Preservation Parlance: Preservation, Rehabilitation, Restoration, and Reconstruction

Preservation-Society , May 16, 2016

When Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) 50 years ago, it affirmed historic preservation’s importance to the United States’ cultural, environmental, and economic well-being. The passing of the NHPA also formed an official framework for what had previously been a largely informal activity, taken up in grassroots efforts like those seen in Charleston in the 1920s and 1930s. The NHPA charged the Secretary of the Interior (SOI) with establishing professional standards for preserving historic properties and created the Section 106 process, among other programs.

Every profession has its jargon, and from the NHPA comes a complexity of terminology, which can, at times, make historic preservation and its processes inaccessible. With May being Preservation Month, let’s clarify some of the ambiguous aspects of preservation parlance.

soi's standards

Secretary of the Interior’s “Standards”: Preservation, Rehabilitation, Restoration, and Reconstruction

Running with the mantle of establishing professional standards for preservation, the SOI formulated its “Standards for the Treatment of Historic Buildings” in the late-1970s, defining four different potential treatments to historic buildings: preservation, restoration, rehabilitation, and reconstruction. These words have nuanced meanings when it comes to the preservation profession, and as such those meanings differ from common usage. Here is how the SOI defines them within the context of historic preservation:

  • Preservation focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time. This is done with frequency throughout Charleston. Imagine a traditional single house that was built in 1800, received Italianate ornamentation in the 1850s, and had an early-20th century addition built onto its rear. Today’s owner would be engaging in preservation by retaining all of the accretions of the building and maintaining the fabric in sound condition, with little to no replacement. Such buildings, coupled with having a little background knowledge, are excellent resources for interpreting cultural changes over time.
  • Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to an historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property’s historic character. This approach is also commonly referred to as adaptive re-use or adaptive use. A prime local example of rehabilitation can be seen in the Cigar Factory. A former cotton mill and, you guessed it, cigar factory, there is no feasible scenario, given today’s economy and myriad other factors, in which this enormous building could be used as it was historically. To give the edifice an alternate use buys it a new lease on life and allows future generations the opportunity to appreciate Charleston’s industrial past.
The Cigar Factory at 710 East Bay Street
  • Restoration depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods. This, too, happens frequently in the historic district; for example, a single house may have had its piazza infilled sometime in the 1960s, and returning the piazza to its original form by removing the infill would constitute a restoration, albeit on a small scale. Perhaps the most well-known (at least in the preservation world) and interesting case studies for restoration is that of Montpelier, the house of James and Dolley Madison, near Orange, Virginia.
  • Reconstruction re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes – think of replicating a structure that is no longer extant. This method requires thorough research. One notable reconstruction of preservation yore comes from the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in the early-20th century. The reconstruction of the Governor’s Palace, with historical documentation to inform the process, provides a tangible link to the past, enabling a better understanding of Williamsburg’s history through interpretation.
The Governor’s Palace, Williamsburg, VA. Image via:

It should be noted that it is common for projects to draw on aspects of more than one of the treatments; for example, a scope of work may include restoring one portion of a property while preserving another. Through the decades, the Standards have been refined, and there are also Guidelines for each approach. While the treatment Standards are intended to be applied to all historic resource types included in the National Register of Historic Places – i.e., buildings, sites, structures, districts, and objects – there are guidelines for each specific resource type.

So what exactly is the National Register of Historic Places, you ask? What does it mean for an historic property? The National Register, along with the difference in function between it and local historic districts, will be explored in the next installment of Preservation Parlance.

By Tim Condo, Manager of Preservation Initiatives at the Preservation Society

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