Blog: Melissa Milton-Pung

When it comes to architectural style, historic is the new black. Melissa Milton-Pung, project manager for Washtenaw County, draws on her research and travels to make a case for infill development and why preservation means green for your pockets and the environment.

Will You Know This Place In 50 Years?

My family recently had the pleasure of traveling to Germany and the Czech Republic.  Throughout the course of this journey through several cities, we learned a lot about how a community ages over time.  While the size, scale, and sheer age of many European cities is in a completely different category than most of what we have in the United States, we nevertheless observed a variety of community revitalization strategies that our community can emulate here at home.

1. Infill can often be the best choice.  So much of Europe was destroyed during WWII.  Many communities decided to recreate their historic city centers based on pre-war documentation.  Yet others took what survived and infilled with modern buildings.  This second approach is indebted to continuing innovation in architecture and engineering, and is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate LEED principles.

2. New construction should be reflective of its own era.  Thinking ahead into the future, it can forge the way for the next wave of historic resources.  For example, in Prague, Frank Gehry's Dancing House is already a textbook example of deconstructionist architecture applied within an historic neighborhood.  This house was built upon a site leveled by bombing in 1945 and constructed next door to the Art Nouveau style home of Vaclav Havel, a leading political figure of the Velvet Revolution of 1989. This juxtaposition of the two dramatically different building styles illustrates the sweeping political shifts of the late 20th century, and remains an accurate representation of each era.

3. Shape and siting matters.  What is new today will often someday attain historic significance in its own right.  What's important now is to get the form, massing, and scale right so that overall community character is retained.  This approach was particularly successful in Germany, given the brilliance of many modern German architects in the late 20th century. Some people call it form-based codes. I call it fitting in with the neighbors.

4. Put transportation where it's needed. There's nothing like the efficiency of the German train system.  Rather than the "build it and they will come" mentality, in most cases, transportation infrastructure exists to connect people from less densely populated fringes to the city centers.  This convenient and affordable system supports property value retention in the urban cores, encourages the use and re-use of historic resources in the city by merit of their location (in addition to their architectural appeal), and lessens the pressure for greenfield construction away from existing developed areas.  While we don't have the density of European countries, we do have the need to explore less car-dependent transportation options.

Upon our return from Europe, I was again struck by the relative term of "historic" in our own context of Michigan history.  Our local built environment and its associated history are less complex, less lengthy, but no less important.  According to criteria set forth by the National Register of Historic Places, historic properties include sites, buildings, structures, and objects.  The usual age for a property to be considered historic is at least 50 years old, and it must possess integrity of location, design, setting, material, workmanship, feeling, and association from its period of significance.  There are numerous kinds of historic properties across Washtenaw County which still possess this level of integrity.  Many are familiar to locals, e.g.: Ann Arbor's Old West Side and Ypsilanti's Historic District.  They are replete with the Greek Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne styles so emblematic of the traditional downtowns and neighborhoods in our region.  Some are less well-known, like the mid-century modern homes of Ann Arbor Hills or East Delhi Bridge.

Historic significance is derived from a lot of tangible and intangible qualities, but it essentially boils down to this: is it authentic? A popular test among preservationists is to ask the questions, "If a property owner from 50 years or more in the past came back, would he or she recognize this historic resource? Would they know this place?"

While some people may complain about the restrictions placed upon a building located within a local historic district, the preservation ideology around historic resources is designed to help retain that important quality of authenticity.  It does not necessarily mandate painstaking, museum quality preservation.  Rather, there's room for interpretation in what is often jokingly called the Ten Commandments of historic preservation.

The point is to live with, care for, use and re-use our architectural patrimony – and sometimes add to it, too.  As I explain it to my five-year-old son, historic preservationists recycle old buildings.  We can't save everything, and sometimes we have to make room for new buildings of our own era.  If we choose carefully with how we fill in the spaces in between, not only do we perpetuate the authenticity of our places, we also have the potential to construct the historic buildings of the future.