Historic preservation societies and their campaigns to save particular buildings or landmarks make me a little uncomfortable at times.
There are four basic rationales for historic preservation. Some advocacy groups work with all four, others have a very exclusive preference for only one of these approaches.
1. Preserve buildings or landmarks which are aesthetically distinctive.
2. Preserve buildings or landmarks which are the best representative examples of a type or kind of structure from the era of their construction or main usage.
3. Preserve buildings or landmarks which are important symbols of national or cultural heritage in some distinctive manner.
4. Preserve buildings or landmarks which are peculiarly associated with an important discrete historical event or events.
There is an unannounced fifth rationale: to use preservation to block some other kind of development that advocates don’t want or don’t like.
Yesterday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced their annual list of the most endangered historical sites. I was a little needled just by the hyperbole attending the announcement and a little more needled by the trendy invocation of preventing climate change as a rationale for preservation by the Trust’s president Richard Moe. (e.g., he argued that destroying the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles wastes the environmental resources that went into constructing it in the first place, and that it would take too long for the new green buildings intended to go on its site to return savings.) The Trust used to glom onto similarly weak arguments about economic revitalization, so this is an old habit.
Break down the list, and you see different combinations of the preservationist argument in play. There’s an attempt to argue that the Century Plaza Hotel needs preservation for its aesthetic, but honestly, there’s a lot of buildings that have something of the same tweaking of modernist brutalism (e.g., the adding of a curve). So the Trust also argues that a lot of important things have happened at the building. They make a similar argument about the hangar where the Enola Gay was kept, that the association with a historic event is sufficient reason to want to preserve the building. Other targets are more conventionally about aesthetic history like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple and Miami Marine Stadium.
Once I get past being vaguely annoyed by the way the Trust frames its goals, what’s the problem? A lot of preservationists are savvy to the deeper problems that attend on the whole idea, but many brush past those issues in their zeal. If we preserve everything, where does novelty come from? (Quite a few of the buildings which we now preserve would never have come into being if preservationists had been as active in the past as they are now.) If we preserve only exemplary buildings and landmarks, don’t we end up misunderstanding the past? On the other hand, why should we preserve typical buildings of the past at the expense of servicing typical forms of utility in the present? If we make reuse of older buildings and facilities and change their interiors, what have we preserved? Such a revitalized building is not longer anything like what it once was. We also make consistently bad guesses from the vantage of the present about what the future will want to be able to tangibly view and see from the past. What seems banal now becomes valuable only when it’s the last of its kind, but the last building standing is often not the best example of its kind, the thing we would have saved if only we understood what we were about to lose. What ends up on the preservationist agenda is often there because of serendipity, not because a consistent working towards an idea about value.
Preservation often makes a fetish of the real, the same kind of fetish that operates with the collection of historical artifacts. The actual autograph, the genuine item, the notion of an unmediated connection to the past as it was. When you look down that list of 11 from this year, some of the targets (like the Wendover Airfield hangar) come uncomfortably close to the rhapsodies of a collector who keeps a used pair of Elvis’ underwear in a lucite display case. What history does the hangar reveal by the fact of its continued existence? If mere contact with the Enola Gay is enough to sanctify a relation to history, then there are far more sites of that quotidian kind that we do not presently mark or set aside: factories, transportation networks, and so on. If the point of preserving a site is association with an event, shouldn’t we look instead to the sites which provide the most provocative, difficult and multi-sided lens for understanding that event? Hiroshima or Trinity strike me as well ahead in line to a dilapidated plane hangar. But there is a sense in the Trust’s request that the reality of the hangar’s connection to a real plane is enough in its tangibility, that it has self-evident value.
Historians know that documents in archives (or material artifacts in collections) never “speak for themselves”, as if mere contact with them is an ephiphany. Preservationists don’t always seem to have the same awareness, perhaps because they can’t afford to have a critical, exploratory presentation of their interests in a public sphere that is relentlessly unkind to nuance and ambiguity.
I agree that some of the Trust’s choices are a bit odd, especially, as you say, the hanger where they kept the Enola Gay. I mean, as a society we’re preserving the Enola Gay itself (it’s at the Smithsonian’s branch out by Dulles) and something as tangential as its old hanger hardly seems worth keeping, especially given the ambiguity, to say the least, of the Enola Gay itself. Me, I’d raise the hanger and try to forget…
On the other hand, one of their other choices is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, which seems like a fantastic building well worth keeping under your criteria 1 and 2.
You’re gonna save Giblets and not the Medium Lobster? Man, Faf’s gonna be pissed.
Unity Temple is a no-brainer, absolutely. I think Miami Marine Stadium is similarly a pretty sound target for preservation, though that’s a case where it’s necessary to find some contemporaneous use for it.
I worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory for 3 years doing historic preservation. I really think that saving the buildings central to the dropping of the bomb is really important. There’s nothing to the buildings themselves to be sure. But they are also excellent chances at interpretation. As you mention, documents don’t speak for themselves and neither do buildings. But having those buildings provide templates for useful historical interpretation. I know that for several years the National Park Service and the relevant national laboratories have been in talks about creating a National Historic Site that would include these old buildings and be open on occasion for guided tours to the public. Without those buildings such interpretation would be nearly impossible.
More broadly, this nation saves so little that even if the motives behind saving certain buildings are on shaky ground, I don’t really care. It’s good to save what we can. But we should also integrate those saved buildings into economic development plans so that they are given some kind of interpretation and become tourist sites that pump some money into the local economy. The South Dakota insane asylum in Yankton for instance–Yankton could probably really use an economic shot in the arm.
The problem is that the hangar in question is far away from other potential sites of relevance. So while a big site is appealing, it still has to be in one place.
No doubt Yankton could use a shot in the arm. But couldn’t almost anywhere use one (even if we weren’t in a crisis)? And doesn’t almost anywhere have buildings or landmarks which are of some historical meaning or importance? There’s a park not far from me where there are some remnants of old mill-dams whose vintage I’d loosely guess to be late 19th Century. I think you could do something very interesting around those fragmentary ruins to teach people how different the environmental and human landscape of only 100-150 years past in this region was. But there’s a lot of remnants and ruins like that–it’s hard to know where to stop and where to start, and in the meantime, there are other ways we live on and make use of the land around us.
Sure other places could the shot in the arm. But the government has limited resources to make that happen, although the National Park Service does what they can. I’m not saying all the choices are rationally better than many others people could choose. But they are all defensible.
And Americans have no shortage of ways of making use of the land around us. We do that all the time–through urban sprawl primarily but also through tearing things down and putting up other structures, often in regrettable ways such as in the bad old days of urban renewal. I don’t think Americans are restricted in most any way in reusing the land. I think we are far more restricted in actually preserving anything. And I think lists like these provide a tiny drop in the bucket for preserving something about the past; without them would any other organization or group of people step up in the name of preservation? It seems unlikely to me.