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2016-06-14 - Matrera Castle Spain
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Architectural Restoration & the “Blank Space”

Ruth Osborne

What is a restorer to do when only a fragmented portion of a historic building, or work of art, remains?

2016-06-14 - Sebastiano del Piombo Adoration of the Shepherds Fitzwilliam Museum

Sebastiano del Piombo’s Adoration of the Shepherds, 1510, before & after restoration. Courtesy: Fitzwilliam Museum.

News reports this month have been lauding the 10-year long conservation on a terribly wrecked picture by 16th century Italian artist del Piombo at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. But what happens when the work is a building that is missing significant parts of its infrastructure?

Spain appears to be having a bit of an identity crisis on its hands when it comes to architectural preservation. First, a 1,000 year-old Moorish castle tower was “restored” with white walls beneath its stone walls. Then, in keeping with using modernist additions to treat a centuries-old structure, aluminum windows were installed by the owners of a 400 year-old tower in the town of Ombreiro in the northwestern region of Galicia. This also was done by the same architects who worked on the Moorish castle tower, Carlos Quevedo Rojas and the Carquero Architecture firm.

2016-06-14 - Matrera Castle Spain

Newly-restored Matrera Castle. Courtesy: Architzer.

One critic in particular has said of the project: “They’ve got builders in rather than restorers and, like we say round here, they’ve cocked it up.” But the finished project, it seems, has begun to be accepted by some, even going so far as to win the prestigious international architectural prize from Architzer A+ awards in the restoration category. According to the statement from the firm:

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Ombreiro Tower restoration May 2016. Courtesy: Altas España /The Local ES.

“It tries to approach the work in recognition of the ‘memory’ in its physical consistency and its dual polarity, aesthetic and historical, in order to transmit the future. Therefore, the proposal aims to avoid the aesthetic mimicry that involves falsification or loss of value of authenticity…”

2016-06-14 - Matrera Castle Spain restoration

Matrera Castle before and after restoration. Courtesy: Architzer.

What supporters of this modernist pastiche approach to architectural restoration have insisted is that the work of Quevedo is in keeping with recent trends. But how exactly is a “trend” an appropriate response to preserving the materiality of a structure from its own distinct moment in history? Do these blank modernist additions not appropriate it into the aesthetic preferences of those who restored it? Going back to the firm’s statement on the award-winning project, “the essence of the project is not intended to be, therefore, an image of the future, but rather a reflection of its own past…” How does one accomplish this with white Bauhaus-like right angles jutting out from the historic fabric?

2016-06-14 - Menokin Foundation website

Menokin website showing projected vision of restoration, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

Meanwhile, a small historic house museum in Virginia – the Menokin Museum – has recently become known for its vision to restore the shell of the 18th century home by replicating what’s missing with a glass covering. The Menokin, which retains 80% of its original structure, will feature a new glass roof that will reveal the inner workings of the building fabric and design. You can see by the drawings that, while this is indeed a modern building material, the intended effect will be to reveal a more detailed vision of the original 18th century building. According to one of the conservators and the Manager of Architectural Collections (also involved with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation): “If you were to reconstruct the house, you’d cover up some of the most interesting parts. With glass, we can actually see how an 18th century building comes together.”

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Cross Section of the Manokin plan, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

Does this differ from the approach of the restorations in Spain? Or will it have the same unfortunate impact?

2016-06-14 - Menokin interior restoration

View of interior restoration, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

2016-06-14 - Menokin Foundation dining room restoration

View of the Dining Room restoration, 2015. Courtesy: Menokin.

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany abandoned
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The Uncertain Future of Local History & Preservation.

Ruth Osborne

Last week, we saw a significant decision that will shape the future of architectural preservation and local history in New York City. And perhaps not for the better.

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GVSHP member at the City Planning Commission hearing last week. Courtesy: NY1 / GVSHP.

On Wednesday, the City Council held its final hearing on Mayor de Blasio’s “Zoning for Quality & Affordability” (ZQA) plan, which last week was approved (9-3-1) by the City Planning Commission. As of Wednesday Feb. 10th, the City Council had approved the ZQA, thus allowing more oversized developments throughout the city’s varied historic neighborhoods – neighborhoods that have seen tall buildings go up in recent years without the city requiring any affordable housing units. This is not just an issue in New York – debates over height restrictions and historic district preservation are also occurring over Chicago’s famed Michigan Avenue.

