What do we mean by Historic Preservation?

In basic terms, historic preservation means safeguarding the existence and appearance of historic elements that are located within our neighborhood.


Houses, commercial and industrial buildings, bridges and monuments – any human-made structure that has some historical value, significance or associated to someone who lived or worked in our neighborhood who became significant in their own right.

Historical value resides in the historical element itself. It may be valuable as an example of a style of architecture or an industrial process that’s no longer used, or simply for its age. Many houses that were unremarkable when they were built, for instance, have gained historical value because they’ve lasted, and are among the few left from their time. A Victorian or Edwardian house built from as early as the 1850’s to 1915 are important historically because these are the oldest and grandest of houses compared to new builds in the the inner Melbourne neighborhood.

Historical significance usually concerns links between an element, say a building or streetscape and a particular historical event or series of events. Many historically significant buildings, like the North Melbourne Town Hall built in 1875-76 designed by noted architect George Johnson. That specific example is architecturally important to the local neighbourhood but other examples within our community don’t have to be as large or prominent. Take another example on a smaller scale being a simple workers’ cottages, often in consistent and repetitive terrace rows, with simple forms and detailing along streets characterised by their generous width and open character, with interesting vistas available along their length, sometimes distinguished by street tree plantings including planes, elms and eucalypts.


Neighborhoods are historically important because of their architecture, or because they still present a picture of a previous era.


A landscape itself may be either historically valuable or historically significant. Hotham Hill in the north of the precinct slopes down to the south and west, and attracted more prestigious residential development. A creek circled the south side of the hill, and flowed south and west to feed the low-lying West Melbourne Swamp. The latter formed a natural boundary to the area.Towards the west also afforded views to Melbourne’s docks and wharves, where many of the precinct’s residents were employed. Early day residents of the neighbourhood were employed in some of Melbourne’s most important nineteenth and early twentieth century industries, located close by, including markets, abattoirs, railways and the port at Victoria Dock. A number of these residents were politically active, forming various associations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and being prominent in the women’s suffrage movement.

Building or landscape features

Old tavern signs, 19th Century faded painted wall signs for local businesses, 100-year-old trees, the Anzac memorial, flagstaff gardens, Queen Vic market – all of these and many other features may be historically important.


Although historic preservation most commonly refers to the preservation of physical places, it can also apply to aspects of cultural heritage. Before the arrival of Europeans, the place we now know as Melbourne was the country of the Wurundjeri (Woiwurrung) and Boon wurrung (Bunurong). This landscape was adapted and altered over the course of time, both as a result of human occupation and of natural forces. The traditional owners lived lightly on the land and managed the available resources in a sustainable manner. They drew on the Yarra and its tributaries for fresh water, and regularly fired the grasslands to promote the growth of native pasture, which in turn benefitted the local food supply. In contrast Melbourne’s colonial society sought to reproduce the cultural life that they were familiar with from their old homelands. In the 1850s they built grand theatres and an opera house with the city. The North and West Melbourne precinct has a culturally historical significance, as a Victorian-era precinct associated with the nineteenth century growth area of Melbourne. Early development of the 1850s and 1860s also reflects local involvement in early industrialisation, education and servicing the goldfields traffic and migration of people from Melbourne to the gold rush centres to the north-west.


The term “historic preservation” actually includes four different possible activities.


Preservation is preserving a place as it is in the present. It assumes that all historic features, materials, etc. will be kept where it’s humanly possible to restore or repair them, and will be maintained as they are in the future. Preservation values not only the origin of a building, but its occupants over time and the uses to which it was put, and assumes that all evidence of them will be preserved, as well as the original character of the structure.


Rehabilitation fixes up a deteriorated historic property often for a use other than its original one (some former industrial warehouses in the neighbourhood have been turned into luxury loft style apartments, for example). Like preservation, it puts a premium on retaining and repairing historic features, but allows more leeway for repair and replacement of elements that have been severely damaged by time. Preservation and rehabilitation standards ideally ought to focus on the historic materials and features, finishes, spaces, and spatial relationships that give a property its rich historic character.


Restoration means putting a building or landscape back the way it was originally, or at a historically significant time in its past. That means eliminating any repairs or alterations that came after that period, including additions to the building and other major features, and re-creating, with historic materials and techniques, missing features that are known or obvious.


Reconstruction is the creation of a historically accurate copy of either a specific historic property that no longer exists or an example of one from a chosen historical period. The reconstruction may use traditional techniques and materials, but the materials might be recycled or be new, and therefore different from the actual materials that would be found in an original structure. (One hundred-year-old pine has often grown so dry and hard that it’s difficult to drive a nail into it without splitting, for instance, while new pine is very soft.)

