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a love for history

Preservation industry cultivates
a love for history

Some 20 years ago while searching for a house to call home, Peter Trieb and his wife found a two- story, timber-framed house that was built in the late 18th century in Lima. It is called a federal house, says Trieb, because it was built during a period after the Revolutionary War when towns in Western New York were sprouting out of the ground. Characteristic of the federal style is a chimney that sits in the center of the house, which used to serve as a family’s central heating system.
The Triebs wanted to improve the structure, but also wanted to preserve its historic features. Trieb looked for professional help but could not find anyone who specialized in rehabilitating older homes. And because “necessity is the mother of invention,” Trieb started contracting his own handiwork for older homes.
For eight years now, the Peter Belden Trieb Preservation Consultant firm has been giving advice on how to preserve things of the past.
“There’s just something about period architecture,” says Trieb, who likens his passion for older homes to falling in love. “It’s like looking at a shopping mall as opposed to the Powers Building.”
With a wide client list of home owners, churches and museums in and out of New York, Trieb says he is plenty busy. Trieb’s success is reflective of the growing interest and industry in preserving older buildings.
Steve Jordan, author of “Rehab Rochester,” says the concern of preserving history has a past of its own. The national centennial in 1876 marked a turning point in the history of American architecture, says Jordan. Having just recovered from the hodgepodge era of Victorian architecture– a revival of many previous styles–there was an initiative to reintroduce the colonial style of design on which America was founded.
In the 20th century, the styles of buildings–homes in particular–have followed the rapid changes in lifestyle. The blocks of instant subdivisions created in the 1950s and 1960s, experts say, created undecorative styles: houses with flat roofs and fewer rooms.
But once again, the trend has moved back away from the new. Jordan says he has seen a stronger interest in older homes in the past 30 years–not only because of consumer and architectural trends, but also because of economics. Because of the recession 10 years ago, a lot of contractors could not count on building new homes, Jordan says. Consequently, more attention was given to improving on the old in the form of additions and rehabilitation.
When people have more money to spend on homes, they are more willing to make improvements, says Jordan. But a strong economy also can have harmful effects on the rehabilitation industry. Concurrent with booming economies is the imperative for new development. “I don’t have any doubt that there is a good future in restoration. But there will always be pressure for development, which is anti-preservation.”
How old does an old home have to be? Most people guess maybe 100 years, says Cynthia Howk, architectural research coordinator at the Landmark Society of Western New York Inc. But actually a structure is considered historic if it is 50 years or older, says Howk, quoting the definition set by the National Parks Service.
The Landmark Society, an independent, private non-profit group, provides educational services and resources to preserve historic landmarks. The society, which serves nine counties, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
There is a big difference among the terms used in preservation, says Howk.
“Restoration” is used when work is being done to restore a building to exactly the way it was in a specific time period. That usually involves structures like churches and museums, such as the George Eastman House, Howk says.
When the owner of an older building wants to improve its structure to accommodate modern facilities such as heating and electricity, but strives to keep the building’s original design and materials, that is “rehabilitation,” she says.
Sympathetic rehabilitation, however, is not the same as remodeling. In fact it is the exact opposite. Even if you leave the exterior of the house intact, but change its floor plan, change the plaster and replace the house’s original materials, that is not rehabilitation, says Howk. It is “remuddling.”
“The value of a house is both its human history, as well as its physical materials, (the) windows, plaster and wood,” she says.
Working with good-quality materials is the reason architect John Bero chooses to bring older buildings back to life. “That durability attracts me,” says Bero, referring to materials such as copper and slate.
“Modern buildings are built for a 20- year (life span). Older buildings (are) pretty durable.”
Bero, owner of Bero Associates, Architects, is another self-educated fine craftsman. He says there were no colleges that offered programs in preservation when he was in school in the late ’60s. The National Trust for Historic Preservation now publishes a yearly guide to undergraduate and postgraduate programs. But Bero does not think that the programs geared to architects adequately deal with the technical aspects of preservation, which are constantly changing.
For example, he says, some of the mortar used in the past has been found to be harmful to stones. New mortars now are being developed that are more compatible.
Because conservation technology is changing all the time, “there is more to it than the average person in the industry knows or understands,” Bero says. “Most (architects) consider an older building to renovate a blank canvas on which to express their ideas.”
His approach is to “try to discover the original building rather than make it a modern building.”
For example, says Bero, many times people will lower ceilings in older buildings with taller windows. But the reason the windows were designed that way in the first place, he says, was to allow more daylight to come in. Putting in a “gazillion” lights does not end up saving money, he adds.
Preservation experts say there also are several issues that make their work more difficult. They feel that recent concerns about the level of lead and asbestos, for instance, have been overblown. “The reaction to their toxicity is extreme,” Bero says. “Just because it is there it doesn’t mean that (in all cases) it is a hazard.”
Jordan agrees, adding that sometimes people advocating for these issues and others that affect preservation–such as the Americans with Disabilities Act–are not willing to compromise or take into consideration the value of preserving a structure. It is not that preservationists are not sensitive to these issues, he says, “but somehow we’ve got to come to grips and find ways to work (together).”
As for the future of rehabilitation, many experts believe that individual home owners’ interest will continue to grow. On the other hand, some believe that because there is less public money for developers–such as the historic tax credits that were more readily available during the bicentennial–preservation will become less popular.
But people who devote their time to re-storing things of quality, age and substance do not question the value of their work, says Trieb. These kinds of people have “a desire to protect it.”
Others, however, do not value the work so deeply, he says: “A passion–that’s what is lacking.”


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