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Historic Preservation – why do it?

We recently restored the original, painted signage over Stockton Lofts. Why?


In a modern, fast-paced world that values technology and caters to our desire for convenience and comfort, what’s the point of historic preservation? Out with the old and in with the new, right? Happiness lies ahead not behind, right? The case for preserving vital historical places so that we understand our heritage and shared history – that case is not difficult to make. But why preserve an old factory, a mill (like Stockton Lofts), a brewery, a row of storefronts, or cobblestone streets? What’s the point of repurposing while preserving those structures, given all the cost and hassle?


During the Great Depression, the US Congress passed the Historic Sites Act of 1935 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historic_Sites_Act), which authorized the National Park Service to organize and preserve various federally owned parks, monuments and historic sites. By the 1930s national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite had been successfully managed by the National Park Service for many years, so it seems the Congress deemed that agency best placed to undertake this task. The NPS mandate was expanded in 1966 when Congress enacted the National Historic Preservation Act (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Historic_Preservation_Act) which accelerated the process of identifying homes, buildings and places that should be preserved and labeled as National Historic Landmarks. What happened next? People visited, these structures became a source of local pride, nearby real estate values increased.


In the 1950s, Richmond, VA, was experiencing the same post-war economic boom as much of the country. Perhaps sensing the public’s desire of all-out progress and sensing something vital could be lost, the non-profit Historic Richmond Foundation (https://historicrichmond.com/what-we-do/our-mission/) was established in 1956, the same year that the City of Richmond established the Commission of Architectural Review (https://www.rva.gov/planning-development-review/commission-architectural-review), which continues today to monitor, regulate and authorize the City’s historic preservation developments. Since that time neighborhoods such as Shockoe Bottom, The Fan, Church Hill, and Jackson Ward have been revitalized, blending modernity with historic preservation. And these neighborhoods have become preferred places to live, with rising home values that benefit the City and owners.


Nowadays, the objective of historic preservation is to keep properties and places of historic and cultural value actively used, permitting appropriate improvements to sustain their viability while maintaining the character-defining features which contribute to their significance as cultural resources. It’s largely accepted that historic preservation areas within cities are often preferred gathering places and that historic buildings often define a neighborhood.

PlaceEconomics.com published a seminal work in 2020 that makes the broad economic case in support of historic preservation (https://www.placeeconomics.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/City-Studies-WP-Online-Doc.pdf), citing job growth, tourism, environmental impact, property values and affordability, among other factors. And one of the surprises: historic neighborhoods are preferred living places for millennials and young people, including as home buyers.


Developers, owners and managers of historic preservation buildings seek to provide the best of both worlds: functionality, comfort and modern amenities alongside historic features authentically maintained. The National Trust for Historic Preservation (https://savingplaces.org/stories/10-basic-principals-for-rehabbing-the-right-way) offers ten “basic principles” for rehabilitating historic buildings. The first on their list is “make every effort to use the building for its original purpose.” For Stockton Lofts and many Richmond buildings, that’s not practical; an antiquated textile mill or rail depot in a residential neighborhood is noneconomic and unwanted. But other principles such as preserving distinctive original features and facades and protecting examples of skilled craft work are core to the concept.



Stockton Lofts is exactly what historic preservation is meant to be: repurposed and authentically presented loft living in an historic building with modern amenities in a comfortable setting. That’s why we restored the original signage.


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