The urban and rural realms where we live our lives are constantly changing. Old things are discarded and replaced by new things in our cities and in their expansion into the countryside.
Americans developed an affection for sites important in the nation’s history and were threatened by neglect after the nation entered its second century, and they set about protecting them. Later they launched preservation efforts to protect the nation’s familiar visual tradition, and they continued using tradition as their guide in building new things in the urban and rural realms that served the universal need for security, prosperity and justice.
In the earlier decades of the 20th century a few communities used preservation to guard the buildings they found historically or aesthetically meaningful. Then, after World War II when official indifference to old buildings and the threat posed by anti-traditional architecture arose, preservation become a nationally practiced movement with laws and programs to identify and protect traditional buildings and districts. Preservation’s laws and ordinances are largely toothless unless state or federal action, funds or tax credits are involved. The programs put guardianship in the hands of state and local commissions with advisory authority in “landmarking” buildings and districts. The commissions’ members are volunteer laypeople and others with professional skills in architecture, history, and so on.
The criteria guiding their decisions were set out in 1966 in the national program. They avoid allowing judgments based on beauty to be used. Beauty, the reasoning went, is mere taste and is in the eyes of the beholder. To protect against making decisions based on mere popular, passing fads the law required that a building or district must be at least 50 years old unless it is of special merit.
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Carroll William Westfall has been an SAH member since 1960.