Building Conservation: Reconstruct, Rehabilitate, or Ruination?

This is the second in a series of five blog posts exploring the examples of prisons, labor camps and other sites of memory that have become museums. These posts were researched and written by Erica Mollon, Master’s student in Historic Preservation and Urban Planning at Columbia University, during her internship with CHwB in Tirana, Albania.

As we learned in the last blog post, abandonment of former prisons tended to occur in the 1970s. In many cases, the buildings fell into disrepair or ruin. While there have been various approaches to the conservation of those buildings, it seems that perhaps the most complex and rewarding treatment blends restoration, reconstruction, and stabilized ruins.

Eastern State Penitentiary, USA

Visitors tour ruins near death row. Photo courtesy of Materials Conservation Co., LLC

Visitors tour ruins near death row. Photo courtesy of Materials Conservation Co., LLC

After Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971, the city used it as storage throughout the decade before completely abandoning the prison. Vandals broke many of the windows and skylights and vegetation grew out of the walls by the time volunteers stepped in to save the site. Workers replaced broken windows and skylights and either repaired the roof or replaced it to provide waterproofing. Any completed work was well documented throughout the process, and in several areas, ruins remain part of the visitor experience.

Auschwitz, Poland

Reconstruction of wooden barracks.  Photo courtesy of Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

Reconstruction of wooden barracks. Photo courtesy of Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

Auschwitz, the only site in this blog series that was not abandoned for years, approached preservation differently as the field shifted. The museum reconstructed destroyed buildings early on, rebuilding a gas chamber and wooden barracks demolished by the retreating Nazis. In the 1960s, research and restoration work began on the landscape as this natural aspect once formed an important part of the site interpretation.Today, Auschwitz blends 155 reconstructions and stabilized structures with 300 ruins and is one of the premiere memorial museums in the world.

Ellis Island, USA

While most people associate Ellis Island, the busiest immigration processing station in the USA in the early 20th century, with its main administration building, the site includes 30 buildings spread across the island. Restoration of the administration building began in the mid-1980s, and that work returned the abandoned building to a like-new state. However, only stabilization has occurred on 29 out of the other 30 buildings with plans underway to interpret some of those in an unrestored state.

Tenement Museum, USA

The Tenement Museum combines restored apartments with 'as found' apartments.  Photos courtesy of National Geographic and Open Places.

The Tenement Museum combines restored apartments with ‘as found’ apartments. Photos courtesy of National Geographic and Open Places.

The building that houses the Tenement Museum in New York City sat abandoned for 50 years before work began in the 1980s. This period of abandonment served to freeze the apartments, creating a time capsule of the families that lived there. Half of the apartments remain in this ‘as found’ state while the others are interpreted as the living spaces of former residents. The restored apartments rely on the information unearthed at the building to inform curators about wallpapers, wall configuration, and living conditions.

Sighet Prison, Romania

Exterior of Sighet prison before and after restoration work.  Photos courtesy of memorialsighet.ro and Flickr user Prof. Mortel

Exterior of Sighet prison before and after restoration work. Photos courtesy of memorialsighet.ro and Flickr user Prof. Mortel

Sighet Prison, abandoned for about 10 years, required foundation repairs, improved insulation, and a new roof along with a fresh coat of to return it to a like-new appearance. In addition, various architects and designers collaborated to transform 56 cells into museum spaces.

Gulag Perm-36, Russia

Abandoned for eight years, work at Gulag Perm-36 started with the stabilization of the wooden barracks. In the following four years, restoration and limited reconstruction continued on the checkpoint area, interiors, and the exercise yard. The reconstructed elements recreate the look of the prison from 1972 without using the same materials in order to save money

Anne Frank House, Netherlands

Saved from demolition, the Anne Frank House’s attic space was bare when the museum opened in 1960. After 10 years, the museum replaced the flooring and plaster to return the space to a ‘like-new’ appearance and installed a new set of stairs for better visitor flow. Beginning in the early 1990s, restoration on the attic returned it to the condition in which Anne lived. By using photographs and oral histories along with Anne’s written descriptions, the space reflects the World War II conditions. During this restoration, construction occurred on a new building adjoining the old to house museum staff and support functions.

Staro Sajmište, Serbia | Goli Otok, Croatia | Makronisos, Greece

Living quarters, canteen and administration buildings.  Photo courtesy of Goli-Otok.com

Living quarters, canteen, and administration buildings at Goli otok. Photo courtesy of goli-otok.com

Although the concentration camp at Staro Sajmište closed, complete abandonment of the site never followed. Though little to no maintenance occurs, the site is home to around 2,000 Roma people and artists who use the buildings for studio space. Goli Otok, which closed in 1988, and Makronisos, closed in 1973, are both currently abandoned. There are plans in place to restore Goli Otok to reflect the two stages of development of the prison – that from 1949 and from after 1956, but work has yet to begin.

2 responses to “Building Conservation: Reconstruct, Rehabilitate, or Ruination?

  1. I am involved with a project which is interpreting and making accessible a Victorian prison in the UK. The documentary evidence and the words of prisoners and jailers are essential for us to be able to draw out the stories that describe and the voices that can make connections, past to present. Is there anything similar available to Spaç?

    • Albanian Human Rights Project has done interviews with a number of former political prisoners, some of whom were in Spaç. There are certainly other interviews with former Spaç prisoners, since several are well-known public figures. Visar Zhiti, Fatos Lubonja, Maks Velo and others have also written about their experiences. However, I don’t know of any interviews with former guards or prison administrators – it would certainly be an important step, in order to have a full understanding of what Spaç and sites like it across Albania were like and how they fit in to the overall system of state control.

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