Were Early Tradespeople Better Tradespeople?

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Recently, in a forum discussion in the Historic Restoration and Preservation Group on LinkedIn, the subject of replacing “in kind” versus using modern materials was being discussed. Imagine that! As a response within the discussion, I suggested that it was important to realize that "in kind" should also be understood to include "by skilled tradespeople." In fact, it might mean complete replacement of an object that is no longer suitable for continued use and is beyond repair – in effect, creating a new object that will, of its own merit, become historic.

One of the contributors, a tradesperson, suggested that this idea was not plausible because work done by a modern tradesperson lacks the "soul, character and artistry" of the historic work. I have heard this idea voiced before, but it strikes me as an odd notion, because if it is true, it means that tradespeople of today somehow lack the ability to learn to do their work as well as those who came before them. In effect, people today are innately different and lacking something that once was part of human nature. We have evolved to be less than we were.

I will admit that it is often difficult to source the knowledge needed to do a particular trade well, and I have often heard it said the we have somehow lost that knowledge over the centuries; but I question how that is possibly true. It often appears we have unlearned skills we once had.

Here's a good example. I asked the phone company to add a new line in the office I had set up in my early 20th-century "rubber boom" house in Akron, OH. When the installer started running the new wire (for some of the younger people reading this, phones used to be connected to wires), he started to staple it to the siding below my office window.

When I asked the installer why he was doing this, he informed me that that's how it was done. To this day, I don't know if his look was surprised or confused when I took him downstairs and showed him the older phone lines disappearing through the floorboards into the wall cavities of my balloon-framed house. I'm sure he didn't believe that houses could be built of balloons, but he did learn to fish a wire that day. To me, it was a good example of the phone company replacing the need to teach its installers how to do a concealed installation by simply lowering the standards the work was done to.

To some degree, I think that is part of the problem tradespeople face every day; the standards to which we are expected to work have been lowered in many ways. Clients who ask us to do our work as close to how it was originally done are few and far between. More often, their assumption is "that quality of work is too expensive" or "I realize we don't do things that way anymore, so just make it work." We don’t even have an opportunity to let them know that we not only do know how that work was done, but if it is done that way, it will have a higher value and longer usefulness before again requiring maintenance.

From my perspective, today's tradespeople have both opportunities and choices to make, choices about how to approach those opportunities. There is no requirement that says a tradesperson has to do conservation work, any more than there is a requirement that a person doing hands-on conservation work has to be a tradesperson, but I can definitely see the value in the latter. One of the instances where we often see a line crossed and a lack of soul expressed is when companies without qualifications decide to wade into conservation work, often enabled by architectural "detailing" in construction documents. And as I pointed out in a previous blog, bidding on conservation projects is done in more or less the same way as it is for new construction.

I remember talking with Carl Elefante, who taught us that the greenest building is the one already built, at the APT conference in Denver a few years back. A renowned architect, Carl came up to speak with me after a presentation I had done and said, "Have you ever wondered why early construction documents had so few pages in a set?" He went on to point out that earlier architects believed they didn't have to tell tradespeople how to do their jobs. In today's conservation environment, tradespeople are all too often asked to make a decision between confronting the architect on what best practice is or just doing the work "as shown." How much soul can you imbue in something that, if you had the choice, you would have done differently?

I think confusion between the artistry of the work done by the old masters and the modern ones, whether they be considered artists or tradespeople, is a matter of perspective. How art and architecture are created has continued to evolve since their inception. There are periods in which they blossomed, and when they languished. When the environment was ripe, artist and tradesperson alike saw an opportunity to create great works, many of which are now part of our cultural heritage, but does it have to be old to have soul or character or express artistry? Me thinks not.

It’s difficult to look at the great works of the past without a sense of reverence for the people who created them, but doesn't that really mean that our reverence is for the person? When we look at great work, it has more perceived value when we have a sense, or even irrefutable knowledge, of who created it. The same should be said of what will be seen as great works that may not yet be a notion in someone’s imagination. Tradespeople today will be the creators of those great works, just as those in the past were. Whether or not they mimic the works of the old masters is irrelevant.

The decision to downgrade work being done today, or not, is our own choice. If we choose to do high-quality and creative work, then it should, by its very nature, have soul, character and artistry. The fact that it is new cannot diminish that. Great work stands on its own merit and will be the historical masterpieces within the cultural heritage of tomorrow.