There is a wide spectrum of philosophies when it comes to historic preservation, which can be seen in countless preservation projects across America. Once a group or community has made the heroic decision to preserve a resource, the question that often arises amongst preservationists is how, exactly, should the building be preserved? Should the building be kept in its original state, allowed to gradually deteriorate or should it be restored to an earlier condition? Should the building be restored to be “better than” it was in its original state with improvements that really should have been done in the first place anyway? Three preservationists embody each of these points of view: Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Paul Leon and John Ruskin.
Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) is known as the first restoration architect, although his methods are now largely discredited. The Frenchman’s philosophy was that buildings should be rebuilt not necessarily as they originally were but as they “should have been.” He stated that “to restore a building is not only to preserve it, to repair it, or to rebuild, but to bring it back to a state of completion such as may never have existed at any given moment.” On the church of la Madeleine de Vezelay in Vezelay, France he installed new statuary and stone not based on the original design at all, but rather of his own. His practice of ignoring historical accuracy and adding architectural elements based on aesthetics is a major reason that his work is not applauded among preservationists today. What remains important, however, is the recognition that Viollet-le-Duc’s work brought to the restoration of historic structures as well as the methods, technology and philosophy he shared in a ten-volume dictionary on architecture. An American example of Viollet-le-Duc’s philosophy could arguably be seen in the preservation of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia where some restorations and reconstructions have occurred, in some instances, based on scant evidence, lending more to aesthetics than historical fact.
On the other end of the preservation spectrum sit Paul Leon and John Ruskin. Leon criticized Viollet-le-Duc’s methods believing that “a monument to be a testimony to the past must stay as the past bequeathed it.” He believed that pretending to restore a building to its original state is dangerous and deceitful because, while it saved a structure from eventual ruin, it provided an inaccurate record of the past. John Ruskin abhorred Viollet-le-Duc’s methods as well but took a more adamant stance regarding preservation. The 19th century writer and critic argued that a society has no right to improve or even attempt to restore the craftsmanship of another era. In his book The Seven Lamps of Architecture he wrote “it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.” He strongly believed that a building should be built to last and remain untouched. He felt that restoration wiped clean the character of a structure and said, “When we build, let us think that we build for ever.”
Most preservation projects fall somewhere in between the two extremes of the restoration spectrum. Whether to goal is to save an old building from demolition, preserving cultural heritage or foster urban revitalization, often times it is the ultimate goal of the restoration project that mandates where on the spectrum it will fall. If the purpose is to bring tourists to a site and encouraging economic growth in an area, as seen in the restoration of downtown districts like Cocoa Village, Florida, Viollet-le-Duc’s methods of favoring aesthetics over specific historical accuracy may be followed. Likewise, if the historical importance lies in the details surrounding the last person to inhabit a space, as in the Historic Rosseter House in Melbourne, FL it may be left as it was bequeathed.
Source: Historic Preservation: An Introduction to its History, Principles and Practice. Tyler, Norman, Ligibel, Ted, Tyler, Illene. Norton Publishing ISBN: 978-0-393-73273-3