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Sensitivity in Historic Preservation

There was a time in our past when one could walk down any street and be surrounded by harmonious buildings.

Jonathan Hale, The Old Way of Seeing, 1994

Rotted window sill on the Nederland Mining Museum, Nederland, Colorado

Sensitive is an adjective that get's used a lot in the world of historic preservation. When I first started out doing historic preservation carpentry I would ask those carpenters who used the adjective what its definition was to them. I heard "just take care of the building", "don't make it look new, keep it crooked", and "use the proper techniques". Pretty vague definitions. Then I saw these "experts" work on old buildings, most were as "sensitive" as a bull is in a china shop. I didn't see carpenters at work on these jobs, I saw hacks from a construction site using 16d coated sinkers instead of beautifully tapered square nails; the use of pneumatic trim guns on historic trim; and many times structural features were changed because, and I quote, "they should have done it this way, their way was wrong". This from people who were working for a national agency that is charged with preserving historic structures and buildings.

I learned to keep my head down and go about my work, there was no point in trying to talk about the philosophical aspects of historic preservation with these guys, all they wanted was a paycheck. In my spare time I read (and still read!) books written before the turn of the 20th century on building construction and trim work; found notes from talks with my father and uncles about how they did framing and trim work in the 1940's and 1950's; sharpened my handsaws, axes and adzes; and kept my eyes open when I worked in old buildings for construction details and tool marks.

Newspaper from May 13, 1902, found on the back side of exterior siding board, at the cabin at Rocky Mountain Mammoth Mine, Magnolia Mining District, Colorado

The American English Dictionary defines sensitive as "quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences" and sensitivity as "the quality or condition of being sensitive". I take this to mean that a person can "read" or "be in tune with" another living being. Think about it, you can be sensitive to your wife, your kids, your horse, your dog. Sure you can be "sensitive" to how an old house reacts to changes in weather, a creak here, a crack there, but that first definition really applies only to living, animate beings. Look it up and read the other definitions of sensitive, they don't apply to preservation work on a building or structure.

We should use the words tactful, careful, thoughtful, subtle, sympathetic, compassionate, understanding, intuitive, responsive and insightful when it comes to historic preservation. If we do work by those words, then before you start work on an old building you should have a knowledge of the history of American architecture; a vast knowledge of historic framing techniques, the use of hand tools and current acceptable historic preservation practices. You should know how and where that building and those who built it and lived in it fit into the history of the community.

And, most importantly, what makes a good historic preservation carpenter is that that person takes pride in what they do and how they do it. You have got to take pride in the work you do, that should be more important than the paycheck you take home at the end of the month.

Let us banish the word "sensitive" from historic preservation and instead use "understanding, sympathetic, compassionate and insightful". I know if we all practice and use those four words we can save more than our heritage, we can help the world and everyone in it.


  1. Great post Wilson. I like your account of the galoots you worked with. It reminds me of the dividing line between the power-tool only guys I've run into at big woodworking shows (actually some custom woodworkers in my area as well)and those who feel that the world of objects made from wood is an endlessly expansive one.


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