Insidious Impacts of Standard #9

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The new entrance pavilion at the Brooklyn Museum I find appalling. Though it opened in 2004, time has not diminished my dismay at the way the museum’s trustees mangled the magnificent 1897 McKim Mead & White building that was entrusted to their care.

Now, architect Steve Semes has made clear precisely why this unfortunate architectural addition – and thousands others like it – should dismay everyone who loves historic architecture. Semes’s recent lecture at the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America (ICA&CA) documented how aggressive adversarial additions like this are the conscious result of official U.S. preservation policy. Specifically, the misguided policy is embedded in Standard #9 of the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. Radical interpretation of Standard #9 has resulted not only in the unfortunate Brooklyn Museum addition, but also in countless similar aesthetic disasters across the U.S.

Steve Semes's eye-opening lecture was based on his new book, The Future of the Past. In the book, he shows how Modernist ideology became embedded in (of all places) the Secretary’s Rehabilitation Standards. Contrary to centuries of building practice, Standard #9 calls for additions to historic buildings to be “clearly differentiated” from the original structure. Although Standard #9 does not specify precisely how this clear differentiation should be made (theoretically, a dated cornerstone should suffice), examples of “recommended” practice published by the National Park Service (NPS) shows a preference for Modernist additions.

The Secretary’s Standards have become de facto preservation policy across the U.S., used by most design review boards and preservation commissions. And because the NPS guidelines have an implicit bias toward Modernist additions, we now confront the irony of preservationists acting in ways that destroy the historic essence and visual harmony of landmark places. Modernist-inclined architects already have a strong compulsion to impose their own “creative stamp” on historic buildings. But to have their character-destroying impulses validated by official preservation policy is the ultimate absurdity.

Steve Semes’s book shows in exquisite detail how the Secretary’s Standards have gotten government policy badly off track when it comes to additions and infill construction in older neighborhoods. So if your city or town has an aesthetic abomination like the addition to the Brooklyn Museum, you can thank Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, and his staff.