Historic Preservation

Historic Preservation (U.S.), Heritage Preservation, or Heritage Conservation (U.K.) is the research, conservation, and protection of our built environment. The movement to preserve and conserve buildings, objects, landscapes, and artifacts of significance is essential in today’s rapidly changing world. Historic Preservation encourages the conservation and adaptation of buildings with historical or cultural importance to protect elements of past architecture and design for future generations. Buildings can individually be preserved to last longer with upgrades of failing materials, refreshed interior finishes, modernization of electricity and plumbing changes over the decades, and refurbishing of new heating, ventilating, and cooling systems. Historic streets can be preserved and maintained. Historic Preservation is good for our planet and allows the beauty of past architecture and spaces to connect history and past stories with the present. Reusing existing buildings and spaces is more sustainable than building new ones.

Activity 1 – What is a historic building, space, or place?

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Buildings and environments represent the heritage of earlier generations and share the history of past people, cultures, societies, technologies, crafts, and economies. Therefore, these structures and places are considered historic. How can you tell if a building is historical? Most historical buildings or places may have a plaque or sign marking the year it was built and possibly talk about its history. This is the first indicator that could help identify if a building is historic. Normally these signs are placed in front, beside, or even on a historical site so that it is visible. Others may display plaques, or signs, declaring that a place is registered by an organization as being historic. 

Depending on your continent, the historic places represent human evolution and migration. Some sites are archaeological digs uncovering living in centuries past. Others are monuments like the Great Pyramids on the Nile, built as tombs thousands of years ago. You may live in a newer country with a recorded history of only the past 400 years. The challenge in this activity is to understand the time frame of human existence in your surroundings. Who were the original Indigenous peoples? How did they live? What still exists? Finding historic buildings in your neighborhood is easy. Just take a walk and look around to find buildings that appear older either by their appearance or by weathering. Buildings that are at least fifty years old often contain history, and stories of past lives, and may mark significant events. Older Buildings often display traditional craft, ornamentation, and carved or sculpted details around windows, doors, columns, or roof edges. Find two buildings that look historic. Photograph or draw them and label key details that make you think they are historic.

Activity 2 – Landmarks

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Landmarks are neighborhoods, buildings, objects, and cultural landscapes that capture our imagination and stand out as chapters from the past. These structures and environments represent the heritage of past generations. Their history is our history. Depending on your country, the age of past civilizations varies.

Landmarks tell stories of past peoples and events; they are essential cultural elements in cities that have endured over time and have pride in place. They speak to what life was like and what it is now and inform the present architecture. Landmark buildings are structures recognized locally, by the state, nationally, and sometimes internationally. Find landmarks in your city. Make a map of their locations and on the map place photographs or pictures of the landmarks. Research the history of landmarks and you will learn about the history of where you live.

Activity 3 – Researching Historic Structures and Properties

See if your community has Historical Records. Copies are available online through different search-finding aids. University libraries, and public libraries are good places to look. The Historic Sites Survey and National Historic Landmarks Program are significant resources as well. The Historic Resources Survey city by city and presents search tools as well. Look up a site by its address. If the building or public space has been heavily modified, it’s possible it won’t be included. Another way to identify historical places is by using a database usually provided by a government organization like the United States Landmark Commission. Databases directly identify and provide history about historic places. This is a good spot to begin research to either find or discover historic places.

If you know the historic name, architect, or date of construction, try a pro-quest search of the local newspaper. It may yield more specific information about the function or use. of the building, its historical form, its use of technology (or not), its role in the neighborhood, and Who built it? Why was it made? When was it planned, and when was it completed? How much did it cost? The drawings of some significant firms are archived in various places. They include the History Museum, various university collections, public libraries, and historical archives. That said, it’s relatively rare to find drawings of a specific building. However, sometimes you may find presentation drawings if the building was prominent enough to be published in an architectural periodical.

Find a building that interests you in your city and research its history, significance, architect, and year of construction. Upload your research and a drawing to the gallery!

Activity 4 – Historic Districts or Neighborhoods

Some places are designated as historic neighborhoods or districts. These areas are full of many buildings recognized for their historical significance, endurance, the character of building languages or styles, contribution to the quality of life, and connections with area identity, even if the identity changed over time. Historic neighborhoods might be abandoned or thriving with third to tenth generations stewarding them. A flourishing historic district is visible when walking around and through it. It exudes a sense of stewardship, care, and service to multiple generations. The historic district that has been abandoned looks sad, empty, and often full of housing that is falling apart. Even the abandoned neighborhood is worth saving as, at one time, it supported a thriving community. That healthy community can return with the right amount of encouragement and investment.  Locate a Historic neighborhood in your city and research and document its history.

Activity 5 – Historic Preservation in the United States

In the United States, a group of women became concerned with the decay of the first U.S. President George Washington’s residence on Mount Vernon. Initiated by Louisa Bird Cunningham, a group of women formed the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1853. Their goal was to raise money to restore Mount Vernon. It became the first historic preservation organization in the United States. Unfortunately, their work was delayed by CIVIL WAR activities. After the war, the women continued to raise money and worked to restore the house, the grounds, and the interiors. The first U.S. historic district was established in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1931, predating the U.S. federal government designation of Historic Districts by more than three decades. Charleston city government designated an “Old and Historic District” by local ordinance and created a board of architectural review to oversee it. Make a Timeline of the Historic Preservation Movement in the United States.

Activity 6 – World Heritage Preservation

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) signed a treaty in 1971 at a historical meeting known as the World Heritage Convention. It began a worldwide effort to treasure and preserve the built and natural sites of world significance. This step of collaboration among the members of the UNITED NATIONS established the responsibility for populations across the world to identify space and places that must be honored and protected and are essential for future generations to experience. First, determine which natural site was first declared a world heritage site. Then find the first building to be registered as a World Heritage site. Finally, make a poster for both and upload it to the gallery. Watch this UNESCO World Heritage Video to learn more about preserving what historical places mean to the identity and character of neighborhoods, towns, villages, and cities.


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