Reconstruction is usually employed as part of a historic exhibit of some kind, although an occasional private homeowner may build a copy of an older house, simply because of preference. A carpenter-restorer May choose to built and live in a home such as this to refine their understanding and mastery of the 19th-Century building and masonry techniques that went into the original.

Any of these four activities could conceivably be applied to any of the elements of historic places that are candidates for preservation.


It preserves the historic, architectural, and aesthetic character and heritage of a community or area, and helps to provide a sense of place and continuity. As suburban sprawl and development make more and more places look the same, it becomes important for communities to keep their identities intact. Historic buildings can help to define a community and hint at its past. If whole neighborhoods can be preserved, the effect is that much greater. The sense of history can contribute to community pride, and to a better understanding of the community’s present.

It is an efficient use of resources. Historic preservation conserves resources, reduces waste, and saves money by repairing and reusing existing buildings instead of tearing them down and building new ones. Reusing a historic structure versus tearing it down and building with new materials helps to greatly reduce the carbon footprint of a building.

It preserves old methods of workmanship. Because many modern buildings are built on the assumption that they will only be needed for a relatively short time – 25 to 30 years – before they are replaced, workmanship and building methods of all but the most significant buildings are not as careful or durable as methods used in the past, when buildings were expected to last indefinitely. By working on historic buildings, new generations of craftsmen learn the techniques to improve modern buildings as well.

It can add character and/or charm to a community, and emphasise its uniqueness. The preservation of old buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes can determine the look of a community, and may be an attraction for tourists as well. If these elements are historically significant or unusual, they can also be a source of community pride, and lead to other improvements.

It can attract investment and change the nature of a deteriorating neighborhood or area. A rehabilitated historic building or neighborhood might be the focus of a new residential or commercial development. An area restored to its original appearance could serve as a magnet for tourists, and provide jobs for local residents. Local residents could also be employed in rehabilitation or restoration as artisans or workers, if they have the skills, or as trainees. In the latter case, by the end of the project, many may have developed enough competencies as carpenters, masons, or the like to start new careers.

It can be a good investment. Historic buildings can be affordable for businesses to rehabilitate because of the possibility of state or council grants, and other support for that activity. In addition, they may attract business in and of themselves, simply because people are often fascinated by them. Just as many tourists like to stay in old houses that has been restored as bed-and-breakfast, other people might be excited to stay in a hotel that was once an old mill (or in a restored once-famous hotel, for that matter), or to eat in a restaurant that had an industrial use or a church 100 years ago. An interesting office or commercial building, by the same token, especially one that clearly started out as something else in its former life, might attract clients to an architect or designer, or customers to a complex of stores and restaurants.


There are numerous times in a community’s history when the opportunity to encourage historic preservation presents itself. Even if a community already has a policy of preservation, there are a number of circumstances that make that policy easier to act on. Some particularly good times to address historic preservation:

When the council is engaged in creating a comprehensive plan for growth and development. Many councils devise comprehensive plans, based on their visions for the future that are then revisited and revised regularly (usually every five or ten years). If historic preservation is built into the comprehensive plan – especially if the plan includes incentives and/or regulations that relate to it – then it’s always considered when historic buildings are purchased, or when a proposed development includes historic structures or historical areas.

When there’s a neighborhood planning effort. If the neighborhood has a historic character, whether it’s significant or not, residents may want to maintain it. A neighborhood with housing largely built in the 1930’s may not be architecturally distinguished, for instance, but residents may enjoy its look and feel. Structures that are truly historic – unique, designed by famous architects, extremely old – may anchor the neighborhood and help to define it as a neighborhood. They need to be preserved for that reason as well as their historic value. Planners and consultants can help residents understand how to preserve the identity of the neighborhood and the physical presence of significant buildings.

When there’s a neighborhood revitalisration effort under way. Neighborhood revitalisation differs from neighborhood planning in that it assumes that a neighborhood has deteriorated physically, economically, and/or socially, and needs a boost to become more livable. The preservation or rehabilitation of old or historic buildings is often an important part of neighborhood revitalisation, providing a physical and psychological focus for the neighborhood, and creating jobs and investment opportunities.

When affordable housing or another specific need is clear in an area and historic buildings are available to meet it. The rehabilitation of an abandoned school, library, or hotel for affordable housing can solve two problems: that of what to do with an abandoned building that may be a magnet for vandalism and drug dealing, and that of where to find affordable housing space. The same could be true for turning an old hotel into desperately-needed office space, or an industrial building into a mall or theater complex.

