I got a question about Creative Destruction at my lecture at the Chicago History Guild a couple of weeks ago and my first response was: “that is the hottest thing in preservation scholarship.” It has been for over decade, actually, from Max Page’s Creative Destruction of Manhattan and Michael Holleran’s Boston’s Changeful Times to the recent release of Randall Mason’s Once and Future New York. Dan Bluestone has also contributed to this scholarship, as have many of the pieces in Future Anterior and other journals.
I think many people confuse creative destruction with the concept of creativity and the tabula rasa, and thus come to the curious conclusion that preservation stifles creativity. This noxious notion doesn’t pass the sniff test: any child can draw on a blank canvas – it takes real creative skill to express yourself in context.
What creative destruction really means is the selective erasure of certain landscape elements (including buildings) in order to reinforce a particular story. It has happened a lot in preservation history, with perhaps the most famous example being the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s and 1930s, where lost historic buildings like the Governor’s Palace were reconstructed from scratch while historic buildings from the 19th century were demolished in order to “restore” the place to a more perfect vision of its Colonial past.
In Mason’s Once and Future New York he notes that this is NOT how we think of historic preservation/building conservation today. Today we approach it from the point of view of avoiding waste, maintaining identity and depth in a fast-paced society, and conserving precious resources. A building is an incredible amount of embodied energy and destroying it is like throwing out gasoline or burning forests.
But that is not the history of saving buildings. A century ago, during the Progressive Era, the preservationist impulse arose – as it often does – in response to rapid changes in society and the landscape. The United States was becoming an urban society for the first time, and immigrants were pouring in, causing cultural consternation among the established classes.
In this environment, landmarks were preserved as moral and cultural lessons. Most of the buildings saved in the 19th and early 20th centuries had connections to Revolutionary War heroes or other “founding fathers.” Those preserving them were explicit in their motives: they wanted to keep American culture in the face of foreign influences and they wanted stability in contrast to the uncertainties of modernization.
Mason recounts how the preservation project became the creation of a memory infrastructure designed to reinforce a certain narrative of American history and American society. And, in many cases, to actively erase the foreign immigrant presence, as in the development of the Bronx River Parkway, which restored an idealized version of nature to be appreciated from automobiles by, among other means, removing immigrant settlements along the route.
Creative destruction thus served the purpose of shaping historical narratives embodied in built forms. It didn’t matter if those forms were built out of brick and stone or forests and streams. Mason’s other examples included City Hall Park, a major preservation effort that focused not only on saving the early 19th century City Hall but on removing later buildings like the Tweed Courthouse that had been added to City Hall Park, obscuring the original landmark and conveying unpatriotic messages about corruption.
By the time Colonial Williamsburg opened in the 1930s, preservation had been professionalized, largely by architects. It had also expanded its focus beyond associations with founding fathers to include architectural landmarks. And the same approach of creative destruction helped shape architectural narratives. The practice of restoring an historic landmark to a certain date may involve “creative destruction” of later additions, again in the service of a more coherent narrative or more coherent design. In the case of sites like the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio or the Gaylord Building, reconstructing the original appearance enhances a visitor experience, and ideally the interpretation documents everything that happened.
Reading Mason’s book I started thinking about our own more current memory infrastructure, which has evolved over the last 50 years to incorporate more social history, more vernacular architecture, and a massively broader understanding of the American experience. For my entire life the memory infrastructure has been almost the exact opposite of the jingoistic solipsisms of the Progressive Era preservationists: it has been all about diversity and immigration. A quick visit to one of the most important preservation projects of the last 20 years – Ellis Island – is proof of that, as is the POTUS.
Of course this doesn’t mean the old sites are no longer seen. No, they have been reinterpreted. At National Trust sites like Woodlawn, Belle Grove, Montpelier, Cliveden, Drayton Hall, Oatlands or Shadows-on-the-Teche, the history of the enslaved population in the 18th and 19th centuries has become a central part of the interpretation. And rather than creative destruction, that expanded narrative results from creative investigation – archaeology of slave quarters, research into a great variety of historical records, and contacting ALL of the descendants of those who lived and worked at these sites. Unlike the preservationist project of 1910, which involved winnowing and narrowing the story, our current memory infrastructure requires an ever expanding field of relevance and revelation. And it is growing.
postscript: Creative destruction also refers to conditions in capitalism where technologies or systems are superceded, which is not terribly relevant to buildings and landscapes still used and usable.