For decades, Southern California has beckoned innovative thinkers and encouraged experimentation in all things creative, from fine art and film to fashion, architecture, food and design. In 2011, the Pacific Standard Time festival — a sweeping exhibition running along the coast from San Diego to Los Angeles to Santa Barbara — told the story of California’s artists and innovators in the form of exhibits that trace the history of art and life in Los Angeles from 1945 to 1980. With installations at over sixty institutions and a scope beyond that of any local art event to date, Pacific Standard Time reminded us not only of our place in art history, but in human history as well — bringing to the broader Southern California art world a perspective not unlike that necessitated by the process of restoring and preserving our historic architectural treasures through historic restoration.

Compared to most other architectural tasks, the pursuit of accurate yet functional historic preservation and restoration is highly subjective, as contingent on the setting of the building, its history and previous uses and occupants as it is on materials used, practical alterations required and the budgetary limitations on the project. Like many of the design items on display within the Pacific Standard Time exhibit — which includes everything from salt and pepper shakers to vehicles to clothing and crafts — historic buildings bring with them a deep aesthetic and personal history that extends far beyond a structure’s superficial purpose or intended use. Our present view of each property is a mere snapshot, one compounded by elements including the initial construction, alterations and additions over time, usage changes and even the range of occupants. By observing the bigger picture, however, and achieving a view of each structure in its historical context through painstaking renovation, we can understand the connections that link us to a structure’s past — and in the process, learn more about our own local history.

Historic properties are records of continuous time and place; and because of this, one of the most important (and most difficult) tasks at the outset of any renovation project is to determine which era to focus on — and how to bring that era to life while making the space useful to modern-day occupants. Some old buildings may require modernization and drastic change in order to suit a new functional purpose; but others, such as classic homes that will continue to be used that way into the future, can be restored to their “old grandeur” — and in these cases, restoration can be used to recapture a sense of time and place in keeping with the building’s original construction and design.

Design elements that tell a story — and breathe new life into an old home

There are a wide variety of clues within each and every historic building that inform current occupants about the past — and that, when artfully restored, can render the layout of an older building truly timeless for generations to come. The scale of interior spaces, the arrangement of the rooms and even the structure’s relation to the landscape and exterior tell us so much about the way people once lived. For example, high ceilings — somewhat unusual today but fairly common in older homes — provide a markedly different feeling for light playing in the space, as well as the opportunity for dramatic doors, windows, detailed mouldings and trims. Most historic homes with high ceilings date from the days before air conditioning, and were subsequently built to provide added ventilation in the warm Southern California weather. Today, however, a skilled and creative architectural team can restore the details integral to such a design while also updating a home’s modern comforts and conveniences — preserving the open, airy feeling of a time gone by and ensuring that it will be appreciated for years to come.

At the San Diego architecture firm of Alcorn and Benton, we take pride in our historic restoration projects and make it a priority to meet current homeowner needs while staying true to a property’s rich past and artistic roots in the process. Equally adept with faithful preservation and innovative modernization techniques, our team believes in blending respect for our Southern California heritage with the latest in flexible, sustainable design and environmentally-friendly products and practices.

by Paul Benton, Architect + Engineer

This article originally appeared in the La Jolla Light on October, 2o11.