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What constitutes “appropriate new design” in an historic district?

September 10, 2009

Williams presentation at MPC Aug 09On August 27 I made a presentation to the new members of the Savannah Historic District Board of Review, the entity that evaluates the appropriateness of new construction in downtown Savannah (and thereby grants or denies approval of any new construction).  I was asked by staff members of the Metropolitan Planning Commission to make a presentation about historic architectural styles.  An interesting question was raised when I showed examples of houses from about 1800, small structures that I characterized as “late Colonial vernacular,” meaning essentially colonial in size (though not technically colonial according to their construction date) and with elements of classical design but not made with the precision or proportions of an architect-designed work.  One board member asked about the widely spaced dentils on one house in particular (see photo), the spacing likely due to the essentially vernacular character of the house.  “Would you approve of new construction having a similar detail?” I was asked.  It gave me pause for thought and I immediately realized it was not an easy question to answer.  greene_bldg719_542estate_dphc2003swIt ultimately begs the question posed as the title of this post, what constitutes “appropriate new design” for an historic district like Savannah’s?  It would be contrary to the nature of vernacular building traditions to design such a dentil moulding in a stylistically self-conscious manner.  Yet, if such cornices were typical of Savannah for that period, should new construction emulate it in the name of “compatibility”?  This situation is further complicated by the fact that the dentils on the cornice and their smaller companions on the porch may be a later addition, dating to when the house was raised and a brick lower story and porch were added, probably during the late 19th century.  Should presentday designers consciously imitate the complexity of buildings that are the result of several generations of modifications?

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