Recently, the Italian Culture Ministry decided to hold an on-line referendum to determine which of eight classic works of Italian art, some dating back to ancient Roman times, would be restored with public funds. In the United States, which is much younger culturally, some of our most precious artworks happen to be historic structures. But the problem we face is similar: a lack of public funding for restoration and, in certain instances, a lack of agreement as to how important the preservation of our late 19th and early 20th century structural heritage is for localities, and for the nation, as well.
The modern historic preservation movement in the United States began with a singular act; the demolition of Penn Station in New York City in 1963. To see picures of those interiors and exteriors now, it seems unthinkable that a city, its citizens, or a thriving culture would ever allow it. The thrilling skylit lobby, the decorative iron work on the balustrades and the bannisters, the classic columns and statuary adorning the building's exterior, even the doorknobs and the mahogony benches - impossible to reproduce today. The building's beauty and presence was, in fact, celebrated as both extraordinary and timeless when the structure first opened to the public in 1910.
But just as Penn Station's destruction taught America lessons about the dangers of leaving the future integrity of art purely in the control of the private sector, its actual lifespan tells us something about the urgency of saving the historic structures that remain with us today.
Just do the math. Penn Station was 52 years old when it was demolished. The owner of the building and the valuable parcel lying beneath it, The Pennsylvania Railroad, decided that it would sell the property for the construction of the then-new Madison Square Garden, incorporating a smaller featureless Penn Station within it. The building remains functional today, just as it was intended to be. That market function, and nothing else, will determine when this structure outlives its usefulness.
The outcry over this process and the increased public consciousness of historic buildings to provide for their restoration have resulted in the rescue of thousands of amazing public and private structures over the past half century. But almost all of these buildings where the design, craft, and an affinity with natural materials and the natural environment exist to the extent that they move hearts and stir collective action were constructed well before 1950.
So you see the urgency. In 1963, individuals who protested the demolition of Penn Station and used it as a call to action were focusing on a building that was half a century old. If we subtract 52 years from our present perspective, that puts us at 1962. Are there that many buildings constructed since then, public or private, residential or commercial, that we as a culture or even a local community would actually care about saving? Moreover, in this increasingly virtual world for retail, service, and assembly will the society as a whole devote more than passing interest and minimal resources to the structures we construct, occupy, and share in the future?
For historic preservation to become meaningful, it must transcend nostalgia. A structure becomes relevant when the very elements that defined the greatness of Penn Station: the materials, the grandeur, the craft, the incorporation of the natural within the man-made, carry our senses beyond percieved monetary value or fluctuating markets. We preserve a historic property for the same reason that we preserve and honor any work of art: it tells us something enduring about ourselves as a culture from the singular perspective of the creators, their place, and their time.
The challenge for us now is the very real one of time passing and our dominant culture becoming more consumer than artistic. In Italy, they say that every time it rains a little more damage is done to the many aging ancient structures that need attention. The same is true for our broad, if considerably less ancient inventory of historic buildings. These are material things, even as their vast spirit seems to live and breathe before our eyes. And much like living things of great majesty - they need to be appreciated more as they age, as their day to day care becomes more dutiful and more challenging. And there is another similarity to consider here: the implications of death. When facing the possibility that the resources we treasure may soon be gone, we should always understand how impossible it would be to recreate them.