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Is it Worth Saving?

By Beth Montes

Advocacy, planning, education, stewardship, outreach, these are some of SOHO's many activities. Though each discipline is very important, advocacy for the preservation of structures and cultural landscapes is arguably our most important function.

As such, we have a group which meets monthly to discuss these issues, the Preservation Action Committee, or PAC. It is in this committee that we monitor projects involving historic resources, structures slated for demolition, produce the annual Most Endangered list, and discuss buildings or spaces we want to monitor or proactively bring forward for designation.

During the last several meetings, one item discussed was the headline-stealing Naval Waterfront development, San Diego's "front porch". One of our more mature (ahem, older) committee members gave us a history lesson about the complex and its function over time. The military has been using this location for a much longer time than many of us thought. Some of us, including me, thought the site use began in the 1950's or 1960's, judging by the large, boxy buildings closest to the street along Harbor Drive.

However, there is at least one building that dates back to the 1920's and others of various ages. During WWII, the nerve center for the operation of activities for the entire Pacific Theatre was right there. This is early hallowed Naval ground. Across Harbor Drive is the Naval Pier, another structure worth saving.

During our discussion, someone brought up a comment heard in another discussion about whether or not to raise the issue of preservation during talks about what to do with the complex. The comment was something along the lines of "...but are there any pretty buildings worth fighting for?"

Instantly several of us jumped on the comment. You see, not all resources worth saving are pretty. Preservation is not a matter of taste. And that, my friends, is a hard concept to get one's head around. Those with Modernist leanings might think Victorian homes are unnecessarily ornate. Victorian aficionados can find Modern architecture too stark. But real preservation means being able to broaden one's horizons. It means we have to be able to put aside our particular leanings and see the value of a resource for how it represents its time and place in history, its construction materials and methods, its historic use, and more.

So, when we ask "is it worth saving?", we must train ourselves to think about more than beauty, we must resolve to learn about the architecture, events, and historical figures associated with the resource to assess its value, even if it represents an era outside our comfort zones. Sometimes, whether it is pretty or not, a building is lost because of its location, relationship to other buildings, or overwhelming resistance from governmental agencies (think Hotel San Diego). But we stand more of a chance of saving historic resources if we can let go of our favorite eras and stand for preservation as a principle. Then we need to wrap our new-found resolve in a hard shell because once we decide the house or ship or pier or landscape or warehouse is worth preserving, we have to convince the public and community leaders of its value, and that is usually the toughest sale of all.

2006 - Volume 37, Issue 3

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