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.

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