Our work in Portsmouth and surrounding communities often leads us into long discussions about how to build responsibly in an historic context. Recently we had a chance to discuss this with Reagan Ruedig, a local preservationist who currently works for Preservation Company in Kensington, NH and serves on the Portsmouth Historic District Commission (HDC) and the Board of Trustees for the Portsmouth Historical Society. Having grown up in Nashville and studied in New York and Philadelphia, Reagan has a broad understanding of how to successfully maintain the historic integrity of a place.
Building for the Past
We were eager to jump right in and share stories about new buildings that we feel work or don’t work in our downtown. Why do there seem to be so many faux historic structures that mimic a style (or two or three at a time!) that was popular two centuries ago? Reagan noted that “Everybody is afraid of change, and we also have a record that the same was true in the past…the old Customs House was disliked in its time and now it is one of our treasures.”
Preservation as a defined movement and profession developed only about 75 years ago. It’s often perceived as a movement dedicated to freezing time, but that’s not the case. Reagan noted that one of the primary tenets of preservation is authenticity. We compromise this when we build new buildings that try to copy the past. “The grand 18th century mansions of Portsmouth showcased the most current technologies of their time. I’m in complete agreement that the best way to preserve our historic treasures is to let them stand on their own terms, not to dilute them with knock-offs and mimicry.”
Pressures on the Historic Integrity of Portsmouth
Historic Districts typically were established to protect property values within the district, not to restrict owners’ rights. This has become particularly difficult as Portsmouth housing prices soar and small historic houses no longer fit the vision of their new owners. “It is a cultural and social struggle for architecture today. New owners buy old homes and figure they will just expand it or gut it to suit their needs. They will completely transform the floor plan, or take out the chimney. We have a lot of bald houses missing their chimneys!” Ironically, “the saving grace of Portsmouth is that for so long it was poor and no one renovated buildings or built new ones. Now it’s a battle to educate people to preserve the very qualities that enticed them to live here.”
The New HDC
We applaud Reagan’s stamina as a veteran member of the HDC. The Historic District Commission is often maligned - either for being too permissive or restricting development unnecessarily. Surprisingly, Reagan said, “If I had any advice for architects who are coming before the HDC it would be this: try something new…. We would much rather see good design in its own right than something that is a box dressed up to pass.” She noted that the current Commission is actually very open-minded and that new guidelines and processes are in place to educate Owners and streamline the review process.
A Mid-Century Treasure?
As it dominates the view from our office, we’re always eager to talk about the elephant downtown - the McIntyre Federal Building. There are those that would have it torn down the minute (and if!) the city gains control, but Reagan made an important point that we wholeheartedly agree with: “there are a lot of preservation reasons to save the Federal building, but keeping it and rehabbing it also makes a lot of sense from an environmental perspective”. We also agreed that its use is an important part of what makes a building good. Currently there are armed guards at the front doors – you can’t get close to this building or understand what goes on inside. If the first floor were opened to the public and the generous plaza in front were activated, it could be a great civic space and people would likely feel differently about how out of place the building may currently seem.
Reagan encouraged us to “look at patterns of the past and project forward to think about how we will be represented to future generations. Are we in a revival period? Or will our style be backward looking?” We often feel like we’re in an uphill battle designing for the 21st century in one of the oldest cities in the country. Reagan noted that “there isn’t a known rule for how to design a building that people will love. Whole careers are spent searching for that answer.” We take courage and inspiration, if not trim details, from the past!
“Building Portsmouth” by Richard Candee