Historic Buildings: Foundations of a Society

By Susie Trexler

There is a choreography to life that informs and affects our surroundings. Both man-made and natural environments are built and molded around our lifestyles. Landscapes reflect their use with the worn precision of grooves in an old road, which show decades–or even centuries–of traffic patterns. It’s like your favorite pairs of jeans: pair after pair they wear and fade in the same places. My mom always wears through one knee before the other. You don’t need to see her out in the garden or on a geology trip to know that she kneels with one knee on the ground and the other just above it; you just need to see her jeans.

Buildings are the same way. Design and patterns of use give us a fascinating glimpse at different lifestyles in different eras. In the decades before air-conditioning, American homes held the front porch in high favor: it was not only a cool place to rest in warm summer months, but it served as a buffer between the home and the outside, keeping the hottest and coldest weather beyond the front steps. In the 1950s when homes and lives became streamlined in the post-war craze for efficiency, designers cross-examined kitchen floor-plans with basic recipes and the kitchen was reformulated so it took the fewest number of steps to make a cake.

Preservation is not just saving old buildings for the future; it is a preservation of centuries of lifestyles, morals, values, and habits. Buildings can show us far more than the raw taste of their builders. They are shaped by generations and show us broad patterns as well as the habits of individuals. Essentially, buildings are not only literal building blocks, but figurative building blocks: they are important pieces of both our past and our present.

Window Glazing in Gloucester, VA

On May 22nd, happy to leave a week and a half of New England’s straight rain and gray, I hopped a plane to Virginia for my first AiP trip and my first historic preservation experience ever: a week-long window restoration project.

In Gloucester, I was welcomed not only by the warmth of the (relative) south but also the warmth of The Fairfield Foundation family and its willing volunteers. Our work started out with a bit of a bump: our window expert and project leader Phil Mark was unexpectedly unable to join us. We were left to our own devices, but we hopped the hurdle thanks to Thane and Dave’s keen memories, archaeologists’ elbow grease, and know-how.

Our mission for the week was window glazing at the Edge Hill Service Station. The service station, built on land owned by Virginia’s first African-American lawyer, was known as one of the nicest — ideal for resting and refueling one’s car as well as oneself.  Interestingly, while the men’s restroom was accessible from the building’s interior, the ladies’ restroom was accessible only from the exterior, sparing women the messy mechanics of the garage space.

This week, though, the ladies were spared none of the mess! Everyone worked on the three main windows, each with 15 panes of glass kept in place by decades-old putty and layers of paint. We tried our best to keep the original panes in tact, but often our need to be less than delicate with the gunk around the glass ended in shatters. Still, we were able to save 10 or 12 of the originals.

While our goal was to remove all of the panes, clean the windows and install new panes, the stubborn putty of the original windows did not yield to our wills (or our chisels!) as easily as we’d hoped. In the five days, we weren’t able to complete the installation of new panes. We did get a whole row of five done, though!

And that there’s installation left to be done just means that there is more opportunity for the community to get involved in the service station’s new life early on. As evidenced by the many visitors that stopped by between Monday and Friday – both expected and unexpected – the interest is definitely there. If you’re nearby Gloucester, keep tuned into The Fairfield Foundation (through their website or their facebook page) for opportunities to drop in and lend a hand!

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The Fairfield Foundation, whose focus is archaeology, chose the Edge Hill Service Station for its significance in terms of Gloucester’s history and its prominence on Gloucester’s present-day Main Street. The Foundation is repurposing the space for a myriad of uses — from storage for its archaeological finds to public education activities and events.

Learning to Treasure Trenton, NJ

by Diana Riker

Trenton, New Jersey used to be a center of industry, a manufacturing giant. Its beloved Lower Trenton Bridge provides a grim reminder of this past with its slogan, Trenton Makes – The World Takes. It used to be home to hundreds of factories, supplying goods to businesses all over the country and the world.  My grandmother lived in Trenton during this time.  She and all five of her siblings once worked in its factories, proudly making contributions to the city’s economy and to their family.  Sadly, now these factories are either gone or abandoned.

The Horsham Doll factory, where my great aunt used to work making clothing, is one of these abandoned skeletons of Trenton’s past.  I visited this factory in an attempt to reconnect with not only Trenton’s past but my family’s as well since they used to live across the street from this now dilapidated factory. What I saw was disheartening. The doors are locked and chained, and graffiti decorates the brick facade. Leafless trees grow beside it, threatening to smash the remaining intact windows.  Only its faded signs provide a reminder of what it once was.

However, there is hope for some of these old factory buildings.  Several groups are working to preserve some of them.  For instance, Trenton’s old cracker factory has been preserved and turned into loft apartments. The company that performed the renovations, HHG Development Associates, is a member of the US Green Building Council and a proud supporter of Preservation NJ. Part of their company’s mission statement is to “preserve and enhance the City’s urbanity through historic preservation and adaptive re-use.”

Presently HHG is turning its attention to the Roebling Steel buildings, which will also be preserved and turned into lofts, meeting historical restoration standards. The development project is targeting individuals working in New York City and Philadelphia who find the cost of living in those cities to be too expensive.  These buildings are close to transportation and will provide residents easy access to their places of employment.

Clint Zink, the historian who wrote the original redevelopment and preservation plan for the Roebling buildings in the 1980s, is very excited about the choice of HHG as developers of the project.  This is not only because of their experience, but because they actually live in the city unlike other developers. This move towards preservation gives the city hope that it will resurrect itself. And though it’s doubtful Trenton will ever return to its former state as a manufacturing giant, it is clear that they are working towards improving the city for the future.