What is all this fuss about preserving old houses?


Historic preservation: a beautiful and yet, touchy subject. I have nearly completed the Preservation Studies Master program at Tulane, and honestly, I am still in the process of understanding this vast topic. Stories compile upon stories and as more clarity springs forth, more questions are realized. One thing I have learned is that there is a balance in preserving built history, and cross culturally, it is more than just keeping old buildings around.

New Orleans was the second city in the United States to declare a historic district. Our vast collection of distinctive vernacular and academic architecture is unique to the entire world. Nowhere in the United States has a collection and collision of cultures been so well preserved.

Easy on the eyes to admire, owning these beauties can have its challenges; from flooding, to at times subjective regulations. I mean really, it’s just an old house, so why not just tear it down and build anew?   Because architectural preservation extends past the issue of preserving history.  It also addresses concerns about the environment and sustainable living. Consider one of the primary construction materials of these buildings: Cypress, old wood, as it was found in the colonial days and into the 19th century, can no longer be found. It will be hundreds of years before the Cypress being grown will reach the density and distinct character of the wood that was harvested before. Needless to say this limited resource is often found in many historic structures around the city.

One of the special attributes to Cypress is that it was grown in the wetlands and has a natural resilience to the local natural conditions such as insects and flooding. This wood is accustomed to yearly flooding and drying out. When buildings are constructed from this, they retain this character. The land New Orleans is built upon has experienced flooding before the city was built and many of these historic homes have experienced flooding before. They are meant to dry out with proper ventilation. Regardless, buildings even in the colonial daysmay havebeen destroyed from one factor or another, but the undamaged wood would be salvaged and renewed as in French tradition.

The understanding of the limited wood resources was accepted in colonial times.  Often old wood would be used to build new houses. Access to this old wood is not the same as it used to be, and consideration of these rare materials should be contemplated deeply. Reuse of the old wood in modern buildings could even be a practice further explored and expounded upon, rather than throwing the precious Cypress in the dumpsters.

Besides the conservation of material, sustainability of used energy is integrated into the bigger picture of a historic building as well. Energy, in one form or another, was used to create every brick and piece of wood in each of these houses.  The basic law of conservation of energy states, “energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed from one form to another.” Building a brand new sustainable house will takes years of use, before the energy used to construct it equals the energy being saved. Preservation and sustainable living must be viewed as one.

What is there left to consider then? If nothing else, see beyond the boarded up houses, the ones looking as if they are ready to be demolished any day. Look for the life still in them and support its rehabilitation. Let’s look forward a more sustainable tomorrow.

The city of New Orleans has an intense past.  But without our past, without this history; the culture in this city would not be the beloved culture it is today.  Beautiful things; from the delicious local food to the unique music that lives in and flows through this city, these traditions have been made known to us from those who have taken the time to hand them down. Architecture, much in the same cultural realm, has transmitted through time shaping the way we view the city today. Architectural conservation is just as important as jazz, Mardi Gras, and red beans and rice.  It is and should always be considered, a New Orleans tradition.

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