In the United States, there are neighborhoods and individual homes that are designated “historical.” Bellingham, my hometown, sprang up between 1880-1910, so most of the historical homes are late Victorian and Craftsman era. The historical designation is intended to preserve the architecture of the period and presumably prevent beautiful old houses from becoming run-down college rentals with 1960s kitchen makeovers. I’m a lover of architecture, especially homes predating the 1930s, so I understand the allure. My own home was built in 1908. It is not historic, however, and I’m grateful.
Historical homes have to submit rigorous plans to the historical preservation society before making any changes to ensure that the change is in keeping with the original features. This could include anything from paint colors, to fixtures, to the material of an exterior stair banister (wood vs. iron, etc). The historical designation raises the value of the home, and in some ways makes it more desirable, especially to people who care about such things. However, my brother-in-law owned a historical home and was thwarted by his historical neighborhood association when he wished to build a 2nd floor bathroom for his pregnant wife, since the home’s only existing facilities were located in the unfinished, unheated basement. Their plans were not approved.
There’s a pretense about the whole “historic” designation, an assumption that the architecture of the designated historic period trumps in importance everything that has been designed and built after…it also discounts the significance of everything that came before. Before Bellingham boomed at the turn of the century, it was the home for the Lummi Indian tribe. What makes a Craftsman house more worthy of preservation than everything that happened on that city lot prior to 1900?
Moreover, although turn-of-the-19th-century houses are considered old in Washington state, on the east coast they mean nothing at all. My friend recently bought a colonial-era (17th century) cape farmhouse in New Hampshire. And in Europe, structures are even older. Very old buildings are frequently renovated and added onto; walls are knocked out, double-pane windows are added. The ancient evolves to embrace the new.
The Mitla ruins in Oaxaca, Mexico, show some clear evidence of this evolution. The city of Mitla was built between 450-1350CE. In the photo below, you can see the rough mortared stonework typical of the early Classic construction, topped centuries later by a layer of unmortared stonework in intricate geometrical designs. And on top of those pre-Hispanic structures, the Spanish built the Church of San Pedro in the 16th century (though they tore down much of the original structure in the process).
The photo below shows the impressive evolution of stonework among the Zapotec people. You can see how much the artisans improved at their craft over the centuries. Look how tight and intricate the stonework is! You can’t even slide a piece of paper between the stones.
The ruins of Monte Albán, also in Oaxaca, are even more ancient than Mitla, dating from 500BC-750CE, and archeologists believe it may have been the first urban center in the Americas. The structures are all built in the same style, and there is evidence that the site was very deliberately planned according to astronomical markers. Despite the city’s cohesive building plan, it evolved in function and significance over its 1500 year existence, first adding ductwork and dams, then later adding fortifications, suggesting that its role changed from a site of sacred rituals into an urban center. Because nothing stays the same.
At about the same time the Olmecs were beginning to carve off the top of a mountain to build Monte Albán in present-day Mexico, an early people in present-day Nevada visited the orange sandstone rocks northeast of Las Vegas (now Valley of Fire State Park) and left thousands of petroglyphs carved on the soft canyon walls. We can only guess at the narrative those people were telling, since historians can only venture educated guesses at the symbols’ meanings.
In light of a story so ancient and enduring, a piddly 100-year-old house seems very temporary.
Thanks to Where’s My Backpack for the travel theme, “ancient.” Here are some other takes on the theme:
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