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Historic Preservation in Boston: The Antidote to “Herita...

Historic Preservation in Boston: The Antidote to “Heritage Décor?”

To preserve or to build anew? The significance of preserving historic structures and places is often debated, typically falling into arguments related to aesthetics, budgets, cultural identity, economic development, and modernization. Depending on the appeal, story, and politics of a building, site or area, historic preservation can range from plaques and signage to preservation of

by Alyssa Curran December 12, 2017
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To preserve or to build anew? The significance of preserving historic structures and places is often debated, typically falling into arguments related to aesthetics, budgets, cultural identity, economic development, and modernization. Depending on the appeal, story, and politics of a building, site or area, historic preservation can range from plaques and signage to preservation of original materials to reconstruction for an interpretive purpose.

What is it about aging places that make them worth fighting for?  

  1. The physical embodiment of a city’s past. Every place has a story. It’s what makes a place somewhere versus anywhere. A city’s embodied history provides us with a better understanding of its evolution, providing lessons from predecessors and anecdotes that may be personal or inherited.
  2. Protect against inauthentic mimicry. For many developers, tearing down buildings and starting fresh is the most efficient way to develop. While some new development seeks to communicate its modernity and innovation with contemporary design, other development adopts historic motifs to fit in with existing fabric or to invoke a sense of place. This type of imitation functions as some kind of forged “heritage décor” in a city, attempting to build character or identity as genuine as a Hollywood movie set.
  3. A vehicle for discussing local values. Debate ensues when the artifact in question signifies very different meanings for various groups of the population (see the recent debate over Confederate statues for more on this point). Confronting the question of historic preservation in a specific community incites a discussion on what an object, building, site or area means to a given person. It sets up a forum for examining which elements in a neighborhood are considered locally valuable or culturally significant and how construction can preserve character or establish a new identity (see more on Buffalo’s intentional departure from European precedents in favor or a newly defined American architecture).  

Quincy-Market-Vendors, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Quincy Market, housed within the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, is just one example of Boston’s many Landmarks, designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Built as the first project of Mayor Josiah Quincy in 1825, the market was intended to serve the city’s expanding markets and rectify the issue of its then-limited capacity. Located on a cobblestone promenade in proximity to a transit station, City Hall, and several other historic destinations, Quincy Market is one of the city’s most important draws for tourists and historians while also serving as an anchor in downtown Boston. The market is one of the country’s first “festival” marketplaces renovated in the 1970s to revitalize the downtown and is set up stall-style with many local vendors and common spaces to attract the masses.

Quincy-Market-Vendors, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Boston is home to over 8,000 Landmark properties and nine local historic districts across the city. Historic designations protect sites from changes that “might compromise the integrity of the resource.” As a city that dates back to the 1630s and takes pride in its fundamental role in American history, Boston is firm in its position of holding historic preservation in high regard. Article 85 of the Zoning Code, for example, requires an in-depth review of all buildings requesting demolition. The city’s policies and programs have helped make Boston a popular tourist destination and archeological gem for preservationists.

“Cultural identity” is subjective, abstract and complex. While some researchers are working to measure the value of a historic site and thereby depoliticize the discussion that surrounds it, the fact remains that places are experiential and particular to the individual in their very nature. The structures and sites that make up a place are therefore inherently political and personal. Connections to places are what makes a certain building cherished or a neighborhood treasured. Without those treasures, and the discussions they provoke, can cities truly establish their own unique identity?

What do you think? Do historic districts or buildings matter to you? Are some sites more easily distinguished as “culturally valuable” than others? Is “heritage décor” just as good as the real thing? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.

Credits: Images by Alyssa Curran. Data linked to sources.

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A native Buffalonian, UCLA-trained geographer and Harvard Graduate School of Design Urban Planning alumnus, Alyssa is passionate about improving social justice, environmental performance, climate adaptation and resource security in cities. Alyssa's m...

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