AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING: The different paths of preservation

Silver Spring Train Station by Steve Knight and Karen Burditt


We have found the word “preservation” often evokes strong feelings, both for and against. On the one hand, many people are excited about retaining and restoring the built artifacts of our cultural heritage. On the other, many are often troubled by retaining any and everything that is old, at the expense of economic development and progress.

We have learned, though, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the varying levels of preservation and the differing amounts of intervention that it can entail. In other words, there are different forms that preservation can take and it does not necessarily mean every aspect or component of an old or historic building, both inside and out, has to be preserved.

We thought this was worth expanding on in our column, and possibly worth a couple of articles to explain what we have found to be the different paths preservation action can take. We all need to be better informed when this hot topic comes up in our community.

We will attempt in this article to offer a brief explanation of the different categories of preservation and how preservation came to be. In our article next month we will expand on the most difficult to understand form of preservation.

Historic preservation: The highest standard

Museum quality preservation, as we call it, is typically what we think of when we hear the word “Preservation”. This is restoration to a very high level, typically on high profile singular landmark structures and covers both the exterior and interior of buildings.

There are clear criteria for this developed by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which were originally created in the mid-1970s. The Historic Preservation Movement saw its start with unexpected and intense public backlash to the destruction of the iconic Penn Station in New York City in the 1960s. The Urban Renewal period galvanized communities to save their endangered neighborhoods and often under-appreciated buildings.

The Secretary of Interior’s Standards were codified into 10 guidelines which clarify how a designated historic structure’s long term preservation is to be maintained, including points on compatibility of repairs, restoration, alterations and even additions. You can find the standards online These standards are frequently used by state and local historic preservation organizations as well.

Some of the landmarks you may have visited are the National Building Museum, Union station, Monticello or James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia. Each of these is an example of a high profile landmark building that has historical significance, not only for the buildings themselves, but also for the people who have lived and worked there and the events that have taken place there.

Locally, we have our own historically designated buildings, such as the Silver Spring B&O Station on Georgia Avenue. After nearly 50 years of service and several years of disrepair and decline, our Station was painstakingly restored inside and out to its original 1945 opening appearance and is now a public museum and event space maintained by Montgomery Preservation, Inc. Not only are the interiors protected, but the exterior and a portion of the land surrounding the station are protected.

Historically designated structures are protected from politics, architectural trends, and ill advised changes that come and go like so many fads.

While it seems a big jump, we can also place in this category many historic neighborhoods; such as Georgetown and Capital Hill in the District and even some parts of Takoma Park and Kensington in our own county. As some of us know from friends and neighbors who may live in these places, the exterior appearance and any possible alterations or additions are regulated locally, largely by the Secretary of Interior’s standards. Some of these communities have additional rules to follow, such as protection of trees or maybe exterior paint colors. In most cases, historic districts are established to protect the exterior character and appearance of homes and buildings, and only in rare cases does this extend to the interiors.

Adaptive reuse: Another preservation option

Adaptive Reuse is another form that preservation can take. Think of this as rehabilitating and repurposing old buildings. Adaptive reuse is typically a combination of good quality restoration of a building’s exterior and then the remodeling, to varying degrees, of a structure’s interior.

We all have examples of this that we know well: Old school houses turned into multi-family housing or the ubiquitous warehouse lofts of lower Manhattan converted to housing or studios.

Adaptive reuse is often combined with the kind of high level preservation described above, but in short, it involves a radical repurposing of a building from its original use. This often involves very creative thinking on the part of owners and tenants, but can lead to some really wonderful benefits for a community.

When an existing building can either no longer serve its original purpose or that original purpose is no longer needed, the building can achieve a second life. A church membership that has outgrown its original building or carriage houses with no horses can both convert to new uses.

Frequently, adaptive reuse will involve new requirements for handicapped accessibility or building code compliance and will require serious changes to existing buildings. Local examples include the AFI Silver Theater that, while still a movie palace, now has additional theaters and is fully handicapped accessible. Jackie’s on Sligo Avenue, converted from an automobile parts warehouse, is one of the hottest restaurants in the DC area. Adaptive Reuse saves the built artifacts of our history while allowing them to thrive with new purpose and popularity.

Neighborhood preservation

And now we come to a third and final category that is more nebulous and hard to define, but that we think is very much worth knowing more about. We have heard it called “Neighborhood Preservation”.
This is about preserving the spirit or sense of place of a neighborhood. It means, by various means and actions, preserving the qualities that are deemed valuable and worth holding onto in an existing community.

We will explain this category in greater depth in next month’s article. But as a sneak preview consider that Georgetown was once a poor working class industrial part of Washington, and Logan Circle, which had dropped from fashionable to seedy, was revived to new popularity in just the last ten years.

Preservation: A radical concept

In America the idea of saving old buildings is a relatively new concept. A new country reinvented itself every generation as new fashions in architecture came to popularity. Originally only the “Washington Slept Here” buildings merited saving while all else was built, torn down and was built again.

The Urban Renewal trend of the 1960s and its large scale destruction of existing neighborhoods changed the dynamic of new construction trumping the old. Interesting “old” was being replaced by bland and banal “new” and the communities felt robbed of their character.

This trend of bulldozing created a hard core resistance to demolition. The preservation movement was born and across America communities rallied to save the best buildings from the wrecking ball. The current, well-defined guidelines for historic preservation now protect older buildings of note and some attractive older neighborhoods from trends, fads, and economic pressures.

But what about some of the other places that we value, but that may be a little harder to categorize as historically valuable or preservation worthy? They aren’t the gingerbread Victorians or colonial dames. Buildings built before 1962 are now eligible for historic designation, including the style we now call mid century modern.

What options do we have for holding on to some of the older and much-loved buildings in Silver Spring? This is what we would like to explore further with you next month.

About the Author

Steve Knight and Karen Burditt
Karen Burditt is a registered architect with 25 years experience, currently working with Esocoff & Associates Architects in Washington DC. Steve Knight is an Associate with David M. Schwarz Architects, also in Washington. Steve and Karen have lived in their bungalow in East Silver Spring for 12 years.