Is it ever appropriate to allow vines to grow on an historic building? Most preservationists would say no. Historic building preservation guidelines, such as National Park Service (NPS) Preservation Brief 39, identify a number of problems. Vine growth can dislodge exterior features. And heavy vine cover traps moisture against the building, accelerating decay of wood and masonry.
So why ask the question? Because evaluating vine growth only from a building preservation perspective does not consider that it may contribution to the historic landscape. Would Harvard be the same without its ivy-covered facades?
In the late 1980s the National Park Service began a study to test the feasibility of responsibly reestablishing vines on Fairsted, the home and office of Frederick Law Olmsted in Brookline, Mass. Olmsted designed some of the best known American landscapes including New York City’s Central Park. His design vision for his property was one of “wilderness and disorder.” As part of his plan, his home and office were “totally swathed in vines.”
The study, published in NPS Tech Notes: Site, No. 1, installed four different trellis systems designed to hold two types of twining vine species originally planted by Olmsted. Each system was evaluated in four areas: historic appearance, compatibility with vine growth, impact of the apparatus on the historic structure, and ability to provide maintenance access to the building.
After several years of monitoring, the park selected a trellis system constructed of spiral steel strapping set 6” from the façade. The space between the trellis and the building allows air circulation, minimizing moisture damage to the wooden structure. The innovative system also includes snap hooks that allow the vine-covered strapping to be lowered from the house when exterior maintenance is required.
It’s been twenty years since the study. How has the system worked? According to the national historic site’s lead gardener Mona Mckindley, the system functions as intended. Vines easily grow up the trellis; the vine-covered facades are visually comparable with historic images, and maintenance crews are able to access the building’s exterior by lowering the system.
But there have been a few challenges. Bolts attaching the steel strapping to the house are stressed by the weight of the mature vines. In some places they have come loose. Initially specifying a larger bolt might have mitigated the problem. And although the six-inch spacing provides additional air circulation, moisture retention has caused a few clap boards to rot, especially on the facades that receive less sunlight. Trimming once or twice a year is also necessary to prevent the vines from growing under the window sills and gutters.
Preservation decisions forcing compromises between buildings and vegetation are nothing new. Yet, more often than not, decisions sway in favor of the building. At Fairsted, the home of the “Father of Landscape Architecture,” vegetation is on equal footing. The innovative trellis system provides a satisfactory compromise that restores Olmsted’s vine-swathed vision while protecting the house.
Do you know of other sites were vines have been responsibly reestablished on an historic structure?