Posts Tagged ‘Vince Michael; Vincent L Michael’

Going Gothic?

September 1, 2005

Several alert historic preservation alumni sent me this clipping a couple of weeks ago. Turns out the house that Grant Wood used in his famous painting “American Gothic” is threatened with demolition, according to Harry Mount, a writer in Eldon. Not only is the little white cottage with the big Gothic window is empty, boarded-up, and being offered by the State Historical Society for $250 a month, but there is little interest. One neighbor wanted to tear it down in the 1960s but balked at the $200 purchase price.

American Gothic is the most-parodied and recognized painting in American history. The thing that I never knew was that this little landmark house actually inspired the painting in the first place! Mount reports that Grant was driving by the house and burst out laughing at the pretension of this oversized Gothic window on this tiny cottage. Later, searching for a stern couple, he convinced his dentist and his sister to pose as the farmer and wife. His sister eve sued Johnny Carson and Playboy in the 1960s for running a version of the painting with the couple in tiny swimsuits, according to Mount.

You might think someone at the Art Institute of Chicago might be interested – after all, we got the painting, and Wood is our guy, but then again the problem with real estate is location, location, location and the house ain’t in Grant Park. In fact, one of the reasons they can’t rent the 3-bedroom house with decent Victorian details is that everyone in that neighborhood prefers the modernity of the modern mobile trailer home. The barn has already been demolished for three trailers. The only question now is how long until the 75-year old painting’s inspiration and setting turns into another trailer.

What does time tell

August 30, 2005

Time tells. That also means time counts. It means you should preserve your history and when I say it I mean the messy history of what happened not the neat history of whatever today’s ideologues need or “heritage” which is a shorthand for freebased history, an identity narcotic extracted crushed refined and distilled from real history. Real history is what happens in time and over time and that never works for systems like ideology or politics because systems are static and history is dynamic.

My job is historic preservation, which is trying to save old buildings, sites, structures and landscapes because they are living history. But how they are interpreted is another matter. We preserve landmarks because they mark our land; they are part of our collective identity. When Chicago demolished the garage of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre it was trying to purify not only its memory but also its identity. We didn’t want that worldwide rat-a-tat-tat image and gangster identity. On the south side, over 4,000 Confederate prisoners of war are buried in Oak Woods Cemetery but the city under Harold Washington balked at landmarking the site because it was felt that somehow that honored slavery.

They could not commemorate the site of the Haymarket Tragedy for over a century because the two sides – workers and police – had different interpretations of the event. Striking anarchist workers had a meeting broken up by police, a bomb was thrown, killing a policeman and several more on both sides died in the ensuing melee. Four activists were hung and three others later pardoned by Governor Altgeld, destroying his political career. A police statue stood there in the late 19th century but was destroyed in the 1920s and destroyed twice more in the 1960s. When it became a landmark in the 1990s, the city put a plaque in the sidewalk secretly – not telling either the police historians or the labor historians. Finally, quite recently, a monument was put there because… time told. The police and workers had been washed together by the waves of time and the old static ideological divisions were no more…

what does time tell you?