The Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Vernacular Architecture
When a new building is constructed code enforcement officials refer to one of several documents that provide them with guidelines, or standards, by which they determine whether safety and durability levels are being met. In New Mexico, the guideline is the Uniform Building Code. In the 1960's the federal government, for many good reasons, determined that there needed to be standards for historic preservation as well. One of those good reasons was so that tax incentives could be granted the owner of a historic building if the choice was made to restore rather than replace the structure. The resulting document is called the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Derived and legislated by the federal government, the Standards have become the directive of all (I am quite sure) state and local governments. Very importantly, since there is no alternative, the Standards have been adopted by the funders of preservation projects as well.
Though written brilliantly and concisely with the intention of protecting historic properties, the Secretary's Standards fail, in my view, to protect the essential characteristics of the largest category of historic buildings; those that are termed vernacular. The Standards were written in response to a profound loss of buildings, among them Penn Station in New York City, in the name of urban renewal. The Standards were inspired by the Venice Charter, another brilliant and groundbreaking document, that responded to the tragic loss by flood of historic properties in Florence, Italy in 1966.
Laudable in their purpose, and valid in their application in thousands of instances, the Venice Charter and the Secretary's Standards are nevertheless documents concerned predominantly, if not exclusively, with the conservation of material culture.
Vernacular buildings are, of course, material. But in their continued use, they transcend their physical manifestations and become symbols of place and of secular culture. Sometimes crude or commonplace in appearance, often incorporating long, unwritten traditions in their constant manipulation of materials and space, vernacular buildings are always the unique product of a local population. As a category, vernacular buildings and sites are most clearly defined by the fact that they are occupied and used by the culture or the families who built and maintained them in the first place, and whose identities are unmistakably associated with their own built environment. The adobe buildings of New Mexico are a fine example, from the communal house-blocks of the Pueblo peoples to the Hispanic churches.
My argument is based on the premise that non-monumental sites are ethically and philosophically elided by the Secretary of the Interior's Standards. They fail to distinguish, for example, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Snow Clan House at Hopi. In the former example, the monumental and commemorative values dictate that no change, no alteration should take place. In the second case one must acknowledge that substantively different origins, processes and use are in play, and that a different standard for its treatment is demanded.
Compliance officers seem, in large part, to have a vested interest in defending the Secretary of the Interior's Standards as they exist today. The reason may be that they are easy to understand and convey to the public, and they have become rather time-honored and comfortable to use. Yet I doubt that there is a compliance officer in the country who has not had to face decisions for which there was no good answer in the Secretary's Standards. Certainly, there are thousands of home and building owners, as well as local design review staff and historic design review boards who have come under the gun because they either would not "break the rules" or could find no loophole that justified making a decision outside the box.
The idea that the Secretary of the Interior's Standards don't work for the conservation of vernacular architecture first struck me full on when I was working on a small rural chapel in the village of Upper Rociada, New Mexico. Built of adobe in the 1880's, the structure had been lovingly cared for and annually re-plastered up until the time most of the younger population left for World War II and didn't come back for forty years. While they were away, taking advantage of the GI Bill and the post-war economy, the little church fell into disrepair, was vandalized and, of all things, the site upon which it was built turned into a seasonal bog. As the younger generation, now retiring, began to return to the valley and faced with the loss of something that they had sorely missed for two generations, they resolved to rebuild their place of worship.
For a community of only twelve to fifteen families, it was a formidable task; one long wall had completely collapsed, the roof was a disaster, many of the lintels and beams were rotted and needed replacement, and a site drainage system of real complexity had to be installed. What was worse was that no one in the community really remembered, or believed that they did, how to make adobes or mix the mud mortar. Two generations had missed interaction with their elders; the pattern of passing along vernacular technologies, the verbal, axiomatic instructions which go with them, and the social relationships that result from such activities had been broken.
That was fifteen years ago. The younger generation of today, those from their early teens to mid-twenties, have something their parents and even their grandparents did not -- a church in a fine state of repair, and a community that maintains it. But the church itself is not the same. For security, a window on the blind side, out of sight of the road and the neighbors, was eliminated; stabilized, rather then traditional adobes were used in rebuilding the damaged walls; the new walls were built on a concrete block footing because of the ground water problem, and the roof line was extended to help the drainage situation. In short, the building's form and materials, some would say its character, changed substantively.
I believe that by any reasonable standard, the "preservation" to the chapel at Upper Rociada was an unqualified success. The traditions of worship in that valley were given a venue to continue and, equally important, the restoration of the church was an event in which the cultural values of community participation and local knowledge were validated through changes made in the course of use of the building.
The folks in Upper Rociada raised their own money and made their own decisions after they discovered that potential funders, including the archdiocese, required that if their institutional money was spent, some standard of compliance must be invoked. In each case (and, keep in mind, no federal or state money was at stake) it was the Secretary of the Interior's Standards that had to be met.
My experience in Upper Rociada has been repeated many times, in different contexts. In the limited space here, I cannot elaborate fully on the problems I have with the Secretary's Standards as they (don't) apply to the vernacular. But I do have space to note the most egregious of the Standards, number four, that states "Most properties change over time; those changes that have acquired historic significance in their own right shall be retained and preserved."
What a marvelous conundrum, to acknowledge change and its importance while simultaneously enjoining against a continued tradition of change.