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.