Honoring Legacies of Preservation Giants
Historic preservation and post-World War II architecture have changed rapidly in recent decades. Still, certain things remain the same: the ideals we hold today often stem from those designers and practitioners who came before us. In 2018 the field of historic preservation and post-war architecture lost three people whose ideas shaped the way we conceptualize the built environment. As our world continues to change, it becomes imperative to reflect on the people who’ve shaped our industry.
Robert Venturi was an architect heralded for his rejection of Modernism in the postwar era. Venturi was very much a product of the times. His brilliant design and writings both defined and were defined by the period he found himself in. Few other architects have shaped the discipline’s discourse as much as Venturi. His work ushered in the movement known as Postmodernism, in which traditional elements are used in unexpected ways to enrich contemporary forms.
As a push against clean geometric forms favored by “serious” 20th century Modernist architects, Venturi wrote “Complexity and Contradictions in Architecture” in 1966. In this seminal piece, he argues that “less is not more”, and that, in fact, historical allusions, ornamentation, and humor were vital elements in architecture. Venturi’s stance rested on the idea that architecture should be about inclusion, rather than exclusion. His goal was to awaken architects from “prim dreams of pure order” which he saw as a misrepresentation of the ambiguity of modern life.
William J. Murtagh
William J. Murtagh was hailed as one of the “pied pipers” of the American historic preservation movement. Murtagh, a champion of historic preservation for more than five decades, is credited with singlehandedly giving preservation in America a history.
Murtagh strove to reverse what he called the visual trashing of America. He viewed preservation as a way to rail against what he saw as visual and cultural pollution, which was, he thought, just as harmful as environmental pollution.
In the face of urban renewal and rampant development, Murtagh led the charge to require consideration of places worth saving. Murtagh promoted the importance of a bottom-up preservation approach driven by local interests and priorities. His leadership and scholarship informed the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which gave rise to the National Register of Historic Places (National Register). The National Register remains our official list of historic sites and districts worthy of preservation today. Murtagh became the first official keeper of the National Register in 1967 and continued to lead the preservation movement for the remainder of his life.
Eric N. DeLony
Eric N. DeLony was known as a pioneer in historic bridge documentation, preservation, and advocacy. After finishing his masters in historic preservation at Columbia University, DeLony was hired as the Historic American Engineering Survey’s (HAER’s) first full-time employee in 1971. HAER is the official federal record of historic sites and structures related to engineering and industry. By 1987, DeLony was promoted to Chief of HAER, a position he held through 2003.
DeLony was also longtime member of the Society for Industrial Archeology (SIA), where he organized the SIA Historic Bridge Symposium in the 1980s. The Symposium offers experts a medium through which to share their knowledge and experiences in historic preservation. The SIA subsequently renamed its grant fund in Delony’s honor, in recognition of his contributions to the field of Industrial Archeology.
The importance of remembering those who came before us cannot be overstated. Our history is our collective memory. This sort of preservation of the person mirrors the preservation of the buildings and bridges they sought to protect. Retaining structures and ideas from our past fosters a sense of unity and community—and ultimately informs how we move forward.
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