When development is planned in an area that includes a historic structure or neighborhood. Developers can be offered incentives to rehabilitate or restore historic properties as part of the overall development scheme, or regulations and limits might be placed on the use of those properties.

The rehabilitation might also be part of a larger effort on the developer’s part – a brownfields cleanup, for instance.
When there’s a celebration of community history. If the community is celebrating a significant anniversary of its founding – 150 or 200 years, perhaps – event planners and residents may be eager to restore structures that hark back to the beginning or other meaningful times of its history.

When the focus is on community history, the connection between historic properties and community identity stands out, and their importance becomes clear.

When a historic property is threatened. Even classic structures are sometimes threatened with demolition.

Demolition isn’t the only danger to historic properties, however. Neglect can be just as harmful. Once a building is empty and maintenance stops, water damage and insects can slowly take it down just as surely as an explosive charge or a bulldozer. If the damage isn’t caught and repaired in time, such a building, even if it’s still standing, may be lost. This is referred to as “demolition by neglect.”

A third threat to historic properties is renovation that destroys the historic characteristics that make them important or unusual. Once original features are gone, they can never truly be replaced – only imitated. Thus, if a developer intends to change the face of a historic building, cut it down a story, or gut the inside completely, the historic character of the building can be ruined just as thoroughly as if the building had been demolished.

When one of these threats – demolition, decay, or destructive renovation – looms over a historic structure, it’s often possible to mobilise public opinion enough to change the scenario. Officials may be willing to change regulations or policy to keep the building intact, citizens may take action on their own, or the threat of public outcry and bad feeling may convince a developer to agree to preserve the structure in some way.

When the community is engaged in a heritage tourism effort. Heritage tourism, is about people “traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present. This includes cultural, historic and natural resources.” Heritage tourism has proven to be an economic shot in the arm for many regions, particularly those with an industrial history but no industrial present. Attracting heritage tourism is linked to historic preservation, and there is a great need for more funding and technical assistance from government and non-profit sources to support this activity in the near future.

As part of a job training effort aimed at at-risk populations or individuals. Such a program can accomplish several purposes: preserving a historic element of the community; training preservationists who will then have the skills to work on other projects; and helping individuals, particularly youth, in difficult situations – poverty, recovery from substance abuse, gang membership, etc. – find a new direction for their lives.


There are at least five measures that communities and individuals can take to encourage historic preservation: providing incentives, imposing regulations, providing help and support to those engaged in preservation and for preservation itself, educating the public, and engaging in advocacy. We’ll look at each of these measures individually.


An incentive is a benefit given to someone in order to encourage them to do something specific. There are several kinds of incentives that can be used to encourage historic preservation, most of them related to its cost.

Local government grant incentives

Grant incentives are “ways of reducing costs for businesses and individuals in exchange for specific desirable actions or investments.”

Depending on what municipality you live in these can come in a number of forms:

Council rate credits (the money you spend on historic preservation, or some fraction of it, is a reduction subtracted from the council ratesyou have to pay)

One off state or local government heritage grants.

Any of these incentives could be provided by the federal, state, or local government. Many, but by no means all, state and local governments offer incentives as well, but they vary greatly. Some municipalities might do something, while others might offer nothing, or offer a cash incentives up to a certain amount. The way to find out for sure what the possibilities are in your area is to research them with the government office in question.


There are numerous kinds of help and support for historic preservation that don’t involve money directly. Communities, organisations, and individuals can offer time, labor, and other materials to ease the preservation process. In addition, they can support the idea and process of preservation itself.

Technical assistance

Most communities, homeowners, developers, and businesses have little experience in historic preservation. Free or subsidised consultation – on architecture, funding procedures, historic background, construction techniques, etc. – can come from a number of helpful sources:

Universities. Professors and students in such fields as architecture, archeology, and engineering can both provide valuable services and gain real-world experience by researching, working, and consulting for preservation projects.

Volunteer professionals. Architects, engineers, attorneys, and others may be willing to donate professional skills either as a community service, or simply to see the preservation of historic structures.

Government agencies and boards. Local government may provide various kinds of support to see a project brought to fruition. State and federal agencies dedicated to historic preservation may provide similar assistance as part of their mandate.

Professional or historic preservation associations or organisations. Such organizations have a vested interest in seeing historic preservation go forward, and may supply help from their members on various aspects of a project. They may also help to spread the word about the importance of historic preservation in general and its impact on the local area in particular.


An important part of encouraging historic preservation is educating the public about its importance. If a majority or even large minority of a community’s citizens are committed to preservation, the chances that it will become an integral part of the community’s planning are much more likely.

