Preservation- In Honor of Paul Bruhn- VTDigger 10/17/19
The recent passing of Paul Bruhn, a champion of preservation and community development for more than forty years, is a blow to the heritage conservation movement. Much like the vacant lots and storefronts in the historic town centers that Paul spent his life defending, his loss has left many of us feeling like something is missing. Since 1980, Paul’s Preservation Trust of Vermont has served as the stalwart organization supporting communities in maintaining Vermont’s small-town aesthetic and in fighting off the type of development that threatens to change the very nature of our state.
In spite of our loss, I firmly believe that the preservation and redevelopment of Vermont’s historic buildings and village centers must and will continue, but to be successful, historic preservation must be seen for what it actually is—an effective community development strategy. Paul’s legacy teaches us that the results of historic preservation and strategic (re)development are not only aesthetically appealing but simply work.
Vermont is full of historic societies, house museums, and gathering places (grange halls, masonic temples, libraries, meeting houses, and countless religious sanctuaries) that are often selflessly and tirelessly run by town elders and passionate, yet aging, docents and caretakers. These buildings may seem eternal and their places in our communities a given, but let me assure you—these buildings are vulnerable and need our steadfast protection.
Let the passing of Paul Bruhn serve as a rallying cry for a new guard to continue to fight for our communities and the historic buildings and villages that make them so extraordinary. Vermont is in desperate need of a younger generation of stewards to stand against demolition, sprawl, and neglect. What does this mean? It means joining the committees, societies, and groups that preserve our built heritage. It means taking stock of what makes our communities special and unique. The time to fight against demolition is not when a wrecking ball is in the parking lot. If you do not want a Dollar General opening on the edge of your town, the time to pass zoning restrictions is now. If you cannot imagine your community without the old town hall, find out who is responsible for its upkeep and ask to help (I guarantee they will welcome a fresh face). If you want a place to hold yoga classes, ask who is using the Grange Hall on Tuesday afternoons. These buildings need to be used. If the gatekeepers fight back against new uses, explain that with community involvement can come community, state, and even federal funding. Without this kind of engagement, these buildings will be lost. In their place will come box stores and the sort of development that people like Paul Bruhn spent a lifetime keeping at bay.
Community involvement is required, it is what keeps Vermont from becoming like one of those disliked lower states. As the up and coming generation, it is our obligation to become the stewards of our communities and the historic buildings that have been so prudently preserved for our enjoyment.
The utilitarian nature of maintenance is both one of its strengths and one of its weaknesses. It is the everyday drudgery of conservation, as opposed to the flashy and exciting renovation or rehabilitation. If maintenance is done properly there is no need for renovation, no need for new windows, no need for the specialists to run in and save the day. For the large part, maintenance can be done by a small group of knowledgeable people. While not as glamorous, cyclical maintenance can produce dependable results that will lower operating costs and retain historic material. These are the subtle, largely unnoticeable, changes that reveal the benefits of a well-planned preservation maintenance program. A well-organized plan should control how a building changes—not react to changes.
It is also important to note again that while maintenance may seem like just cleaning gutters and trimming bushes, maintenance of historic materials is not a light undertaking. As seen on historic buildings across the country, remnants of past cleanses and sandblastings have either left permanent marks or removed intricate carvings and details. In his Conserving Buildings manual, Martin Weaver points out that, all too often the newest “wonder” treatment does more damage to the original material that it was meant to preserve in the first place. Maintaining historic buildings is certainly a craft and one that is harnessed over a career. When combined with the diminishing numbers of people entering the trades it is important that the craft of conservation be carried on and new techniques and ways of thinking be added to the preservation toolbox. It is important to remember that maintenance is far from reinventing the wheel. Many of these practices like spot-painting, mortar repair, re-glazing windows, and roof patching have existed as long as there have been structures. It is when we ask our buildings and building materials to cope with encumbrances due to neglect—of which they were not designed to withstand—do we start to see failure. The builders of these structures expected a lot from their creations but they also assumed that maintenance would be required.
The purpose of conservation is to retain as much of the building heritage as we can while at times allowing it to meet the current needs of society. With the exception of a few historic landmarks, the goal of preservationists should not be to “pickle” each building in its most interesting or historically significant period but to access what is important and where we can make concessions. Accepting that these buildings can and must adapt will ensure their survival. The sooner preservationists reach this conclusion the sooner we will be welcomed to the planning meeting and stop having to jump in front of the wrecking-ball. The idea of conservation stewardship is the understanding that we leave our historic buildings the way or better than we found them. Building heritage and historical sites are important because they are part of our built environment and can teach us about our communities and those that came before us. The stewardship of that building heritage is accepting that we are part of that heritage and that our actions will become part of the story, while also accepting the responsibility to pass on that story. Deferred maintenance is nothing more than allowing that heritage to be washed away. I believe that generationally, we have an obligation to our posterity to prove our stewardship and to be proud of our part in its conservation.
Martin Weaver, Conserving Buildings (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997) pg.1-2.