Context is everything. It is the reason we bought the Farnsworth House five years ago – because it was going to be ripped out of its historic context – the site it was designed for, the place where its history happened. There are some monuments and buildings that are incredible works of art and some have been moved AWAY from their context in order to save that art. My first memory of a National Geographic cover was the moving of Abu Simbel for the Aswan dam. But something is lost, even when a great work of art is subjected to this sort of move in order to save SOME of it.
The Mumford House is not a great work of art, but it is a fantastic piece of history. It is a remnant of the experimental south farms of the campus, and they even preserve some crop fields nearby as well, or they did a couple of years ago. The oldest structure on the U of I campus in Champaign, the house is the remnant of the campus’ earliest history. It can only effectively represent that history WHERE IT IS. This significance saved the building in the past but now the bosses want to move it to a site miles away where it can be forgotten. And where it will lose much of its value. There is a hearing next week – January 22 – where you can try to explain to the powers that be that this is a bad idea. Or check out the Landmarks Illinois link to make your views known.
Most people don’t get it. I have seen many houses moved to save them, but in every case something was lost, and that something was historic context. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, various historical societies and industrialists like Henry Ford began collecting historic buildings into petting zoos of history and architecture. There was some value in that, but A LOT LESS VALUE than saving something where it happened.
The shocking thing about the Mumford House is that the preservation planner for the U of I endorsed the move as quickly as the FDA approved Viagra (It does what? No, we don’t need tests – that is SO approved!). God knows why. This has led a lot of otherwise thoughtful people to assume that this is a preservation decision and that moving the building – AND giving it to a department that doesn’t want it for a use that doesn’t exist – is saving it. In fact, it is hiding it in a corner where it can be subject to further abuse. In this case, context is everything. You move it, you lose it.
Tags: Mumford House; UIUC