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For Preservation Group, Modern Tech Provides Way To Remember The Past

Feb 7, 2017

"Preservation needs to be modern while caretaking the past."
Daniel Mackay

Twenty-first century technology has made its way onto a 19th-century building in Hamden. WNPR recently visited the headquarters of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, which just installed solar panels on its office.

Right across the road from the site of Eli Whitney's old rifle factory is the "Boarding House." Built in 1827, this large white building used to house some factory workers in Hamden. Since then, the site -- and the house -- made their way onto the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the Boarding House serves as the headquarters for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

"Preservation needs to be modern while caretaking the past," said Daniel Mackay, executive director of Connecticut Trust. As we talk outside the house, we look up at its black roof, which is crowned with solar panels on its south-facing side.

"It's not about putting a bell jar over the boarding house or other structures -- it's about making them work in the current energy environment," said Mackay.

Solar panels on the Boarding House will go live in the coming weeks.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

Mackay said there wasn't a lot of pushback about the mismatch of historic and modern. He said the solar panel will save the non-profit thousands of dollars in energy costs annually.

And it isn't just in Connecticut. Shelburne Farms, a National Historic Landmark in Vermont, has put solar panels on its property

In Rhode Island, Kari Lang owns a property in the Broadway-Armory Historic District, which is on the National Register. She said old buildings can be green, too.

"If we want them to last that much longer, let's put panels on them," Lang said. 

To that end, Lang's worked with the West Broadway Neighborhood Association to put solar on about 40 businesses and homes (including her own) in that historic area around Providence.

Back in Connecticut, Chris Wigren, deputy director at the Trust, said while the tech is relatively new, the idea of preservation groups updating old buildings is not. 

Chris Wigren, deputy director at the Connecticut Trust.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

"There's a long history of adapting buildings to new needs and new technologies -- we put heat in buildings, we put electricity, we put plumbing," Wigren said. "They all involve changes, that once you get used to them, have become more or less invisible to us."

Daniel Mackay said he hopes the panels send a simple message to other preservation groups -- sometimes you need to incorporate new technology to ensure a building keeps standing.

"There was no attempt made to hide what we have on our roof line," Mackay said. "I think we're proud of what's up on our roof line and we're proud of the benefits it represents."

Mackay said the solar panels will go live in the coming weeks.