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Cathryn Griffith's Boston in the world of Historic Preservation

Posted by Devin Cole  March 14, 2012 11:25 AM

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Old Old City Hall.jpg

Old Old City Hall

New Old City Hall.jpg

New Old City Hall

Although not born in Boston, Cathryn Griffith has become knowledgeable about the city and appreciative of its distinct nature. With an intellectual curiosity for art, a passion for photography and a business mind for real estate, she has crafted a platform for herself as an artist and entrepreneur. Her recent book, Havana Revisited: an Architectural Heritage brings together her experiences as a lifelong traveler, her artistic eye and her careful study of architecture. In it, she ties together her own personal story with that of architecture around the world.

Historic Preservation

Unlike the plastic arts, architecture is functional and organic. Buildings are actively a part of, not merely passive observers to, the passage of time. The Boston Landmarks Commission deals with local history of the built environment. As noted on their website, Boston is one of the oldest American cities, and it ‘has long played an important role in the development of the nation.’ The buildings they seek to preserve are informed with the stories and events of the City’s residents from its founding days to the present one. Historic preservation is defined by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as ‘the process of identifying, protecting, and enhancing buildings, places, and objects of historical and cultural significance.’ Increasingly, this process is a dynamic one, not a static entombment or enshrinement of buildings and places.

The business of old buildings

Boston’s Old City Hall is one of the earliest examples in which municipal architects applied the principles of historic preservation to the re-evaluation of its buildings. Herein was born the concept of adaptive reuse. In the 1960's the idea that the city’s constructs from a previous era could be put to new use was without precedent. ‘The successful conversion (1969-1971) of Boston's City Hall into a restaurant and first class office building heralded the beginning of this new concept.’ The American Institute of Architects (AIA) publicly supported the process of its conversion and promoted Old City Hall as a notable example of urban renewal that could have future implications. In fact, many cities across the nation have used the rehabilitation of Old City Hall as a template for the reuse of landmark buildings in their own communities and this pioneer model of redevelopment continues to win recognition as a precedent setting approach to adaptive reuse.

Adaptive reuse – a modern approach

The ideas behind historic preservation and sustainable design may have come from different fields, but the symbiosis of these two schools of thought is one that practicing architects view as essential to increasing the life cycle of old buildings. Boston University, an important community partner in the city, believes that ‘maintaining historic integrity while updating building systems with energy-efficient technology is the core mission of adaptive reuse.’ Converting a former hotel into a student residence and a former automobile showroom into an art gallery are just two results of its Historic Preservation Plan.

At home and abroad

The Musee d'Orsay in Paris is another example of art finding a home in an old industrial building. The museum is housed in a vaulting glass and wrought iron train station that was designed by Victor Laloux at the time of the Exposition Universelle in 1900. The Gare d'Orsay was converted into galleries devoted to modern art in the early 1980s by the architect Gae Aulenti. According to Cathryn Griffith’s research, there was talk of tearing down the building and replacing it with a skyscraper. But after the old markets, Les Halles, were torn down in the 1970s, there was renewed interest in preserving the old buildings in Paris. Cathryn, who was raised near Erie, Pennsylvania, on land that had been planted with fruit trees, berry bushes, and flowers by her great-grandparents, has seen the houses of her family and forebears demolished and gained a deep respect for the history embodied in architecture. An appreciation for old buildings coupled with Ms. Griffith’s studies in art at Wellesley College led her to collect hand colored postcards of Havana Cuba during her trips to Paris. This unique collection of photographic prints led to the first of many research trips to Cuba where she began the photographic documentation and writing of her book.

The most important city in Spanish Colonial America

“The preservation of old Havana emphasizes the restoration of buildings to their old appearance,” Griffith said, noting that the effort is “not about change; it’s really about preserving or returning to an earlier state.” In numerous interviews with people living in Havana, Griffith discovered that the underlying philosophy of the restoration of their City, according to Cuban officials, “is that it’s necessary to have an understanding of the past in order to successfully engage with the future.” In fact, Cathryn’s book, which is lushly illustrated with the images of the old postcards juxtaposed with her own photographs documenting the present appearance of the old buildings and spaces, becomes an educational guide to the story of the city’s historical markers. These old places become important signposts for modern-day explorers of Cuba. Jay Lee, Assistant Director of Design for the City of Boston says "her work captures the seen and unseen contrasts of Cuban architecture.”

Another approach to adaptive reuse

Leland Cott, former adjunct professor in the Department of Urban Design and Planning and Design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, supported Ms. Griffith’s research efforts at every turn. Sharing her passion for the study of the built environment, and a focus on the historic preservation movement in Havana, he put his contacts in the city at her disposal. According to Cott’s talk on the occasion of Ms. Griffith’s exhibit in 2009 at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, ‘the almost imperceptible changes in the buildings, were the result of two actions: a concentrated and well-designed campaign by government officials to restore historic structures to boost tourism, and what he called “benign neglect,” given the country’s dearth of material resources. “Doing nothing in this particular case,” Cott said, “may have proven to be the most valuable preservation act of all.”

Are historic buildings Green buildings? A vision for the future

According to U.S. Department of Energy data, most commercial buildings built before 1920 use less energy per square foot than those built since then, up until 2000. With the invention of high performance insulation and thermo pane glass, one might assume that older buildings are wasteful of non-renewable energy resources, and should be torn down and rebuilt with new improved versions. But the reverse is actually true. Adaptive reuse is a more cost and energy efficient strategy than producing new buildings and sustainable redesign of old buildings is an opportunity to protect the environment by investing in historic preservation. Stimulating the local economy through travel and tourism and retaining a community’s unique built history as a teaching tool are additional long term benefits of investing our architectural heritage.

Donna Dodson graduated cum laude from Wellesley College in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts. Since 2000, Dodson has been honored with solo shows nationwide for her wood sculptures. Dodson enjoys public speaking, and has been a guest speaker in conferences, panels and forums at museums and universities in North America.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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