Posts Tagged ‘historic site interpretation’

Interpreting Philadelphia

April 5, 2010

I just got back from Philadelphia, which is an interesting case study not only in historic preservation but in the interpretation of historic sites. You can find historic house museums, living history interpreters, historic neighborhoods, historic markers, and of course major patriotic sites, like the room where both the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were written.

That room of course is in Independence Hall, one of the first sites preserved in the 19th century, for its patriotic associations. That is why sites were preserved – patriotic associations – pretty much until the early 20th century. Architecture was simply a means to that end.

Independence Hall became a Pennsylvania state building in 1800 when the government moved to Washington, D.Cl, and its wings were demolished (they are now rebuilt). Indeed, this site has a lot of rebuilding over time. Today the hall and a number of other buildings – including Congress Hall – are all part of a National Park. The Liberty Bell is in a new visitors complex, nicely positioned so when you look at it you can see the tower it used to hang in until the mid-19th century.

The amount of intervention in the fabric of Independence Hall has been significant since it became a National Park, which includes much of the land around it. Every preservation student learns about how two blocks of historic buildings were removed to create a mall or vista to Independence Hall, part of the urban philosophy of degagement that influenced the treatment of landmarks for about a century after 1860. It is like the medieval quarter cleared in Paris to give us all a triumphal view of Notre Dame.

Of course, so much time has passed that many of the 1960s modernist highrise buildings surrounding the mall are now, themselves, historic landmarks, for their architectural significance. Architectural significance became a preservation goal in its own right a hundred years ago, and is arguably the dominant preservation motivation today.

We even had the chance to stay in the PSFS, the first fully modernist skyscraper, now reborn as a hotel and lovingly restored with a fidelity to the period (1932) and its aesthetics that is almost disarming. It is well interpreted, with graphic signage in the elevator lobbies and plaques letting you know what kind of marble was used for the walls.

We also found some living history in the Free Quaker meeting house where a costumed interpreter did an excellent job engaging his audience.

The relatively new (and expensive) Constitution Center museum does a multimedia show with a live actor that I found pretty effective, along with exhibits on the Constitution itself and the bill of rights. This is a modern museum with plenty of interactive stuff, none of which you can take pictures of, at least until you get to the room where life-sized statues depict the Constitutional Convention and allow a more basic form of interaction. I guess “interactive” is at least as old as statues.

What strikes me about the interpretation of historic sites in this most historic of American cities, where they have been interpreting history longer than almost any other American city, is that every method of interpretation is still there and still used. Even the metal signs, which are the oldest form of site marking around, are still being made – we saw some from 2009 – and they use the same awkward kerning and raised lettering that they did back in the 1930s.

There are also the typical National Park Service wayside signs, their shape, height and angle unchanged from Yellowstone to Lowell and everywhere in between.

In fact, this one is from Franklin Court, one of the most interesting historic sites, where the Market Streets storefronts were restored, but Benjamin Franklin’s shop and home – long ago destroyed, were not rebuilt in the 1970s by Venturi and Scott Brown but instead interpreted with ghostly contours of steel describing the shape of the house in space, with giant scoops of concrete leading the viewer into views of the archaeological remains below. Unusual when it was done, this was the harbinger of a whole new form of interpretation and wayfinding that helped replace the familiar bronze lettered sign and National Park Service wayside.

They also use plaques on the sidewalk. I have always liked sidewalk interpretation. It takes advantage of where most people are looking when they walk, and it gives you the foundation of a haptic understanding of history.

There are also the graphic signs one finds in many cities that use text and some imagery. We saw several in Society Hill, a neighborhood preserved in the era of urban renewal, including this sign in front of the Physick House, commemorating the pioneering surgeon and inventor of soda pop.

And also this one to Edmund Bacon, the modernist city planner who reshaped Philadelphia in the postwar era and authored the 1970 book Design of Cities that epitomized the renewal approach so many cities used in the era of thinking big, planning big, and demolishing big.

Society Hill was a combination of preservation and renewal, with highrises and infill townhomes. Like Greenwich Village in New York and Old Town in Chicago, it also had its Freak Street, which was and is South Street, a counterculture mecca.

South Street was distinct from the tony townhomes once occupied by Revolutionary War luminaries like Thaddeus Kozcziusko and James Madison on their quiet, cherry-blossom-lined streets, a place that was all about the middle-class values driving both urban renewal, preservation and sprawl in the second half of the American century.

Another fascinating site of interaction is the “Rocky” statue, outside the Classical Museum of Art, but not allowed to occupy the entrance pedestal its namesake movie character occupied some 33 years ago. Still, it has become a site of pilgrimage, if not as dignified as those of our Founding Fathers, it is certainly popular as queues form for people to take their photos with a statue not of a general or statesman, but an actor playing a boxer.

So, you can read the signs, see the plaques on the street celebrating items present, past and both together, tour the national parks with park rangers, see actors recreating Benjamin Franklin and dozen of other denizens, and even enjoy the preservation delights of the late 20th century: landmarks of architectural history and historic districts that utilize preservation (or, we should say, heritage conservation) as a community planning tool. The historic interpretation of Philadelphia spans the range of techniques, media, styles and forms and very, very much of its works. Heck, they even have the “Ducks” I thought only made sense in the Wisconsin Dells.

Creative Destruction

January 30, 2010

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.