Sunday, May 23, 2010

Easby Abbey: A Historical Perspective on Salvage

The ruins of Easby Abbey, an English Heritage managed property in North Yorkshire, are what is left of a Premonstratensian abbey built in the 12th Century. The grounds contain the remnants of the refectory, cloister, kitchens and outbuildings of a typical medieval religious site. It once supported 18 canons who administered communion and supplies to the surrounding "wilderness" of Northern England, although the abbey did have a reciprocal relationship with its hinterlands, as Kiplin Hall was one of the abbey's granges and supplied Easby with foodstuff and income.

The abbey's setting remains virtually unscathed- lambs graze in verdant fields, a footpath that once brought beggars, visitors and pilgrims now hosts day trippers, and the River Swale continues in its meandering course below the abbey. The abbey itself has fared far worse. King Henry VIII dissolved it in 1536, and the buildings and land were sold to a local aristocrat, Sir Henry Scrope, who then allowed the abbey to be used as a virtual stone quarry over the seceding generations. Much of the village of Easby was constructed from the abbey's salvaged stone. The finest stone was long stripped from the facade, and the walls' rubble fill is what is most visible today (see image at left). The most prized pieces of furnishings and decoration were rescued from destruction, including intricately carved choir stalls that are now within St. Mary's Church in Richmond.

To distill the story of the rise and fall of the abbey into more modern parlance, a building that once served as the heart-center of a growing community was eventually seen as obsolete and
"became redundant," to adopt British terminology. The very materials whose sum parts produced a home for generations and served as a potent symbol for the spread of "civilization" into the medieval "wilderness" were removed to be used for seemingly more useful purposes. The abbey no longer was legally, socially or economically viable, thus its parts were dispersed across the countryside to fit a contemporary need, and its best pieces were hauled off to more important population centers.

Does this sound at all familiar to how old buildings are treated in some places today? Consider the derelict barns that form the quintessence of the American rural landscape. These venerable structures were the focal points of rural life and community. And now they are mostly obsolete. Their finest bits are hauled to antique stores while their patinaed wood is salvaged and used as flooring for chic kitchens and cabinetry for eco-conscious homes.
As seen in the examples of Easby Abbey and deconstructed structures in the US today, salvage is an historical pursuit, and it does have many benefits. However, in our eagerness to demolish and dismantle our built heritage when its function appears to have been eclipsed, we may be destroying what those in the future see as awe-inspiring architecture of distinctive vernacular structures. We need to reconsider the long term impacts of expedient decisions when we mine our built environment for currently desirable materials, and, in the process, turn historic structures into skeletons (as in the case of Easby) of their once proud selves.
When deciding the fate of a redundant building, consider rehabilitating the structure first, explore options for moving the building if retrofitting is not an option, and only finally consider salvaging the structures' materials. This way we can conserve our built and ecological environments.

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