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Culture of Reuse

Sadly some of the worst owners are the largest landowners and those who should know better.

By Barbara Campagna

As someone who has spent her entire career working on existing buildings, I can attest to the fact that many of my projects have been due to lack of maintenance or poor stewardship by owners. We all know how challenging it can be to keep up with our own homes so while I can be empathetic to a certain extent, we all need to take responsibility for our actions. 

I am thinking specifically of municipal governments, and I bring this up because in my own world, the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center in Minnesota, a historic Kirkbride-plan former asylum is threatened.

We Need To Become a Culture of Reuse

Do you remember when you started recycling your aluminum cans and plastic bottles? It would not occur to most people to NOT recycle their cans anymore, so why doesn't this mentality extend to buildings? Are they too big? Is it just too much to grasp? Is it because we as Americans have become used to a culture of disposal? Someone else will take care of it? Is it because we have so much space and land here compared to other industrialized nations like those in Europe, for example?

A recent trip to Europe continues to resonate as I ponder these issues and challenges. The oldest part ofSt. John's Hospital in Bruges, Belgium, dates from 1270. Subsequent buildings date from the 14th through the 17th centuries. Today the complex of at least 10 buildings houses a hospital museum, a historic dispensary museum, an art and community center, a Picasso gallery and a restaurant. It was actually a functioning hospital until 1976.

The complex occupies a large piece of land overlooking one of the main canals and is located opposite the Church of Our Lady, which contains one of the only Michelangelo sculptures outside of Italy. It could be location, location, location, but add to that the European ethic of reuse, and this hospital has found new uses that keep it more active than it has ever been.

What I particularly appreciated was that very little had changed. The citizens of Belgium seemed to find uses that fit well within the existing envelope and were able to use the various courtyard and garden spaces as entries to the new functions. It was a joyous place to visit and made me think that if you are respecting the original use and design in such a way that the new use is also fresh enough to keep it alive, then the place could last another 800 years. The durability of historic and traditional materials, plus the social and cultural sustainability of a dense historic city reminds us that "the greenest building is often the one that is already here," and it does not get much greener than this.

A permanent Picasso exhibit extends through several buildings and two floors. The hospital museum displays archaeology of an earlier building, stories about staff and patients and a wall of medical implements. The one criticism I would make is that while each of the new uses seems to fit well in its location, it is hard to get a sense of the overall historic plan of the hospital. We had been walking through it for a while before I realized we were there. Maybe it was just me, but I wanted to understand how the hospital had functioned and what historic space each new use was occupying.

If this is the worst or only criticism I have, that is something I can accept as long as this historic place has found a successful reuse and continues to contribute to its community as a place of culture and even an economic generator.

Who Says Preservation Has No Economic Value?

It is really interesting when American politicians claim that a building is too deteriorated to be repaired when it is often their lack of action that led to that deterioration. It's called "demolition by neglect." Several articles I have read about the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center in Minnesota quote local politicians as saying that the preservation of the place has no economic value. Study after study has shown that the value of economic development of existing buildings is often the creation of jobs, and the value of historic preservation is the creation of well-paying local jobs and the retention of place and memory.

I care about Fergus Falls because it is one of the truly terrific Kirkbride-plan hospitals remaining in America. As someone who has spent 30 years working on, and being concerned about, the Richardson-Olmsted Complex in Buffalo (probably the most spectacular of all the Kirkbrides), a threat to another one is a threat to them all. Nearly 70 Kirkbrides were built in the U.S. and fewer than half remain. Most are in a state of abandonment or deterioration.

Much of the Richardson-Olmsted Complex (almost 500,000 square feet) had been abandoned and deteriorating since 1974, but the community never gave up and the political and financial stars finally aligned in 2006 when New York's then-governor George Pataki allocated $100 million as seed money to stabilize and reuse it. While it is a very complex story, the construction on its rehabilitation into a hotel, conference center and architecture center began recently and soon our community will welcome a rehabilitated park and cultural center.

Are Americans so quick to abandon and demolish because we have so much? Do places like Bruges reuse and save without thinking about it because it is in their cultural DNA or because access to landfills is more difficult? If landfills charged more here, charged what the real cost of demolition is to our planet, no one would be so quick to suggest that it is easier and less expensive to demolish than reuse.

If Belgium can remake an 800-year-old European hospital, why can't we save one that is only 100 years old!? TB

Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C, has worked for the past 25 years as an architect, planner and historian – reinventing and restoring historic and existing buildings. Her numerous accomplishments include co-founder of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Sustainability Program and Chief Architect for the 29 historic sites operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2006-2011. Her new firm is BAC/A+P. Her firm, BAC/A+P, has offices in Washington, DC, Winston-Salem, NC, and Buffalo, NY.

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