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why preserve it?

Public appreciation of new architectural styles can be a lengthy process. When considering resources from the recent past, it is somewhat ironic that preservationists are now faced with preserving resources that were built at the expense of historic architecture. Today, urban renewal is seen as a misguided program that decimated downtowns across the country. This legacy is one reason that public appreciation for buildings from the recent past is scarce; also, in general, properties less than fifty years old are not perceived as historically significant and are consequently more vulnerable to inappropriate treatment, development pressure, or demolition. But like architectural styles that came before, over time resources from the recent past will gain admiration. For instance, Victorian architecture was once seen as garish and expendable but now many enthusiastically adore it. As Jeanne Lambin from the National Trust for Historic Preservation said “it is important to remember that, at one time, all resources were resources from the recent past.” The challenge is to make sure that resources from the recent past are still around when public opinion shifts.

It is important for changes and shifts in design to be represented in the architectural record of a place. Cities and towns are constantly evolving, and their architecture should reflect this dynamic nature. By choosing one style of design or era of architecture at the expense of another, a place is not being truthful to its past. Lambin said “preserving and appreciating what remains of the recent past will be extremely important for telling the story of America after World War II.” Without an appreciation for resources from this era, we risk losing that part of our architectural record and the collective memory embodied in those resources.

When considering whether or not to preserve an architectural resource, perhaps we should first ask ourselves to evaluate its significance—local, cultural, social, architectural, technological—rather than beginning by assessing whether it is old enough and meets the accepted definition of “historic.” This approach would give resources from the recent past, particularly those less than fifty years old, a better chance at endurance.

Many resources from the recent past can be adapted to suit society’s changing needs and their continued use and preservation is environmentally sustainable. Preservationists often say that the greenest building is the one that is already built. At a time when sustainability has become a priority, the embodied energy of existing buildings must be taken into account. When considering a building for replacement, the impact of new building materials must be weighed against the environmental value of the building being demolished. Buildings contain an embodied energy from the time of construction and removing a structure, wasting this energy, and placing the remnants in a landfill is the antithesis of green. Even if an existing structure does not meet the needs of an occupant, renovation and rehabilitation are almost always more sustainable solutions than demolition and new construction.

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