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15yearsagoBy Stephanie Rose

‘Here in America, our idea of history goes back only so far,’ wrote Stephanie Rose to open her May 2004 Natural Companions column.  ‘We don’t have the “ancient” structures that still set the tone and architectural vocabulary the way they do in Europe, Asia and other places.

‘For those who prefer modern or contemporary styles, this lack of history may be irrelevant.  For those who feel an affinity to older styles, however, there’s a tendency to cringe every time an older house is torn down to make way for something new.’  She continued:

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‘I’m lucky at the moment to be working on a project that epitomizes the desire to preserve what little we have left in Los Angeles by way of homes that were built here in the early part of the 20th Century.  It’s a Spanish Colonial home, one with a character that emanates from its setting, the architecture and the older-growth plantings that surround it.’

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‘In entering the process, we recognized, of course, that “preservation” and “restoration” are terms open to broad interpretation.  It’s also a fact that architectural styles are subject to wide variation and that there’s nowhere to go to find strict guidelines that define them.  We were stepping into a realm where everyone can have a different opinion, and that’s generally not unusual turf for a designer.’

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‘Case in point is a project I worked on about ten years ago [in an area that] had been designated a Historic Preservation Zone, which means mostly that a group of people oversee architectural modifications within the specified neighborhood.’

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‘Before I came onto the job, the homeowners had painted the house a deep terra cotta color with the trim a forest green.  Most of the houses in the area were in light, pastel tones, so the neighbors, outraged by the color choice, contacted the Historic Preservation Board to make their feelings known.’

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‘The house had already been painted and wasn’t going to change, so the neighbors’ retaliation came in the form of a demand that the entire landscape plan be approved by the Historic Preservation Board.  I attended meetings with the homeowners during which we were asked to justify each plant we intended to include in the landscape along with every last detail of the hardscape we intended to install.’

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‘I’m all in favor of voluntary preservation and, in some cases, of the idea of specifying a particular architecture style that must be adhered to within a community, my thought being that nobody can make you live there if you don’t like the style.  In this case, however, I felt that the homeowners and I were being put through the wringer simply as a form of un-neighborly retaliation.’

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‘As a member of a community of professionals who are paid to improve and enhance the appearance of everything we touch regardless of those extremes, I see it as our responsibility to find ways of restoring and preserving the settings in which we work in ways that make sense and that don’t intentionally serve to disturb or provoke.  We’re working in areas of taste, opinion and perception that can make diplomacy difficult and compromise distasteful, but I’m suggesting on some level that all of us have a responsibility to negotiate our ways to reasonable outcomes.’  

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‘Landscaping can be the most striking visual asset in any setting, or it can play a supporting role that enhances and supports the architecture.  When it comes to preserving history,’ Stephanie concluded, ‘it’s best to research the subject thoroughly and, in reasonable ways, keep history working with you rather than against you.’

The preservationist attitude Stephanie discussed in her column may seem unusual in Los Angeles, where there’s not much that’s old enough to be considered historic.  But what about other parts of the country?  Are conversations about these issues confrontational where you work, or is it something taken in stride?  Please share your experiences by commenting below!

 

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine.  She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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