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Historic preservation

Project Updates, Sept 2017

Project Updates, M. Gerwing Architects

As the summer comes to a close, we have a number of great project under construction in Boulder.

West Arapahoe existing house.JPG

We are well under way with the tricky excavation below a 100-year old house on West Arapahoe.  We will be placing the old brick house on a new concrete foundation and then constructing a new addition to the recently Landmarked property.


South Boulder renovation.JPG

Framing is just starting on two projects in South Boulder.  Above, a new second-story addition and two tower-like smaller additions are going to be added to a classic, 1960s ranch house, maintaining its mid-century form and subtle brick coursing.

Also in early framing is this house, below, alongside Martin Park in South Boulder.  A large, traditional gable-front addition will more than double the size of the existing house and compliment its prominent corner location.


Martin Acres renovation and addition.JPG

Finally, our carefully crafted large addition on Vassar Drive is coming to a close.  The rails and stairs are being installed and final painting and details are being executed in anticipation of our client's move-in.  This project has been a great collaboration between ourselves and the clients and we are really looking forward to seeing the house occupied and used as we have been dreaming of and working toward for many months.


Preservation of the Recent Past, by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

Why do we preserve buildings? Why do we care about mute constructions, often old and unused, occasionally in the way or overlooked? We have all walked through great neighborhoods and parts of cities with magnificent old buildings and very few of us would show no concern at all if these places were simply ground down under the wheels of progress.  That doesn't mean we save every shack or old shed, but rather we recognize some value in mere continued existence of some portions of our collective past.  What is valuable about these old buildings is not necessarily what they look like or how they function, but what they are.  The preservation of some older buildings reminds us of what we are by holding on to some portion of who we have been.

Lloyd Wright_Scott Jarson

Lloyd Wright_Scott Jarson

All well enough said, but when the desire to preserve runs head long into private property rights, what is to be done?  And when the object of preservation is a building not very old, maybe not even as "old" as any one of us, then how do we view the cause for preservation.

Most folks don't readily appreciate the architecture of the recent past.  It seems a bit naive and slightly embarrassing, like looking at yourself in old high school yearbooks.  Any building that we can remember when it was new can not possibly be of a value akin to the great Architecture of past ages. And yet so many of us can lament the loss of truly great buildings, like Penn Station, that most of an earlier generation held in similar contempt that we place so many buildings constructed in the 1950's and 60's.

cyclorama2_Wikipedia Commons

cyclorama2_Wikipedia Commons

The buildings shown here aren't some obscure shacks threatened with demolition.  These are significant works by some of the greatest architects of a generation ago - Bertrand Goldberg, Richard Neutra, and Frank Lloyd Wright.  You might not like these buildings, but that is not the point. For God's sake, most communities in the US have fashioned a minor economic industry centered on tourism to Wright houses, not the financial benefits of their destruction.

Prentice_Landmarks Illinois

Prentice_Landmarks Illinois

It is disheartening to sit here in 2013, with over 50 years of preservation battles - successes and failures - behind us only to realize that years from now I will have to explain to my daughters why my generation tore down Neutra and Wright buildings.

The case to save Neutra's Cyclorama Building, Goldberg's Prentice Hospital and Wright's Lloyd Wright house can all be linked to here.

by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

Historic house conversion, Walnut Street, Boulder

2044 exist house 01

2044 exist house 01

The renovation of this historic Boulder house was part of a larger development project adding 8 additional units in five buildings on this large, sprawling near-downtown lot.

The existing 1890's house was converted into two separate condominium units, one upstairs, one downstairs, utilizing all the existing entries and windows to preserve the character of the structure.  Extensive structural reconstruction was executed after a complete analysis of the existing building was conducted.  The existing rubble stone foundation was repaired and replaced where required and a new internal roof structure was installed to stablize the large gable roofs of the house.  Front-facing existing windows were modified to meet new exiting requirements and maintain their historic materials and character.

2044 old windows

2044 old windows

The resulting building carefully preserves all of the character-defining aspects of the existing house while adapting it to the demands of the development project and 21st century living.  Our extensive knowledge, experience and familiarity with the City of Boulder's Landmark's designation regulations and demolition ordinance allowed us to design a project that both satisfies the desire for preservation and the need for renovation.

preservation paradox

"If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future."Winston Churchill

The City of Boulder's Preservation Guidelines, like those of most municipalities, contains an interesting paradox that is the bane of many a project.  All new construction in historic districts is required to meet two seemingly mutually exclusive thresholds - they are to be compatible with the historical structures of the neighborhood and yet be distinct and clearly architecture "of its own time".  As a member of our local Landmarks Board, I am often in the position of describing this paradox to frustrated architects and owners.  Most often I try to posit this as a spectrum, with complete, accurate mimcry at one end and violent, contrasting opposition at the other.  I think one of the most difficult jobs of the Landmarks Board is to try to find out where along that spectrum any given project should dispose itself within its context and the owner's desires.



The basic conundrum - distinct, yet compatible - exists in almost every significant preservation ordinance and guideline across the county.  It is an attempt to make sure that new construction does not so slavishly re-create historical styles and details that the new is no longer distinguishable from the old.  That kind of conflation, where the very new and the very old are identical, is thought to make  a mockery of the past, with the new imitating the old, reducing the old to merely a style.  It makes a district and the notion of preservation more about the preference for a specific look rather than a reverence for the past and respect for history.

There are a number of scenarios where this paradox plays itself out as confrontation, usually when an architect or owner is not aware of this funny conundrum and what it means to work along this spectrum.  Owners occasionally put forth designs that "look just like the old houses on the street", either because they want a guarantee that the building will fit in or because they moved to that old neighborhood and want to build a new house that respects that context.  In that case the staff and volunteers of the historic district or planning department have to coax the building away from exacting details and form and toward a possibly simplified, more contemporary reinterpretation of the architecture of the neighborhood.  This is often met with incredulity as owners are flumuxed by what seems like an arbitrary and contradictory regulation.

The other scenario which often arises is usually architect driven, with a proposed design that radically challenges the architecture of the neighborhood with a design that clearly  is "of its time" but not a very nice playmate along the street.  These projects are about standing out of the crowd and making extremely self-conscious decisions about the role of the individual versus the neighborhood.  In these cases, the local review board has to try to nudge the project back toward the historical imitation end of the spectrum by appealing for a design that will respect the scale, size, and massing of the other buildings in the block.

As both an architect and as a member of a preservation committee, I would strongly encourage every architect and building owner to carefully think about this spectrum and the meaning accrued by a building by that project's position on the spectrum.  So many of the conflicts that arise over historic districts and new construction come from the disputing parties impression of this spectrum and a loose association of meanings that are the inevitable baggage of this self-perception.

Preservation paradigm – less stick, more carrot

some thoughts on the City of Boulder's recently revealed historic building survey on Post-World War II residential developments and the possibility of creating a new paradigm for preservation in Boulder