Our colleagues at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) have been tirelessly working to demonstrate that the ZQA will in fact not help either quality or affordability, but will surely have detrimental impact on the fifty years of progress made in preservation in the city’s neighborhoods, and in so doing will “[turn] back the clock on years of progress to protect community scale and character.” Their work, as demonstrated by this recent testimony, is not based on conjecture or opinion, but on data from City Council and site-specific studies as well as a thorough understanding of real housing needs. Interestingly enough, GVSHP also reports that: “Many [City] Councilmembers have expressed serious reservations about the plan, but as has been widely reported, the Mayor has been doing quite a bit of horse-trading to try to secure the votes necessary for passage.” What this plan could put into place is the lifting of height restrictions to allow for new development in residential neighborhoods throughout the city. The New York Landmarks Conservancy has also recently spoken out against the Mayor’s ZQA, saying that the City Planning Commission has “[ignored] community concerns” with their vote in favor:

We support the goals of increased affordable housing, but “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” (ZQA) amounts to a “bait and switch.” It doesn’t guarantee affordable housing but it does overturn local planning. It will toss aside agreements that communities have forged with the City over decades. “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” (MIH) will result in units that remain unaffordable for residents in many part of New York.

What this new development is reflective of, in addition to the renewed proposed landmarks legislation we are sure to hear about in months to come, is that efforts against preserving history and local character are only increasing. This is all happening despite the Landmarks Law having celebrated its 50th anniversary last year – something commemorated at many events in 2015. But commemorating Landmarks Law is not just about patting the city on the back for having done a good job at not tearing down places like Grand Central Terminal, the Empire State Building, etc. It should demand a response to the immediate seen and future unseen needs to continue conscientious development and historic preservation in the city. Or else, wouldn’t we just look like a bunch of hypocrites?

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany realty

Loopnet Realty ad showing the collapsed section of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany. Courtesy: Loopnet Realty.

Speaking of preserving local history, the capital city of Albany is in a bit of a mess over one of its historically and artistically significant houses of worship. The Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany, built in 1850 on a major thoroughfare for the local Episcopalian congregation, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978. It has also been on the list of Albany’s most endangered buildings for the past ten years. Now, it risks not only rapidly increasing structural damage as a result of its lack of upkeep and maintenance. There is also, as history demonstrates, the potential for the church to be ripped from its historic setting by a larger institution that boasts the finances to preserve it in a new location. This is just one example of the growing trend of local history reluctantly yielding to bigger conglomerate collections or wealthier cities that have the concentrated funds that smaller sites simply don’t have. We saw this with the Corcoran Gallery in 2014 and the Barnes Foundation in 2003.

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany interior

Interior of the Church of the Holy Innocents as it appeared in The Annals of Albany, Vol. X, 1870. Courtesy: Robarts / University of Toronto.

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany history

Church of the Holy Innocents in Albany, NY, late 19th century. Courtesy: Paula Lemire / Albany History Blogspot.

As our colleague, Albany historian John Wolcott, provides insight into its historic and artistic significance:

The Episcopal Church was designed in 1850 by architect Frank Willis. In 1866, a chapel was built by lumber baron William DeWitt as a memorial to his children. It was designed by architects William L. Woollett and Edward Ogden. The church (with adjoining chapel) features a small garden and the interior work of John Bolton in its stained glass windows; it is an example of the mid-nineteenth century early Gothic Revival style that so proliferated not only in New York City but throughout upstate New York and gives much of the state’s nineteenth century landscape its enduring character; to attempt to list the number of related structures in upstate New York’s history of Gothic Revival architecture would be overzealous, but suffice it to say that this structure holds much aesthetic and cultural significance for the members of the area.

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany collapsed

Collapsed part of the Church, captured by local news in Albany last May. Courtesy: WNYT.

The church is currently owned by Hope House Inc., a residential recovery program next door. As Hope House a non-profit organization not designed to care for a historic structure, it isn’t surprising that news report of its collapsed roof and corner arrived last May.  Once its immediate stabilization was accomplished, the Historic Albany organization has been monitoring the church’s maintenance. Our colleague in Albany has also written to “Partners for Sacred Places” on the importance of its preservation and maintenance as a historic landmark in Albany, and has been in contact with Historic Albany regarding the urgency of this work:

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany facade

Church of Holy Innocents as of May 2015. Courtesy: John Carl D’Annibale / Times Union.

This entire matter here has been something of an awful mess for years and became worse than ever of late in spite of constant spin doctoring, but please hang in with it.  If you have received a copy of the Realty ad [see above photo]; the main photograph shows a view looking from the nave toward the chancel.  Though not too clear here; the chancel arch is completely collapsed. This means that the lettering of a portion of the 23rd Psalm along the lower edge has also been destroyed. One of the most key spiritual artful and historic features of the church. However, in studying recent photos of the debris; it appears that with careful tedious, painstaking sorting the letters could be reassembled to either cement back together but probably to replicate on new stonework that would  faithfully replicate that which collapsed. 

