite its relatively short history. Until 1987, protecting these sites was a difficult task; however, as one National Public Radio (NPR) feature highlights, the introduction of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) has led to just 5% of historic nationwide properties undergoing serious decline. This is not an automatic process, however; to the contrary, the work of the NTHP relies on the vigilant work of interested citizens. According to NPR, historic buildings fight against development, climate change and neglect, and only determination will stop them from being lost to time.


Historic renovation

Most urgent on the list of architectural tasks for the American public is the preservation of its most at-risk historic buildings. As the Smithsonian magazine outlines, even remarkably historic and famous buildings are under threat. One key example of the renovation challenge is presented by the art deco Hall of Waters in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. Composed of historic baths and springs, the Halls have nevertheless fallen into disrepair. Renovation isn’t as simple as a quick fix, however. The process of preserving historic buildings has to be balanced against modern regulations and technology, and is actually a very highly skilled job. Conservators provide knowledge that those engaged in preservation can use to stick to the various rules and guidelines determining the use and upkeep of a building. Over the years, this process can become extremely complex and finely detailed, hence the drawn-out process of preserving some historic structures.


Pressure of development

An esoteric threat to classic examples of architecture comes in the form of new developments. The USA of course needs new development to keep moving forward – the infrastructure of old is sometimes not up to the standards required in the modern day, and it is only natural to seek change. However, a balance can be struck. In Los Angeles, Apple has announced the opening of a new, ultra-high-tech store within a restored building – the iconic Tower Theatre. This shows how the cutting edge of technology and commercial enterprise can absolutely mesh with a priority for keeping old buildings alive.


The climate change challenge

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (AHCP) lists climate change as one of the primary threats to historic buildings – but that historic buildings also offer a huge opportunity. The materials used to make buildings are often impacted by changes in climate and environmental hazards – for instance, sandstone buildings can be very susceptible to acid rain. This makes preservation that much harder – but also, more worthwhile. According to the AHCP, preserving older buildings helps to restrict the impact of climate change. The most environmentally friendly building is the one that has already been built, preventing the extraction of resources and pollution of the atmosphere.

In that way, preservation of old buildings is, in itself, preservation of the environment and the urban landscape. These buildings are the key to ensuring that history is preserved and that a little extra is done to combat climate change. The difficulties of achieving this are certainly worth addressing for the payoff.


What do you think of the need to preserve historical buildings? Let us know below.

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