Op-Ed: A ‘Culture of Preciousness’ Undermines Historic Preservation

A focus on historic materials could foster inequity and obscure the important social and historical meanings of a structure.

2 minute read

January 11, 2024, 8:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Close-up of historic building with green facade and curved windows in San Francisco, California.

Rafael Ben-Ari / Adobe Stock

In an op-ed in Next City, Bonnie McDonald reevaluates the concept of historic preservation, arguing that “using “integrity,” as defined in regulation, as a gatekeeper to designation and incentives puts too much weight on the materiality of significance.”

McDonald writes, “Our regulations are designed to protect historic material rather than prioritize the needs of people living in and using these places today. We don’t expect people to live and work in museum-like settings, so why mandate that places arrive relatively untouched in order to receive protection?”

For McDonald, “Our field originated to preserve history, heritage, and architecture and has evolved to preserve culture, lifeways, identity, memory and story through place.” McDonald points out that even in a 1966 document, ‘material culture’ was not the focus of historic preservation. “Material changes that happen over time are a part of the story. The presence of changes that reflect a building’s evolution should not prevent its historic designation; in fact, they enrich the building’s story.”

McDonald also points out that “The culture of preciousness also perpetuates a lack of inclusion and equity in preservation,” noting that strict integrity standards can act as a discriminatory barrier for lower-income homeowners. “For property owners that are under-resourced, local designation should be accompanied by more flexible replacement guidelines, free or affordable financing for maintenance and improvements, and accessible information about the permitting process and other resources.”

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