The Importance of Old Buildings

By Steven Radtke, Chairman of the Grand Haven Main Street Preservation and Place Committee

Historical preservation is important to a society in so many ways. A currently popular reason is from an environmental standpoint. An old building is “green” because it already exists, and no resources are expended to create it. Demolition of an old building, which is often done without any effort to reuse or recycle its parts just results in fodder for the landfill, and any stored energy in the building is lost forever, to say nothing of the new resources that are then expended to create a replacement.  Adaptive reuse of historical resources ensure that the structures and the materials contained therein continue to serve a purpose.

Another aspect of old buildings is that oftentimes the materials and techniques used in their construction are no longer available, or prohibitively expensive.

As an example, a slate roof with copper flashing and valleys can last for well over a hundred years, but as slate and copper are very expensive materials today, they are very seldom used, even though in the long run, replacing an asphalt roof every 20 years or so might be more expensive. Then of course is the skilled labor to do slate. There are few craftsman who can take on this task.

The same might be said for plaster walls, which are superior to drywall in almost every way but the ease of installation. There are few people who can still do traditional three coat plaster, and those who can charge a premium.

The materials used in many historic structures are no longer available at any price. Old growth timber, with its exceptionally stable and rot resistant growth ring patterns and extra-long lengths, is used extensively in old buildings, for everything from windows and doors to structural members. This wood is just not available, as those forests were depleted a 100 years ago. Patterned brickwork, limestone trim, plaster, solid brass hardware, carved ornament, massive beams, these are all materials that are not commonly used because we either have cheaper, usually inferior replacements, or the materials cannot be found.

These, of course, are just practical considerations. There are other less tangible aspects to a historic structure that benefit society as well.

Architects of the part had less to worry about in regards to technological needs and costs, so they could spend the time and money on less practical considerations like proportion, symmetry, and decoration, which makes for a pleasing building, and, in today’s era of standardized, mass produced materials, unique buildings that are not commonly seen anymore.

We also connect to old buildings. If you pay attention to media and advertising, unique old settings are very common in sitcoms, movies, commercials, and the like because people respond on a subconscious level to things that are familiar and comfortable. These old structures create links to the past that are more relatable than many other aspects of history.

There are many reasons for which historical preservation is important, just a few are listed here. The Main Street Program is a proud advocate of historic preservation in our community and the state, and we encourage our readers to look carefully at potential future legislation in the form of House Bill 5232, which seeks to substantially alter the mechanism that serves as the primary protection for our built historical resources, namely locally controlled historical districts. Read the language of the bill, understand its aims, do some research on its possible impact in will have
historical structures; these vulnerable and irreplaceable links to our past, and take appropriate action to see that your voice is heard in this matter.

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