“Saving the Good Stuff”: that’s the slogan of Preservation Austin, a nonprofit that works with the city to preserve Austin’s unique architectural heritage—and the cultural heritage embodied within historic buildings and neighborhoods.
Through various programs and initiatives, the organization works to establish historic districts throughout the city, help property owners designate and preserve their historic buildings, and educate the public about preservation and the historic experiences the city has to offer.
Holding onto the past might seem like a recipe for stagnation, but it turns out the past can be an important resource for both the present and future. We spoke with Kate Singleton, Executive Director of Preservation Austin, about how historic preservation benefits the Austin community.
Why Preserve Historic Buildings? What Does Preservation Do for Austin?
Singleton: Historic preservation is really about the ideas of history, culture, placemaking and authenticity. When people travel, they don’t go for the things they can see anywhere. The big draw is the historic fabric of the place. It is the same when people are looking for a place to move—they want cities that are vibrant, authentic and interesting.
“People don’t go to San Antonio to go to the mall.”
If Austin is like every other place and isn’t authentic about what it has to offer, then why would you want to live here, visit here or do business here?
What’s Unique About Austin’s Architectural Heritage?
Singleton: In terms of architectural styles, we have a little bit of everything in Austin. We have everything from high-style Victorians down to cottages that the people who built those high-style mansions lived in—the ones who actually laid our streets or cut the blocks for the state capital.
“Austin is kind of like an architectural history textbook that you can drive around in.”
We have examples of how our most prominent citizens lived, things like the Neill Cochran house or the homes in the Bremond Block. Then we also have the more modest neighborhoods like Travis Heights with its wonderful bungalow houses, or the post-war Ranch-style houses in neighborhoods like Holy Cross on the East Side or Allendale to the north.
There are wonderful historic neighborhoods dotted all around. Some of them are big and grand, and some of them are more modest, but collectively they tell the story of the growth and development of Austin, and they really are an incredible asset for the city.
Does Historic Preservation Benefit Austin in Other Ways?
Singleton: Historic preservation is very sustainable as opposed to some new construction. We’ve found here in Central Texas that, because many of our historic homes were built before air conditioning, they were built in ways that would help regulate the temperature. They are naturally energy-efficient through their design, as well as materials.
More importantly, a historic building has what we call “embodied energy.” In other words, when you tear it down, you waste all the energy that already went into constructing it, on top of wasting all the materials and the energy it took to produce them. And of course, you’re using energy to tear it down and to haul it all to the landfill.
Even if you replace it with a modern green building, you’ve kind of negated some of that because you’ve just hauled off all this embodied energy, and materials such as old growth wood.
“Historic neighborhoods are walkable; you can bike them. Today, people find them to be the best neighborhoods because of that—and seek them out.”
Preservation Austin has been working to preserve Austin’s unique character since 1953. Today, one of their most important initiatives is supporting and encouraging the establishment of Local Historic Districts. Preservation Austin provides educational resources and grant money to neighborhoods that wish to become locally designated as historic districts.
Not only will this program help to protect irreplaceable examples Austin’s heritage, it will give neighborhoods the tools to save their neighborhood’s character and ensure new development is compatible with the historic fabric already in place.
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