Integrity as Process and Feature: Cultural Landscapes of Underrepresented Communities | Robert Z. Melnick, Andrea Roberts, and Julie McGilvray
For more than fifty years, determining the integrity of historic properties has been a fundamental concept in their documentation, analysis, and protection, and with good reason.4 How can a resource be protected when we do not know what it was in the past, what it is now, and how, or whether, it has changed over time? The integrity concept, driven by the structure and lens of the National Register of Historic Places, is generally defined as a relative measure of a place as it exists today in comparison to what it was during its recognized period of significance.5 Given that “period of significance” is itself a loaded and often misused delineation (not addressed directly in this article), after fifty years of use, it is clear that, in typical practice, integrity as a measure can be highly subjective, often failing to capture critical layers of historic properties that can, in turn, inform and expand concepts of place and placemaking. Integrity—as an idea, a filter, a screen, or a measure—needs to be reimagined. This is illustrated in the three communities in the case studies below, just as our society is broadly expanding its understanding and acceptance of cultural diversity and inclusion.
The National Register of Historic Places evaluates seven aspects of integrity: location, setting, design, workmanship, materials, feeling, and association. As typically practiced, integrity evaluations focus primarily on extant resources or features, having the effect of slicing through time, taking a snapshot of existing features as they appeared both in the period of significance and currently. In this understanding of integrity, value comes from age and perceived stability, whether or not the particular NRHP property has had minimal change in the elements tied to the property’s period of significance. This rigid understanding and application of the seven aspects of integrity centers historic preservation in America on buildings and structures, creating a static, almost impossible goal to arrest change in place for as long as possible. It has typically eschewed other cultural and environmental influences and areas of scholarship such as cultural anthropology, environmental history, landscape history, and sociopolitical disciplines. These fields point to a more dynamic flow of time in which change is a critical player and must be studied to fully understand the interrelationship of events, people, and design. In the built environment, this may be likened to what Habraken refers to as the “systemic continuity in design variation,” capturing time, evolution, and pattern.6 Habraken writes that a study of the environment should be viewed through a lens capturing what has been “shaped by acts of transformation, which in turn reveal what is constant,”7 or rather, to “explore the relationship of transformation and continuity of form.”8 Is it possible that we have gotten historic preservation and the analysis of integrity backwards?
Visit Project Muse for more articles in this issue.