1. The Future of Historic Preservation: History Matters … But Which History?
  2. We Must Be Allowed to ‘Reimagine’ Our Past
  3. The Dark Side of Historic Preservation
  4. Clicking Our Way Down Main Street
  5. Weaving Together Past and Present
  6. Finding the Right Balance

One of the keys to any sort of success is the ability to strike a balance among factors that often seem to be at odds. The manufacturing process, for example, requires balancing speed, cost and quality of machines and materials to ensure that high-quality yet affordable products get to consumers on a timely basis.

Preserving our history involves a similar balancing of competing concerns—in this case, economic, emotional and aesthetic ones. It isn’t easy to achieve this balance but doing so is necessary if we’re to preserve our history in a way that makes sense. And there is one variable that can make the balance much easier to strike: economic success. A country’s financial stability can provide the flexibility needed to hold onto more elements of its own past. While historic preservation can generate some of its own economic benefits, it still requires wealthy societies in the first place, in order to shoulder the initial and continuing financial burdens that come with preservation.

A Brief History of Historic Preservation’s Brief History

Interest in historic preservation—defined here as the preservation of heritage architecture—is a rather recent phenomenon. In Europe, until the end of the 19th century, it was common to demolish ancient religious buildings when their style no longer matched the fashion of the time. Romanesque churches were often remodeled or completed with Gothic elements. Many Gothic churches, in turn, were entirely renovated during the Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical periods. Medieval castles were utterly transformed during the Renaissance and constantly adapted to the zeitgeist when not abandoned by their occupants.

Novelist and playwright Prosper Mérimée helped create the first sustained effort at historic preservation. Image Credit: By Charles Reutlinger/Wikimedia Commons

It was only in the middle of the 19th century that novelist and playwright Prosper Mérimée helped create the first sustained effort at historic preservation. Mérimée was influenced by romanticism, which among other things idealized the preindustrial past. Barely 30 and already a famous author, he was appointed by the French government in 1833 to be inspector general of historic monuments. Over the next 20 years, he prevented the demolition of many architectural masterpieces by mobilizing government and private funds to restore badly damaged monuments like Notre Dame de Paris. Other romantic writers including Sir Walter Scott, François-René de Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo contributed through their essays and historical novels to generate interest in the monuments of the past, whether civil, military or religious.

At the beginning of the 20th century, American interest in medieval art and architecture began to attract wealthy collectors in the United States. At the same time, in Europe, the impact of Mérimée’s advocacy had been somewhat diminished by a lack of funds. And so many monuments, particularly from the Middle Ages, were salvaged not through European efforts, but instead by the value that newly wealthy Americans put on them. For instance, an American collector, George Grey Barnard, acquired the stones of the Benedictine Abbey of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in Spain and several other monasteries in southwest France. These monasteries and other monuments were carefully dismantled, and the stones were shipped to New York for reconstruction in 1907. John D. Rockefeller bought the stones from Barnard and reconstructed the monasteries in the Cloisters in Manhattan as part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s likely that without this American acquisition, the stones of these magnificent monasteries would have been recycled as construction materials like those of Abbaye de Cluny.

Nationalism and Reconstruction

Both before and after the First and Second World Wars, historic buildings were specifically targeted for destruction as a symbolic but important way to hurt an enemy. Examples of this kind of demolition of historical buildings and art are numerous, from the Bastille in Paris to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow to the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. None of these buildings were demolished during combat or for a strategic advantage: They were demolished for their symbolic value alone.

But just as symbolic value can cause buildings and monuments to become targets, it can also ignite a drive for reconstruction. During the Second World War, long-range artillery and aerial bombing destroyed entire cities in Europe and East Asia. When peace finally arrived in 1945, both victorious and defeated countries had to rebuild their cities. They were faced with two choices: reconstructing their cities as they were before the war, or redesigning them using more modern materials and technologies, such as reinforced concrete and steel structures, which were invented in the first part of the 20th century.

The postwar period corresponded to an accelerated increase in urbanization. Cities expanded rapidly in area and population, and governments in the U.S. and Western Europe became massively involved in the extension of cities and the construction of low-cost housing. They adopted uniform designs and heavy prefabrication to accelerate the production of standardized housing. For example, Le Corbusier’s “tower in the park” model—the modern high-rise apartment building surrounded by open, parklike land or often parking lots—became the favorite form of urbanization built by government housing bureaucracies.

Given the scarcity of resources available after six years of war, many cities opted to “build back modern”—after all, it was much cheaper and provided a rupture from the painful past. However, some did opt for identical reconstruction, like Warsaw in Poland and St. Malo in France.


Both old and new. Warsaw’s old town, all but completely destroyed during World War II, was reconstructed to look as it had appeared prior to the war. Image Credit: Jennifer Tiedemann

More than 85% of Warsaw’s historic center was destroyed during the war. The subsequent effort to rebuild the medieval and Renaissance city center and the Royal Castle involved recreating everything as it had been before the war; using ancient art, documents and surveys, including the paintings of a Venetian artist, Bernardo Bellotto (better known as Canaletto), who lived in Warsaw as a court painter from 1768 to 1780. Public opinion and private subscriptions enthusiastically supported these identical reconstructions, and the successful rebuilding of the historic downtown remains a point of pride in Poland today. In the wake of the Second World War—often a war against national culture and ethnic identity—many Poles felt that identical reconstruction would help erase the humiliations of the war.

