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Adding to the Controversy

President's Message

By David Marshall

There may be no preservation topic more controversial or divisive than the issue of additions to historic buildings. San Diego has stumbled into this quagmire on recent high-profile projects involving the Old Police Headquarters, the ReinCarnation Building, and the downtown Santa Fe Depot. The controversy over what constitutes appropriate additions to historic buildings has even driven a wedge between preservation allies who can't reach a consensus on this topic.

The main reason there is so much conflict and confusion is that the preservation "Bible," The Secretary of the Interior's Standards, is somewhat vague on this topic. This vagueness results in many different interpretations that are hard to quantify. The Standards read, in part: "New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall... be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible... to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment." That sounds reasonable, but what does it really mean?

Note the two key words: "differentiated" and "compatible." The fact that these words seem mutually exclusive is part of the paradox. The reason an addition should be differentiated is to make it clear what is historic and what is not. On the other hand, an addition should be compatible in terms of mass, materials, relationship, and color.

Since land to develop new buildings is scarce in urban areas, one way to accommodate the demand for more square footage is to build on top of or behind existing historic structures. San Diego's venerable Gaslamp Quarter, a National Historic Landmark District, is an area under the constant threat of this add-on mania. There is a real risk that the Gaslamp's historic collection of two- and three-story buildings may one day be transformed into a Death Star trench of additions and infill buildings reaching 75 to 125 feet tall.

I'd love to conclude this President's Message with a solution to this dilemma, but there is no easy answer to be found. Over the next few years, the preservation community will need to decide where they stand on this issue, because appropriate additions to historic buildings is an issue that will continue to grow, literally.

2003 - Volume 34, Issue 3

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