Facilities Management (Managing Assets)

Historicity

OK, I admit it. It was not always in my psyche to appreciate the “historicity” of the buildings on “my” campus. I confess that I may have been the leader of a pack of cynics who renamed our State Historical Office the “State Hysterical Office.” I was not always appropriately sensitive to demands that we pay attention to historical features and details in, around and under our campus.

My rationale was that in our part of the country, “old” generally meant that something had been around for fewer than 150 years. An item, referred to by some as an “artifact,” might have been transported across the Great Plains as the pioneers replaced local Native American societies with transformed versions of European cultures. I had difficulty accepting that “pioneer” stuff as being sufficiently historical to be preserved in perpetuity. Of course, anything that survived the Eurasian invasion deserves much more sensitive consideration.

A Personal Perspective

Let me explain. Where I was raised, “old” referred to structures or items that were at least 400 or 500 years old, sometimes up to 2,000. The city where I was raised, even though it had suffered deliberate destruction by the Nazis in 1940, had residential structures that were up to 400 years old. I know — my grandparents lived in one of them. This past month, my wife and I were fortunate enough to travel through middle Europe, from Munich to Budapest, enjoying numerous cities, villages and boroughs along the way. That’s where I learned to appreciate “old,” “historical” and “artifacts” worthy of preservation. Surprisingly, that is also where I learned to develop an appreciation for preserving what we have.

I am still not a fan of preserving the androgynous buildings that we low-cost, design-bid-built in the 1960s and ’70s. The only place in history cheap concrete and bad glazing deserve is in pictures published in textbooks that describe what not to do. I can also understand that certain buildings and edifices that are historically and unresolvedly painful may not deserve preservation. The Hotel Regina in Milan comes to mind, where Gestapo thugs tortured countless individuals. Records indicate that it was torn down shortly after WWII, post-defeat of the fascists/Nazis. And yet, I can also understand why the citizens in Budapest would want to retain buildings along the Danube that, with evident damage from artillery, serve as reminders of the battles between the Nazis and the Soviets that took place there in 1945 as part of the “liberation” of Hungary.

What We Have Here

I’m not suggesting that all our campuses have buildings with the same degree of historical significance. Fortunately, we haven’t had to suffer the type of history experienced in Budapest, or Milan or countless other areas — throughout the world — even today.

Historical significance may be a matter of perspective and culture. We can take 10 individuals off the street and gather their opinions regarding the historical value of any older building on our campuses, and get a mixture of feedback that would confuse the most fanatical of “historicians.” That is not an excuse or reason to simply raze anything that is old, and possibly run-down or ignored.

FM staff appear to be inclined to accelerate the decline and demise of old buildings that may be challenging to sustain. I can think of various occasions, in my previous career, where I watched that very situation evolve. There was the “Old Gym,” built somewhere around the mid 1920s, that was rather unique in its architectural presentation, very reminiscent of the era. Even as a student, taking swimming classes in this building when it was only some 35 years old, I recognized that it was not receiving the essential attention it deserved. This was the era when new buildings popped up on many campuses with rapid increases in enrollment (1962+). It continued to deteriorate exponentially until the decision makers determined that it would cost too much to fix it. Besides, it was argued, the land on which it sat could more appropriately be used for another (science research) program. It was ultimately razed with little fanfare, even as older members of the community mourned its demise. And so it went with other structures.

My position now is that every campus should compile an inventory of its buildings, recognizing those buildings with an element of historical value. Yes, a recent facility condition index is valuable, but its consideration should come in concert with other qualities inherent in each building’s existence. True, often it is costlier to restore, update and repurpose a building than it is to build a new one. Perhaps that is the price we need to pay so that future stakeholders can appreciate the historical value of our campuses.

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Pete van der Have is a retired facilities management professional and is currently teaching university-level FM classes as well as doing independent consulting. He can be reached at petevanderhave@msn.com.

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