Goose Bumps for Sale!

Posted by on Jun 12, 2014 in Current Projects, Journal

Marketing our preservation work has always been a challenge. The stereotypical template for promoting architectural services is ill-fitted for historic buildings.

How can we communicate the intrinsic value of preserving historic buildings?

Most people are unable to articulate why they love old buildings and gravitate to them. That’s the core of the problem. The ‘why’ is rooted in their memories as an intangible tie to a physical experience there was never words for. What compels most of us is the unspoken connection to our tactile surroundings.

Recently an ancient metal fan, still in working condition, showed up at our house. It was found among the belongings of our grandmother who passed. What an odd contraption; the blades are so exposed, is it even safe?! But then… it was plugged in. The fan’s motor hummed to life, continuing its mid-rotation as the decades in storage vanished in a heartbeat, blowing papers in every direction. All five of us bustled around taking turns in front of it, each enjoying the breeze. Finally, after my third or fourth turn, I leaned in close and sung out a long buzzing “ahhhhhhhhhh,” the sound vibrating between the blades. That’s when our family’s romance with the fan began. Now that the novelty has worn, we quietly look forward to our personal breeze as the whirring announces it will be our turn again soon as the fan oscillates around the room. The odd thing is I don’t really remember fans; taken for granted they never made much of an impression, but when I sung to it the moment was so familiar.

Historic buildings are like that. While undergoing restoration, we often work while the mechanical systems are off and all the windows are open. The building’s design for natural ventilation takes over and the breeze rushes through. We interact with each other differently. While talking we’ll shift towards the wind to keep our hair out of our eyes, hold our drawings a little tighter or pick up an object to use to help them stay flat. When it’s cold we’ll turn up our collars, and when we’re deep in the Texas heat we’ll adjust our construction hats as if resecuring their place, but really we’re letting the air run up the back of our necks to cool our heads; catch it just right and it will give you a chill. Nobody thinks about “power poses” or worries what body language is being communicated, instead there is an indistinct physical busyness in the way we move and interact. Good manners are naturally infused with the activities; heavy doors are held open because no one assumes a modern closer will catch them, and if you step aside out of a strong wind you’re also stepping out of the flow of traffic – all these subtle interactions with each other without ever talking about it.

A photograph cannot communicate the pulse of life that each historic building alone uniquely contributes to those who use it. The same kids, excited about the old fan above, recently attended the rededication of the Colorado County Courthouse. Their conversation afterwards is now just a memory: “Did you notice how all those people sang the National Anthem, like they really meant it? I could feel it vibrating my seat!”

And her little brother replied: “Yeah, I know! It gave me goose bumps!”