England is a country steeped in history. You can hardly walk a hundred feet without running into something that is older than the United States. In Europe, this is average. To a Nevadan (a state since 1864), this is fascinating. On my flight home I was sitting next to a young man from Stockholm, Sweden, who confessed that his parents had just bought a summer house that was three hundred years old.
And that was normal. Adaptive re-use of historic structures seems to be a burgeoning trend in the United States, where buildings are for the first time phasing out of their original uses. In Europe, adaptive re-use is not a preservation choice, it’s a lifestyle.
Reusing buildings that are already there is a given. They’ve served several different purposes since their construction; what’s adding another?
On my visit to Bradford-on-Avon, we ate at a tea house – the Bridge Tea Rooms – that has been standing (impressively) since 1675. The building had the appearance of being duct-taped together with pieces of metal. When we stepped inside we were offered space upstairs. I was not only impressed that the second floor could sustain a group of five, I was giddy at the thought of being in a building that was 336 years old. If there is anything that old on the West Coast of the United States, I can assure you it’s off-limits. You can’t touch it, and you certainly can’t use it.
The tea and scones at the Bridge were delicious, but I will always remember the building, itself. There is forever a debate in preservation, whether it is best to stop the historic clock to preserve its gears or keep it running… whether to let people walk on floors, touch things, use things. There is something to be said for continued use: these buildings were meant to be used, and it’s only through their use that you can fully appreciate them and the history they have witnessed. In a way these buildings have become windows, windows that let us leaf through the pages of history.
Author Susie Trexler is an ace intern at Adventures in Preservation.