Spirit of Place: Creation versus Preservation

As an American who briefly lived in Europe, I confront a continuing creative existential dilemma. Where there is no room for both, how do we create the new without destroying the old? How does time edit what is of value? What is worth preserving?

I deal with this continuing life-theme again in my search for genealogical origins. Earliest family records travel back 500 years to Allendorf an der Lahn, a village that is today part of Giessen, Hesse. Descended from three of the founding families after the Thirty Years War, I am cousin to 80% of the people who live in the old town today, and 50% of those in the new town, according to and including mayor Tom Euler.

Tom sent me photographs and information on the landmark historic homes of today. He patiently answers my many questions about how the population has handled the evolution of change since my immigrant ancestors left. (I share with him the fate of his cousins who came to the Midwest.)

This architectural study takes me back to my haunting question of preservation. On the one hand, I admire that Allendorf preserves its old town. Rather than following the development pattern of constructing new buildings on top of the old, Allendorf grew by creating a new development next to the old one. Yet, many of the homes in the old town are adapted to contemporary life: timber beams plastered over, shutters and gates removed. As cars replace horses, the old courtyards are now parking spaces.

I live in a vintage house that looks little like its original self. Each era of my 125 year old home has left its mark. People don’t live in museums; spaces must work for lifestyle the residents’ needs. Perhaps we can preserve some charm and scale of the originals while we can evolve at the same time. I notice in Allendorf, the new buildings echo the architecture of their neighboring antiques. The new gazes back while the old pushes forward, and it seems from over the ocean’s viewpoint, that Allendorf has achieved a balance (albeit at the price of farm land).

Yet at the same time, the trend of plastering over the old half-timber beams and removing vintage gates changes the essential character of the old town. Perhaps this is done for maintenance, or for better insulation, but it fundamentally alters the look and feel of the architectural charm and integrity of the original, for what reason? It is one thing to add bathrooms, skylights, and update kitchens. But the exterior is the most visible, and the least affecting of lifestyle. If plastering is done for insulation, that can be accommodated from the inside. If for maintenance, there are modern materials and finishes that can be used for durability. Needless to say, old buildings do require upkeep! If the gates are torn down for the convenience of cars, there are other ways to accommodate both. It seems to me that if someone chooses to live in a vintage house, a responsibility to preserve its historical value comes with it.

Consider this home at Obergasse 7 that today is plastered over. I have unmasked what is under the plaster and how it must have looked when built through research. (Last year, I did the same to my own house, as it is so transformed from its original design.) Just as an old gate gives way to a driveway, the wrapped front porch and large window onto the street are gone. Each design has its era. This era is one of room additions, decks, and skylights.

I have such mixed feelings about renovation versus restoration. In the end, the former wins out most of the time. I just hope that in Allendorf’s effort to keep the many hundreds-year old homes character and personality, they don’t lose it in the process. —always inspired, Liane

Historic Access— An exploration of family origins leads back to 1500 Allendorf/Lahn-Giessen, Germany. Through a friendship, an amazing discovery, and a place that integrates natural beauty, history, and contemporary living, there is much to inspire. They are proud of many houses that were build in the late 1600s and early 1700s. A series of illustrations captures some of these historical gems and the impact of time.

Finding Foundations It is impressive how much of the past is preserved in Hesse, considering the turmoils that challenge survival. Allendorf is proud of its central old town that has evolved for almost four hundred years. Any of these could have been homes to ancestors, today occupied by cousins.  From the center of town, illustrating the historic buildings along Obergasse is a walking-tour of the imagination. It represents a continuity very rare in the “new world,” and a determination for preservation that continues from generation to generation. Through this journey, I find a kindred spirit asking many of the same questions.

Historic Hessen Houses— Several of the Heritage Cultural homes display the half timber construction. From an American viewpoint, their wood patterns convey a warmth and charm. Distinctive consistency gives a harmony to the ancient streets, and the mix of new between the old still maintains style. It turns out that I am descended from three of the founding families, and discover much in common with cousin Tom Euler, mayor of Allendorf.

Please see this related example of my illustrations:

beforeafter-house200Drawing Backwards in Time” Although a building may have endured many changes since built, hints of its original form exists. Sometimes old photographs show how a house looked, but most often, there are no images. Illustration can fill the gap. I have always wondered what my house was like in 1888 when new. It certainly does not look the same now! With an enclosed front porch, room additions, siding, and decorative shutters, its character is totally transformed. So I went to City Hall, researched the permits and historic records, and concluded with this interpretation.


Liane Sebastian wears an artist’s hat, designer’s coat, and editor’s shoes.

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