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany abandoned

Interior of the abandoned church, c. 2015. Courtesy: Chuck Miller.
A fear we have currently is whether or not pieces of this beautiful church could be broken down and demolished. It has appeared so far in one realty ad, to be sold for all of $1,000.

A fear we have currently is whether or not pieces of this beautiful church could be broken down and demolished. It has appeared so far in one realty ad, to be sold for all of $1,000. Another option is, unfortunately, to remove the artistic structure and put it back together at another location or museum that boasts the funds to display salvaged architectural remains. Places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have certainly worked wonders in this respect. But if we take a step back from the nineteenth-century cast-iron staircase or bank facade that we’re looking up at in amazement, can we ask ourselves a more serious question?: How can this be beneficial to the stewardship of our local artistic heritage? To tear a historic structure from its original context and setting, which demonstrates its connection to the local community and the cultural and artistic development of an area that has lost many other buildings from this period? To place it in the hands of a museum that would likely have an over-abundance of other significant items from this period? Are we forgetting about the authenticity of place? Authenticity of place is exactly what was lost when Albany saw another of its unique nineteenth-century churches collapse (and subsequently be demolished) due to neglect. Trinity Church (1848) had been designed by renowned architect James Renwick, Jr. – the same who worked on Saint Patrick’s and the Smithsonian Castle.

2016-02-15 - Trinity Church Albany demolished

Trinity Church in Albany, which collapsed in 2011 and was subsequently demolished. Courtesy: (c) Chuck Miller / TimesUnion.

Its stained glass windows, however, were the only pieces salvaged, and which may or may not return to Albany.

Former Met director Philipe de Montebello himself has stated on the importance of authenticity in James Cuno’s Whose Muse?: Art Museums and the Public Trust:

For museums, this should derive from their collections and comprise an absolute commitment to authenticity and to the museum’s authority, which should never be compromised […] It goes without saying that probity should be expected of the museum […] But probity should be found deeper still embedded in our mission, in our thoughts, and in our intellectual approach. For starters and quite simply , since what we promise is authenticity, that is what the public expects to find within our walls. So there must never be any question of a reproduction, a simulacrum, taking the place of a work of art […]

2016-02-15 - Church of Holy Innocents Albany 1918

Church of the Holy Innocents, 1918. Courtesy: Coll. Mrs. Weldon J. Vail / Albany Group Archive.

How can we presume to celebrate the authentic and original while at the same time stealing it from its authenticity of place or destroying historic context with disjointed developments? The case for historic preservation presented at Albany’s Church of the Innocents is an example of the fight to retain an important piece of local history in its setting. What makes something historically, artistically, or culturally significant to the point of necessitating its preservation for future generations? Or even to simply retain a visual reminder of a past moment in that region’s history? The character of a historic environment, a historic architectural setting, or a historic neighborhood in New York City is important – it is unique, it tells the story of a community or a people or an artist that makes up a larger culture and society. Those who don’t care to deal with the financial and legal burden of caring for local history and neighborhood character simply attempt to gloss over its importance.

While saving architectural remains from what would otherwise be lost to time is sometimes the only option, ArtWatch would like to ask readers what this means for the future of preserving our local history and cultural heritage? What does this mean for neighborhoods in New York that will in 10 years be unrecognizable after historic structures have been torn down, local merchants removed, and all our architectural history is relegated to sit in fragments against the clean walls of a large gallery? These once were real and thriving buildings and streets, and if we consider ourselves at all connected with their history, there should be conscientious development into the future.

Should all our heritage end up at huge institutions that leave the works disjointed from their original environment? Nevertheless, this what is happening with collections management as well as funding for the arts and history – larger institutions that get the grants and the big donors are financially equipped to subsume smaller collections, which leaves less diversity in museums and less physical presence for local historic collections. 

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Tower Troubles: Damaging Effect of Modern Efforts to Stabilize Tower of Pisa

Can we bring our most treasured art objects and buildings back to their original glory by modern restorations? In Italy, which has by some estimates forty percent of the world’s masterpieces, there has been a concerted campaign to do just over the past twenty years. As the Jubilee Year approaches, the urgency to clean every facade, all the public statuary, the fountains, and the paintings and sculptures in the great state collocations seems unbounded. The Tower of Pisa, one of the Seven Wonders, is the object of international attention and it offers an excellent place to obtain insight into the ongoing massive restoration operation. The tower started to lean even before it was finished and it has been leaning for almost 900 years. Since the early 19th century efforts have been made to stop the leaning process, perhaps as a result of confidence in modern technology. Following these interventions, however, an acceleration of the degree of pendency, much more than the previous 300 years, which only totaled about 5 millimeters, in effect no movement at all, has been measured. Still the leaning amounts to 1 or sometimes 2 millimeters a year. An imminent emergency does not seem to be the case, unless the recent interventions have provoked new dangers. Actually the collapse of Venice’s massive Campanile on July 14, 1902 (since rebuilt), which is sometimes used as a precedent for intervention in Pisa, was caused by the restorers of Sansovino’s Loggetta at its base, when they cut reinforment walls that had been added to support the tower in the mid-18th century after damage from lightning.

