Historic Preservation’s Addition Dilemma

When it comes to new additions on old buildings, historic preservationists skew into two camps: (1) that the addition should look similar to the historic building, and (2) that the should addition look different. It is a continuum, of course, and many people may find they stand somewhere in the middle. Additions should be compatible with the historic building without pretending to be historic themselves and conveying a false history.

I came across this fun interpretation of this dilemma in Springfield and had to share. It draws the element of the column for the historic building but holds no pretenses: it is of a different era. The honesty of it, combined with the nod to history, is refreshing without being extreme (hello Royal Ontario Museum! And don’t forget Soldier Field, whose National Register status was promptly revoked following their controversial addition–I previously wrote about that here).

I was lucky enough to attend a talk recently by Mike Jackson, former Illinois State Historic Preservation Officer. It turns out he has a whole Pinterest board of examples (definitely worth a peruse) and, while many in the audience gasped in horror as he put examples on the screen, I found the artistry and creativity of some of the examples to be at once entertaining and inspiring. In my own town, maybe I would feel differently. But why not embrace creativity and artistry and not let yourself be hemmed in by history? In the end, if the historic building remains intact, it is a preservation success.

Where do you stand? Should additions match, look very different, or fall somewhere in the middle?


7 thoughts on “Historic Preservation’s Addition Dilemma

  1. Our gorgeous Central Library here in Indy has an enormous mirrored-glass addition grafted onto the back. I’m not a fan. My preference is for matching or at least sympathetic additions.

    But as it was, Central Library was inadequate to its task and something had to be done, and this was something to be sure. The only photo I have is from a distance; Central Library is at center, behind the monument, with its addition rising behind like the Death Star.

    Gazing across at Central Library


    1. What a picture! The Central Library addition definitely makes me cringe. Though adding any addition of that scale would be a huge challenge! I do think that scale should be considered in additions and they should not dwarf their predecessor. This quickly becomes a discussion of whether the addition makes it possible to continue the building’s use and is therefore a necessary step for preservation. Hopefully not, but some clearly think this way.


  2. Additions should match. There has never been an addition that is as aesthetically pleasing as or complementary to the original structure. The ones that people tend to hold up as being respectfully contextual, such as to the above Springfield Marine Bank, are simply less bad than contemporary, mirrored glass and metal carbuncles that are increasingly sprouting from the sides, back, roof, and, sometimes, front of historic buildings. In the case, again, of the Springfield Marine Bank, imagine additions off to the side, like now. But, instead of bare, Brutalist, concrete columns, imagine ones that match the original Beaux Arts ones, differentiated from the original by being Doric instead of Corinthian, perhaps stepped back by a couple of feet to indicate subservience to the original. Much better than what was built and much better than anything billed as “contextual.”

    The prevailing “wisdom” that additions should be willfully different than the original structure was only enshrined in practice with 1964’s Venice Charter, which subsequently infected the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, and has been widely criticized for its modernist ethos. It is simply another horrible architectural legacy of the 1960s that historic preservationists are still trying to deal with.


    1. Thank you for this great critique! I agree that a near (but not quite) match is generally the best option–Doric rather than Corinthian columns stepped back would a great way to create this. The Historic Preservation Commission in Oak Park often recommends a step back or a piece of vertical trim to demarcate additions.

      What an interesting thing that this “wisdom,” as you say, came around the same time that popular styles became so displaced from historical styles (Brutalism, Modernism). I wonder if our gradual shift away from Modernism (hello New Traditionalism) will make this less of an issue. However, I am ever cognizant of styles going out of favor and getting demolished only to be loved later (Second Empire). I am a leave-no-leaf-unturned, underestimate-no-building preservationist. I know some who would have a building demolished before moved or altered; I believe flexibility may be needed in some cases and preservation of anything is better than nothing (a whole other preservation debate topic!). Really, my liberal arts school education may be showing, I love the discussions and think the solution may often be case-specific.


  3. I lean towards differentiation. Modern design for an addition doesn’t bother me much but that’s a wide range too – there is good contemporary design. Compatibility to me comes from arrangement and patterns, and material – either simple or referential. We have a distinctive pink/purple Sioux quartzite in eastern SD and it’s used as a veneer in elements of additions to quartzite buildings sometimes – and frankly, in new construction lots of places, especially Sioux Falls where it’s become part of the city center aesthetic.

    To me, the scale and placement angle is key – not crowding the historic building, letting it read as the most significant part of the final composition. Recessing additions, shorter additions, breezeways…

    With the bank example, it seems like the historic bank gets a little lost and squeezed in the middle of the Modern columns. If I could redesign from scratch, I’d set the facades of the addition back a bit, and do engaged columns or pilasters instead…


    1. Thanks for your comments, they are very insightful! You make a great point about scale and placement, which may not have been done appropriately in the case of this bank. In Oak Park’s historic districts, additions must be on a secondary or tertiary facade, and it is really encouraged that they are on the rear if possible.


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