Arrested decay: Evocative historic structures preserved in place

In the Summer 2018 issue of Preservation magazine, we brought you the remarkable story of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway, a working movie theater in a state of arrested decay. Visitors catching a film at the theater will see a multitude of wallpaper sections from different decades, chipped plaster, and an eye-catching sunburst medallion, made all the more arresting by the different degrees of deterioration of the rays.

“Arrested decay,” “preservation in place,” or “preservation as found” are a few names to describe one of the more obscure preservation practices. It might be considered an underdog as far as preservation practices go – the term wasn’t even coined until 1962, when the state of California used it to describe Bodie State Historic Park.

Arrested decay can be a little deceptive when someone first sees an example of it in real life because it is not as straightforward as a standard preservation project or a restoration effort. What makes this approach unique is that it tells a story of how a site has changed over time. A person sees snippets of multiple generations from one wall, or a plaster cornice, and even by clothing and food left behind, that they may not get from other properties that have been “fixed up.”

Arrested decay may show that finishes will not last forever, but it also shows the resilience of historic structures. And whatever the back story is to sites that have been preserved as found, the aesthetic is so arresting that “arrested decay” takes on more than one meaning.

Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina

One of our National Trust Historic Sites offers a striking glimpse into the lives of the Drayton family, who lived at Drayton Hall until the early 1970s, and those who lived and worked in its extant outbuildings. When the National Trust acquired Drayton Hall in 1974, it chose to keep the structure as is – an unusual choice at the time. But the house never had plumbing, electricity, or central heating or cooling, and the finishes had been untouched for so long, so this made perfect sense.

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