I was looking at the construction documents for a county courthouse restoration project last week and was absolutely appalled at what the construction team was intending to do to this landmark property. Here is a building that was originally constructed in 1876 and is one of the most significant functioning courthouses in the State of Missouri. One would think that the restoration of such a building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places would respect the integrity of the design and the existing materials. Instead, the request for proposals was asking for the original wood double hung windows that span 14 feet tall to be replaced.
These monumental windows are the signature of the building. They are without a doubt a defining characteristic of the architecture. The architect for this project specified a complete replacement with a fixed aluminum system with small operable awnings. The replacement will look like a flat storefront system instead of a double hung window. How does this happen? How does a significant piece of architecture that is listed on the Register get butchered like this?
These magnificent double hung windows are being replaced with aluminum storefront on this historic 1876 courthouse in Missouri.. I am not a bleeding heart, tree hugging, fanatic who feels that every building must be saved and that nobody should make design changes to current architecture. I like to think of myself as a pragmatist who is capable of rationally evaluating the social and economic impacts of various preservation strategies. I am also sensitive to changes in design that might be required for repurposing a building. But there is a problem when compromises are made to significant architecture that defines a community. Although we are supposed to have checks and balances to prevent this from happening such as the National Park Service and the State Historic Preservation Officers, projects still fall between the cracks. So how does this happen? I think the following factors can contribute to what I would call an architectural felony.
1. Underfunded Budget
An underfunded budget is often responsible for compromises in the architectural details of a preservation project. It can initially be much less expensive to replace a historic wood window with a cheap vinyl unit than to restore the original. The low budget helps people ignore the fact that they are replacing a 100-year-old window with a window that has a life expectancy of 20 years. I am constantly amazed at how lack of funds can inspire irrational behavior.