Are We Treating our Historic Buildings Like the Redwoods?

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In the History of the Lumber Industry of America, published in 1907 by The American Lumberman, (available online through Google Book Search), James Elliott Defebaugh tells us of the history of the harvesting of the white pine forests of the Northeast. He states in the introduction, "The history of those wonderful, virgin forests which stretched from the St. Croix River of Maine to the Red River of the North has almost been finished, and there survive only the remnants of those great resources in scattered groups of trees or in decimated woodlands, which stand as reminders of once magnificent forests of an extent and a value to man never excelled, if equaled."

Although no one alive today can remember those great forests, few if any realize just how much lumber affected not only the building of America, but the exploration of it as well. Throughout the Old World, much of the forest resources had been devoured during the Iron Age for the production of coal. Although the sawmill dates back to the Iron Age, in early England the powerful guilds kept businessmen from setting them up as a way of protecting the tradespeople who were skilled at converting lumber and timber by hand.

The guilds had no control over the unexplored American continent, however, and the first sawmill was built here in 1623, in what is now York, Maine. Although lumber and timber were needed for building the settlements of the New World, large quantities were shipped back to the Old World as well. Unfortunately, little had been learned about forest preservation, and no legislation was put in place to protect forest lands until 1885, by which time the majority of the Northeast had been logged out. The great white pine forests were gone and now resided within the walls of much of our built heritage.

As the importance of forest preservation was beginning to be understood in the eastern states, the Gold Rush in 1850 in California was the beginning of major deforestation there. Gold miners who had failed to "strike it rich" turned to logging the great redwood forests as a source of income. It wasn't until 1911 that legislation was proposed to protect what was left of the redwoods, and Redwood National Park wasn't established until 1968. Now 133,000 acres of the 2 million acres of redwoods that existed prior to 1850 are protected.

Today, much of what was once a vast forest resource is either nonexistent or poorly managed, to a large degree because of the logging industry, which supplied yesterday's tradespeople with the resources needed to build the cities and towns across our country. I often tell people, when I am asked to run a barn tour for a conference, "If you want to see our virgin forest, walk into a historic barn." Unfortunately that is far from a safe haven for those old timbers, which had started growing long before we settled the Midwest.

Today, it’s the buildings that were built with those forests that are threatened. Obviously, this isn't news to most people reading this blog, but what I find interesting is how the process of loss itself remains so misunderstood. Sure, most of us realize that buildings that have no value to anyone are doomed, but the ways in which they are lost often disguise themselves under the banner of being "green" or "economically progressive."

In my own business of repairing or restoring heavy timber buildings, I find the threats to be numerous. Pick up any local newspaper in my neck of the woods and you will find ads that read "Cash Paid for your Barn!" In truth, the majority of barns that were built in the 19th and even early 20th centuries are of little value to the farmers who own them. Faced with the cost of maintaining a building they have little if any use for, farmers often take the cash from hungry barn harvesters.

Some of the barns (the lucky ones) end up being adaptively reused, although rarely on their original sites. Although this does temporarily keep them intact, the negative impact it has on our historic architectural landscape is irreversible. All too often, the "barn" in its new life not only no longer functions as a barn, it isn't recognizable as a barn from the outside either. Some architects and owner builders do a pretty respectful job of repurposing old barns, but there are also some real monster pieces out there.

Another threat to our historic resources comes in the guise of "salvaging" building materials. With terms like "embodied energy" and "sequestered carbon content," salvaging can sound pretty high tech, and there are numerous arguments that it makes sense economically. The fact that it has been such an uphill battle to get the LEED program to recognize the value of conserving buildings doesn't help, but I can't help but wonder where the line is for someone who "harvests" historic buildings, between seeing a building as a good restoration or adaptive reuse project, or a profitable salvage operation.

I have seen far too many historic timber-framed barns demolished (believe me, it’s anything but deconstruction) for the timber so it can be resawn into flooring or paneling or turned into furniture. Unfortunately, these are very marketable products because of the "ancient" wood and the "greenness" of recycling, but I can tell you for certain that some of our most wonderful and reusable barns have been lost to the sawmill. And the truth is, the mansion the wood became flooring for will most likely be "scraped" long before that barn would have become unusable.

So, I really do think we need to realize that a very real part of the problem of saving our historic buildings is the fact that we can't see the forest for the trees. When the harvest of the redwoods began, it was commonly said that you could never cut them all. I wonder if part of our problem is we aren't close enough to running out of historic buildings yet. Maybe when the crane shows up to harvest the last barn in Ohio, someone will stand up and say, "You can't do that! It's an important part of our history!" Then again, maybe not.