Western Progress: Can we move forward while protecting the past?

Early illustration of concepts for adaptive reuse at the Durango Discovery Museum. (courtesy FeeneyArchitect)

Solar PV panels on a historic barn. (photo courtesy of Andrews and Anderson Architects)

How do small, historic towns throughout the West incorporate the latest techniques and technologies for improving infrastructure without losing their authentic flavor?  When the economy in these towns is based on tourism instead of mining, agriculture or industry, then the historic attractions of the town are guarded with fervor.  The passion involved with protecting these historic resources is appropriate because too many beautiful buildings and public spaces have been demolished in the name of progress.  Should we allow a governing board to tell an owner of a historic building that they can’t install solar panels because they disrupt the aesthetic of the original roofline?  Is the physical history created 100 years ago more important than the history we are creating today?  Is it more important to preserve a building or streetscape the way it was originally created or preserve our natural resources for future generations?

An example of character and history lost. The new La Plata County Courthouse (left) stands next to the original before it was demolished in 1963 because it was “outdated.” (photo courtesy Animas Museum)

Historic preservation and sustainability are compatible and must coexist for the vitality of these small towns.  We must preserve our past because there are so many lessons to learn.  There is beauty that cannot be recreated.  We must also be open to innovation and experimentation that adapts and reuses physical structures, making them usable for people now and maintaining them for future generations.

We are in the middle of writing our own history and these decisions will have an impact on the sustainability of the character, economy and ecology of these towns.

There are some excellent examples of this balance being realized:

The Silverton School, built in 1911, is being renovated with a goal of LEED Gold. On the right side of the photo you can see the outline of the original entry on Snowden St. which is being restored.

Silverton School Renovation.  A historic structure built with modern technology of its time is revamped 100 years later with a goal of LEED Gold certification.  This rugged town’s school has an energetic and creative group of  teachers and administrators that have incorporated a cutting edge curriculum called Expeditionary Learning.  Soon they will have a school building that will inspire new ideas, preserves their history and promotes sustainability.

Durango Discovery Museum.  Built in 1892, it was the first power plant to use AC power when it was deemed experimental and dangerous back East.  Now it is the oldest surviving AC steam powerhouse in the world.  The community wanted to maintain the innovative spirit of the place so  it is being transformed into a museum of science and energy.

Early illustration of concepts for adaptive reuse at the Durango Discovery Museum. (courtesy FeeneyArchitect)

The goal is for the entire campus to be Net Zero energy use.

*For more on this topic, see previous article: Old School meets New School.  A nationally renowned renovation of a historic school into a community treasure.  A project that realizes all aspects of sustainability.

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