Preserving Evidence

All around us exists evidence of the past. We are able to methodically piece together a comprehensive history of our buildings, our landscapes, and our culture by using this evidence. However, this can only be accomplished if there exists enough remaining evidence to do so. If our charge as preservationists continues to be to protect the evidence of our past, we will be able to interpret historic sites far into the future and to an extent beyond what our current technology allows today. As a result of preserving evidence, our historic sites will lend a greater importance to the study of our culture as time moves forward.

My Old Kentucky Home, or “Federal Hill,” was restored using evidence that remained intact from multiple generations of the Rowan family since its construction in the late 18th and early 19th century. Similar to rock strata that catalog the environmental changes of the earth over millions of years, My Old Kentucky Home possesses a similar layering of periods of history in the form of overlapping renovations, decorative applications, and through materials that are distinguishable both through their composition and by the method in which they were manipulated and manufactured.

The thin white line seen above that is embedded in between two layers of plastering is actually a cross-section of a layer of original wall paint.

The thin white line seen above that is embedded in between two layers of plastering is actually a cross-section of a layer of original wall paint.

When My Old Kentucky Home was first restored during the early 20th century, restorationists possessed a virtually undisturbed building, a blank slate, that consisted of a great deal of evidence from which to guide the restoration of the building. Restorationists eventually used this evidence to repair disintegrated moldings, crumbling details, and wall surfaces. They hired an artist to apply a woodgrain effect to the building’s doors based on woodgraining that was uncovered under layers of paint and returned much of the mansion’s woodworking to its original color.

However, under the best of intentions, restoration has the tendency to destroy evidence. Through the process of restoration and regular maintenance, preservationists and restorationists alike must remain vigilant in their duties to maintain historic sites as places that contain a living record of past events. In the earliest years of the restoration of My Old Kentucky Home restorations tended to be insensitive to the underlying layers of history. As the field of preservation has become increasingly scientific in recent decades, a more sensitive approach to the underlying historic fabric of the site has been achieved. This sensitive approach has allowed much of the original materials, paint layers and building components to remain in place. While there is a desire shared amongst many to have historic sites in the best cosmetic condition as possible, it is necessary to also consider that some components of such a site must be retained to better interpret a site’s history, despite the component’s cosmetic appearance or level of deterioration.

Preservationists must likewise protect the underlying evidence of our historic sites for future study as appreciable advancements in preservation technology become available. Recent advancements in analyzation equipment and computer programs for the study of historic buildings is likely greater now than any time in our history. However, the possibility of further improvements in preservation technology are a certainty and those advancements are likely to be far greater than the techniques and equipment that we possess today. As preservationists, we must always leave evidence for the possibility of progressive technologies that have the abilities to better explain materials, color and construction indications in superior detail.

Historic sites that provide and retain a greater amount of evidence possess information that is highly valuable to the study of our culture. The sites that choose to retain this evidence will remain the authoritative guardians of our history and provide a valuable public service as institutions of study and learning.