What Have We Lost?

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 Maybe we have also lost the ability to grow and prune extreme shrubbery, as shown in this early 20th-century photo.

Maybe we have also lost the ability to grow and prune extreme shrubbery, as shown in this early 20th-century photo.

One thing I have always had a problem with is some people’s attitudes toward stewardship. More often than not, owners of historic buildings find it perfectly reasonable to justify their plans for maintaining or restoring a property based on how long it might be useful to them. Even though the structure may have been built 200 years ago or more and served many generations prior to the new owner’s tenure, they have no problem making conservation decisions that effectively reduce or eliminate the possibility that the building will last another 200 years.

I think the problem may be as simple as ownership versus stewardship. Ownership doesn’t lead directly to stewardship any more than stewardship leads to ownership, but these positions lead to different results, depending on if and how they are carried out. The real problems seem to arise when ownership replaces the stewardship. We seem to have lost track of what the justifications are for good stewardship, replacing them with the economics of ownership.

Understanding how this unfortunate transition occurred is pretty simple. Working out what should be done about it is another matter. Getting here has a lot to do with the transition between living in a world made by hand and one that is manufactured. In a handmade world, some things like wagons, wheelbarrows and shovels were meant to last long enough to serve our needs and then be reprocessed into other things like crates or firewood. Other things, like houses, barns and public buildings, were meant to last for many generations.

In a manufactured world, things are made to serve a purpose and are then discarded. Even the houses, barns and public buildings we build today are only designed to last a few decades at most. We seem to have lost the understanding of building durability into what we make.

When was the last time you went to Wal-Mart to invest in something really well made? The truth is we expect the same from home builders and automobile manufacturers as we do from the manufacturers whose throw-away necessities crowd the aisles in the big-box stores. The world we live in has, for the most part, become like living in one giant big-box store. We have become accustomed to our manufactured world and have lost our memory of what the world was like when everything we saw or came in contact with was handmade.

Even the work we do and see our children doing has mostly to do with services or production and little if anything to do with craftsmanship and durability. This means we think differently than we used to. A 21st-century owner of a 19th-century building has no more ability to see it as the 19th-century builder or owner did than the 19th-century builder would have seeing the world we live in today.

That’s probably a good thing for the 19th-century builder, but it also points up the fact that we have lost the ability to see our historic built environment in the way it was intended to be. The need to be good stewards so future generations can benefit from our work or the work that came before us is not hard wired into our brain the way it once was.

An unfortunate side effect of this responsibility blindness (which I believe is a lot like my grandfather’s selective hearing loss) is the apparent loss of awareness of the resources available to owners of historic buildings, even though these resources have been dramatically improving during the last couple of decades. More highly skilled tradespeople are returning to hand work instead of office or factory work. More educational opportunities are available to those with an interest in learning to work with their hands, and more suppliers are sourcing and manufacturing the traditional tools and building materials that are needed to properly maintain and restore our built environment.

Even though much has improved and many more good resources are available, I still hear historic building owners using excuses like “You just can’t find people who know how to work on old buildings anymore,” or “They just don’t make quality building materials any more.”

I suppose if the only place you are looking is at Lowe's, then that’s true. So the question begs to be asked: Is the hand-built world and the skills needed to maintain it lost, or have we just lost the ability to see them? From my perspective it’s getting easier to see every day.