Beyond the Build

Construction Trends

Authenticity in Historic Restoration

For those of us interested in historic preservation/restoration, this week was tragic. Notre Dame is an integral part of the Parisian backdrop and a picture of craftsmanship that withstood hundreds of years, not to mention its significance to the Catholic church. On Monday, I watched with my jaw dropped as the flames rose.

Now, as things have settled a bit and the damage has been assessed, we are faced with an interesting dilemma: Can you ever truly rebuild and restore the cathedral?

We have been involved in several historic restorations, including a century-old theater, vintage hotels and a handful of adaptive reuse projects. While these are certainly not Notre Dame, each structure held great significance to the city where we worked, and a handful were partially funded with historic tax credits. We got a primer on what can be replaced and the original parts of the building that needed to remain intact.

We also learned the value people attach to “authenticity,” meaning that the original building materials be preserved. I think the general consensus is that it’s not a possibility in this situation. The cathedral can be rebuilt, but we’ll have to let go of some of our notions of what’s “authentic.”

In this context, I read about the Venice Charter to guide restoration, which says that new materials would be kept distinguishable from the original construction. I’ll be interested to see how things progress.

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Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.