Gaining commitment means getting information out in ways that are likely to capture people’s attention. The more ways an idea can be presented, and the more channels that can be used to spread it, the larger the number of people who will be reached and who will become aware of and respond to the issue. The possibilities here are almost limitless; the following are only a few examples.

Acquainting the public with historic buildings and the history of the community or area.

This can cover a wide range of activities:

Free or inexpensive guided or self-guided tours and walks. These can introduce people to historic sites and help them understand their significance to the community.

Signs. Signs or plaques on historic buildings or sites can tell passers-by about their age, history, architecture, and significance. If the signs are eye-catching – composed of interesting illustrations, maps, and other features – people will stop to read them. Signs could also point out structures and sites undergoing preservation, so that citizens could view the process.

Posters and handouts. These could be available either everywhere in the community, so that residents would be attracted to visit historic sites and neighborhoods, or in historic neighborhoods themselves. In the latter case, they might encourage visitors and residents to literally look around and take note of the history they’re seeing.

Presentations to clubs and organisations. Service clubs, church groups, and many other organisations devote part of each meeting to a program of community interest. They present an opportunity to discuss preservation with a group that often includes community and business leaders and other influential citizens.

Dramatizations. Community theater, “haunted history” walks at Halloween, Easter and Christmas celebrations, performances of period music in halls that might have housed original performances of the same music – all of these can increase the understanding of local history and highlight historic sites and the stories of how they were preserved.

Using the media

Media stories are often the way to reach the largest number of people, although they may have less impact than personal experience. Articles in local newspapers and newsletters, stories or information on local TV and radio stations, can help to spread the word about community history and the importance of historic properties and historic preservation.

School curricula

Schools can help to bring the idea and importance of local history and preservation to the next generation. Many colleges and universities have preservation-oriented courses and programs, but most of these are aimed at graduate students, or at undergraduates majoring in architecture or similar areas. But all will be aware of preservation issues, will look differently at the buildings and will understand the need for preservation, and the ways it can be achieved.

The vast majority of high school students can’t and shouldn’t be directed into a four-year major in historic preservation…but they can be offered a course in it that explains what it is, why it’s important, and how to look at structures and landscapes with their history in mind. Such a course doesn’t have to consist of dry lectures: much of it could be taught in the field, with students walking through historic neighborhoods, photographing examples of architectural periods or historic sites in their own neighborhoods, and being conducted through restored buildings by the people who did the restoration. If the course were taught well, many could emerge with a lifelong interest in preservation that they would bring to their communities.


Every one of the activities suggested above to encourage historic preservation will take some kind of advocacy. Those that depend on government – most incentives and all regulations – have to be translated into policy, and often into law. That means convincing policy makers and/or lawmakers at some level – that historic preservation is necessary, and that these measures are likely to be effective.

By the same token, volunteers don’t materialise out of thin air – they have to be aware of volunteer opportunities, and they have to be convinced that those opportunities are worth their time and effort. Very few schools are likely to come up with a preservation studies curriculum on their own. And public education is advocacy when its purpose is to help the public understand the importance of your issue.

What all of this comes down to is that you’re not likely to be able to encourage historic preservation in your community on your own, and you’ll have to advocate for it with legislators and other policy makers, businesses and developers, and/or the community at large. The guidelines for advocating for historic preservation are the same as those for other issues: do your homework, understand the culture of those you’re advocating with, refine your message, use a personal approach when possible, prepare for and respect opposition, build your allies, and keep at it indefinitely.


Historic preservation – of buildings and other structures, neighborhoods, archeological sites, landscapes, and other historic properties – can add to a community’s understanding of and pride in our history, and bring economic and other benefits as well. It therefore makes sense for communities to encourage the preservation, rehabilitation, or restoration of historic properties.

Rehabilitation – the preservation or restoration of a neglected or derelict historic property so that it can be used, often in a way different from its original use – may be the most common of these possibilities, since it fills a community need while still retaining the historic elements and character of the property in question. Preservation and restoration are more likely to accompany a heritage tourism campaign or neighborhood revitalization effort, or to be practiced by homeowners.

State and Local government can encourage preservation by offering incentives of various kinds to offset some of the costs, usually in concert with regulations that require certain kinds of preservation activities in particular situations (historic districts, properties with historical or architectural significance, etc.) They can also offer historic preservation curriculum in schools.

Individuals and groups concerned with preservation might offer grants or donations, volunteer expertise or labor, educate the public about the importance and benefits of historic preservation, and advocate with both public (government officials) and private (corporate officers) decision-makers for it to be a major consideration in policy decisions.

A community that respects its history respects itself. The preservation of that history through the preservation of sites important to it can help a community realise its strengths and use them to improve the lives of all in our community.