History In The Making

"This place...it has significant age, all right. But it has no signs of visible history. Hmmm, what is a designer to do?"

What do you do when the history is a mystery?

That has been an ongoing design discussion we've had over the past several months. The fortune (and misfortune, to some degree) has been mine in taking on the design challenge of a project that just so happens to be on a historic site.

Initially, the program called for the removal of a dilapidated perimeter chain-link fence, placement of masonry columns at the property corners, and erection of a tubular steel fence--the new fence having the same alignment as the old.

Simple enough.

Ba-Da-Boom...here's my fee...let's get started...Ba-Da-Bing!

My client figured this project was merely an amenity replacement. Their program priorities were long-term maintenance economics of a new fence of quality, and legitimate site security concerns.

After an initial scope review, cursory site visit, and conversation with the client, I agreed with their program and priorities.

Once we started, I quickly learned what was a seemingly simple fence replacement project was now evolving into something more complex than anyone foresaw.

For you see, lo and behold, a state historical marker was found standing amongst the low-branching trees and in the center of the site. One almost had to know it was there if the concise history story emblazoned upon the marker was to be read (dang those cursory site visits anyhow).

"Mr. Client, now knowing this site has a historical designation, we need to submit our fence plans for historical commission review and approval. I have a few concerns. I have already spoken with the state historical office and they have no jurisdiction with what we are proposing. They have deferred the approval process to the local government."

So off we go to the local government's planning department. The planners act as the designated City Council liaison to the local historical commission. And knowing our routine process would have us in front of the city planners anyhow, our pre-submittal conference with the staff had an added agenda element now seeking approval.

We convened. Staff was OK with our plans and suggested we move forward with our submission as presented.

Everyone thought this approval was simply a formality. After all, our design complied with all jurisdictional ordinances, and a clearly written staff report stated as much.

Little did we know our project, in itself, was history in the making.

The governing historical commission received the submission and, without prejudice, formally rejected our project at a public meeting. After everyone in the room but the commissioners shook off that unexpected punch to the nose, we asked for a clarification of their decision, as well as their guidance for an acceptable design concession or modification.

"It's just not historic enough" was their collective response. The commission reasoned that the proposed perimeter fence looked too commercial for use at a century-old site.

"With all due respect, Commissioners, there is practically nothing at this site to draw specific historical inspiration from. No monuments, no relics, no significant features, nothing within several city blocks that is of any notable public interest, only a 30-year-old perimeter chain-link fence, with barbed wire on top in some places, in an obvious state of disrepair. And the written history of the site is essentially non-existent. People just know this place to be old. What do you suggest we propose in order to achieve something 'historic enough'?"

The commission suggested we investigate what other communities around the area have done with similar projects.

And then the meeting adjourned. Perhaps my ill-timed response of "that would bring their history to town, not yours" had something to do with its abrupt adjournment; I'm not sure.

Much has happened politically since that first meeting with the commission. We have followed a deliberate, methodical process of community and resource inclusion over the last several months.

As we now incorporate into the project new elements and ideas gleaned from public input--of which some may be argued foreign in detail and origin to the local history--second thoughts of our design process come to mind.

So once again I leave you with questions to ponder and answers to give:

How is history defined?

Just because a project site is "old," does that make it truly historic?

If history is present in whatever form, should it always be acknowledged in a new or re-development project?

Do we as landscape architects have an ethical responsibility to purposefully, and perhaps falsely, create historic significance with "projects of age" where records of historic elements no longer exist--or, for that matter, never existed?

Having once been a declared history major in school, this project's education has me spinning, thinking, and reflecting on those (and other) questions from different perspectives.

But for the time being, I put that debate aside. It is this weekend that has me picking up a new best friend. Yup, we are getting a new puppy. And, I might add, he is a puppy of historic breed and lineage.

His youthful demeanor will certainly be embraced and approved by our very own established household commission of three (me, wife, and family dog of the same historic breed). I trust your weekend plans will have historic significance of some degree as well.

Tim May is a professional landscape architect and LEED AP for TNP in Forth Worth, Texas. He can be reached via email at tmay@tnpinc.com or by twitter at @TMay82

Bryan BuchkoComment