In fact, there is reason to believe that the efforts to correct what had been a fairly stable situation following the initial period of settlement on the sandy and muddy terrain back in the twelfth century, caused and continues to cause new instability. The latest efforts include the use of lead weights to counter the leaning. The placement at the base on the side opposite the leaning of nearly 1000 metric tons of lead at first appeared to have achieved the desired effect and a correction was registered. Then in a single day, known locally as Black Saturday on the night of 8-9 September 1995, most of the gain obtained in more than a year’s work (about an inch of correction) was almost entirely lost in a single day to the terror of all concerned, and work was stopped. What happened? One explanation is that the technical committee and its director discovered that in the 1930s certain work with cement and metal pipes had been undertaken, the existence of which they were unaware. This unexpected situation resulted in problems that had been be resolved. But more recently it has been admitted that the spectacular plan to freeze the ground using liquid nitrogen seemed to have, literally, backfired, in a lunar scene with orange gasses surrounding the tower. Keystone cops come to mind.

This is hardly the occasion to argue complex technical issues, nor am I equipped to do so. What is remarkable about the entire situation surrounding the tower and the plans that have been announced recently (NY Times, January 7 ed. confirm date), is the total absence of a forum for discussion before action is taken. This unwillingness or inability to debate the health of our treasures, I suggests, characterizes most major restorations in Italy. If the nitrogen idea has been discussed openly and experts from outside the immediate group were invited to participate, the experiment would never have been undertaken in the first place.

Italian history since the Tower was begun back in 1173 has been characterized by the operation of clans, extended families, factions, and I suggestion that in the world of Italian restoration we have similar impenetrable, self-contained cliques. Criticism is not permitted. Worse still, there are no effective evaluations and controls of the work undertaken, the Committee that runs the multimillion dollar operation at the Tower of Pisa is totally independent. In fact, while in almost every other area of society, from films, theater, music, art, there is a tradition of criticism, with restoration no such habit exists and when it crops up, it is not tolerated. If it were, many would express consternation that there is now a project to fill in the centuries-old cracks in the massive walls of the tower (4 meters wide) with concrete. At the same time the use of concrete is known to have caused damage to the Perugia Fountain a half century ago, and its removal is being undertaken, in a laborious and expensive restoration. Keystone Cops? And even before there is anything like an assurance that the Tower will survive its caretakers, plans and funds are being ready for a proper cleaning of the marble exterior. Keystone Cops?

In an analogous situation, it is now widely accepted that the worst damage to the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi last fall was the result of a restoration of the roof a generation ago, when the original timber supports were replaced by concrete ones. The concrete is heavier and more rigid, and while the seven hundred year old roof resisted previous quakes, the technologically modern one gave way. During the repairs now going on, water poured out from a hose in a work station over an entire week-end, actually dampened Giotto’s frescoes that had escaped the earthquake. Everyone knows that water is a greatest enemy of frescoes. Keystone Cops?

Around the same time, another medieval building, the Arena Chapel in Padua which contains Giotto’s mature work, underwent a substitution of their original timbers, but in this case metal beams were used. Giotto’s frescoes were not damaged during an earthquake in 1976 which was felt in Padua. But they are being damaged by humidity and the officials in charge seem quite unwilling to confront the question of the water in the crypt of the Chapel, which has been registered in recent years as being as much as 7 feet deep. Rather they plan to filter the dust and the moisture from tourists in a “scientific entrance way” constructed for the purpose. Keystone Cops?

The larger issue seems clear enough, and rest upon a simple assumption: works of art of the importance of the Basilica of San Francesco and its decorations, the Arena Chapel with Giotto’s frescoes, the Tower of Pisa, belong to the entire world. Decisions over their health, life and death decisions, should be undertaken with the greatest transparency and ample discussion, where all alternatives are considered before any course of action is taken. As with normal medical practice, second and third opinions should be solicited. No single entity or committee should have absolute control and be the absolute judge of their own activity but should be directed and should be responsible to a larger set of controls. We need a system of checks and balances to assure the most reliable results. Only in this way can we be guaranteed that these rare productions of mankind are not treated as if participants in an opera buffa.