By Todd Hays
Late last month, the Palm Springs City Council voted unanimously to designate an historic site. Usually, such an action is cause for celebration. In this case, not so much.
The City Council overruled a 6-1 vote by the city’s own Historic Site Preservation Board (HSPB) requiring the designation be conditional on the building’s repainting in historically accurate colors.
The public hearing before the HSPB was robust, including lengthy discourse centering on paint color as it relates to integrity as well as why sites may be better suited for Class 2 designation (having less significance or integrity).
Following the HSPB vote requiring an authentic color scheme, many stakeholders did then argue, in typical Monday morning quarterback fashion, that paint is reversible. Yes, paint is reversible, but they did not argue the site’s color be reversed to more original colors before being designated. The HSPB did argue just that, at great length, during its hearing.
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Why does color matter? Some would argue a move to protect any site is always a good move. That argument is better applied to reasons why the city is currently rewriting its demolition ordinance: to better protect significant structures that are not currently designated. The city’s Class 1 historic designation, the most prestigious for Palm Springs, was never intended to protect every property, only those that are outstanding.
Currently, great lengths are being taken to preserve the wonderful Class 1 Town & Country Center — including returning it to its true, original colors. The beloved Cornelia White House (a Class 1 site) is also being restored with equal and painstaking attention to its exterior detail.
This work will ensure both of these sites are as close to an authentic, original state as possible. That’s what preservation is all about.
If historic buildings painted all white are acceptable and en vogue right now, why not just whitewash the Town & Country and Cornelia White House to match current sensibilities? After all, paint is reversible.
The word “preserve” means to maintain the original state. When it comes to buildings that are decades old, this is often difficult and rarely perfect; yet paint color is one goal that is as inexpensive and easy as it gets.
Preservation must embrace the stewardship of historic accuracy for future generations.
Our designated Class 1 historic sites should be standout examples of our past and not reflections of current trends. To embrace the latter is a missed opportunity to educate future generations — one of the core tenets of historic preservation.
As more and more of Palm Springs’ historic sites are designated, the process will naturally become more difficult. The existing collection of Class 1 sites should stand in testament to how future nominees are evaluated, so as to not devalue the entire program and repaint history.