By contrast, the reconstruction of cities under deliberately modernistic models proved much less successful. In France, the reconstruction of Le Havre by Auguste Perret using reinforced concrete is typical of a talented architect’s rootless type of buildings. The reconstruction follows a rationality that largely escapes the population living in it. And even though UNESCO named the reconstructed Le Havre as a World Heritage Site in 2005, only architectural historians bother to visit it.

While this modern architecture was less expensive, it was also uniform and graceless. Not surprisingly, this uniformity and gracelessness eventually led to a nostalgia for prewar housing forms. In the U.S. and Western Europe, heritage protection zones—legally protected areas designed to preserve historic sites—rapidly expanded with broad popular support.

An Economic Case for Historic Preservation …

Of course, historic preservation provides many nonmaterial benefits, from the aesthetic to the educational, but can we also make an economic case for preserving our history? The powerful example of the reconstruction of Warsaw after the Second World War reminds us that people’s preferences create economic value.

In recreating Warsaw’s old town, the Polish government recognized the importance of vernacular architecture—entire streets of buildings that are not historical monuments but also capture a time and place. Preserving (or in Warsaw’s case, rebuilding) this kind of architecture produced not just aesthetic benefits, but economic ones as well. In Warsaw, the charm of the reconstructed old city greatly increased foot traffic and hence the value of the restaurants and shops located in this area. Additionally, the proximity to the old city increases the value of modern buildings located in adjacent neighborhoods. The resulting increase in surrounding property values makes a strong case for historic preservation to be considered a public good—just as a park or a beach would.

And this is not unique to Warsaw. In Paris’ Marais neighborhood, the Place des Vosges is a unique architectural plaza surrounded by apartments and shops perfectly preserved from the beginning of the 17th century. As in Warsaw, apartments located on immediately adjacent streets but in nondescript buildings are also selling for a premium because of their proximity to historic and aesthetically pleasing areas. The real estate value per square meter of apartments located around the Place des Vosges is about twice the price of equivalent apartments in nonhistorical neighborhoods located not farther than 200 meters to the east of the Place des Vosges.

And as Jane Jacobs wrote in her “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” in the early 1960s, one of the great economic benefits of old-style vernacular architecture is that it often offers cheaper space, which in turn encourages all kinds of experimentation. “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings … but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings,” she explained. This allows for a wide variety of enterprises to be a part of a city: Some are natural fits in new construction (say, department stores or art museums), while others fit better in older-style buildings (like art studios and galleries). And what about business ideas that may be new and untried? With new construction, “there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”

The most successful historic preservation, then, isn’t one that simply functions as a display case for the past: Rather, it allows for the vitality and vibrancy inherent in dynamic economic activity. Preserving city blocks that evoke the past not only preserves a certain aesthetic: It also preserves the opportunity for greater economic diversity and success.

 … With a Caveat

But of course, while historic preservation can create economic value, it also costs money—both upfront and over the long term—in order to preserve a place. For the most part, historic preservation is a luxury and something that’s generally only possible when a country or a city has the economic means to hold onto physical parts of its past. Historic preservation is expensive because of its recurring maintenance cost and the value of the land on which it is built. A city can only afford to preserve its architectural heritage if it is economically prosperous. It is, therefore, necessary to strike a balance between those areas worth preserving and those in which economic considerations instead prevail.

Falling apart. An example of historic architecture around Havana’s city center. Image Credit: Michel Setboun/Getty Images)

We can imagine what might happen when preservation is taken to an extreme: Over-enthusiastic preservationists could, say, declare that any building older than 50 years should be considered a cultural and historical landmark. This rule could paralyze a city’s growth and make housing unaffordable for much of the population. But a thriving economy helps absorb some of those problems, and it means that a city or a country can afford the higher costs of preservation—financial and otherwise.

This is why historic preservation requires finding the right balance among aesthetic, nostalgic and economic concerns. Historic preservation involves at least some initial economic sacrifice, and in response, we must make our preservation choices accordingly. However, the more affluent a society is, the more leeway we have to make choices for preservation.

And make no mistake: Historic preservation is a series of active choices. One can see historic buildings in, say, the former Soviet Union or modern-day Cuba, but these have often survived due to inertia rather than intent and are often in disrepair. Poor maintenance of historical buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg and Havana today shows that to the degree that their respective urban cores remain, it’s due less to a concern for historic preservation and more to a lack of economic incentive for demolition. But when preservation is indeed the goal, greater wealth gives a country or a city a wider range of choices about what they hold onto, and a greater ability to maneuver among the disparate concerns involved in these decisions. As a result, more prosperous places have greater control over what their stories are—and what people of today and the future know of them.

Submit a Letter to the Editor
Submit your letter
Subscribe to our newsletter