- Historic Sites
Mammon & Monuments
Commercial enterprise and history seldom make comfortable bedfellows
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
In a Chicago suburb, a luxurious eight-room ranch house in the “Williamsburg Colonial style,” with “unusual ‘windowpanc and shutter’ doors so the garage looks like a wing of the home instead of a garage,” is a harmless although confusing (light of fancy. Clearly it has nothing to do with the past of Illinois, but the comfortable “Gothic” houses of the last century, complete with coal grates, porches, and rocking chairs, had no understandable relation to the history of the Hudson River. The principle of free enterprise lias always supported the theory: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own?” it is to be profoundly regretted when private owners, disregarding all protests, tear down India Wharf on the Boston waterfront Lo make way for another parking lot. It would be a national disgrace to allow public or private action to befoul the present unspoiled view of the Maryland shore of the Potomac River opposite Mount Vernon. Such threats to historic buildings, like the poor, we have always with us. It is ironical that they arc now being augmented by threats springing from an imperfect understanding of the popularization of history. A straw in the wind a muplc of years ago was the proposal to remodel a respectable Georgetown house of the Federal period, lowering its roof and putting a new brick façade over the present one “along the lines of AVilliamsburg architecture.” If a rash of colonial imitations, whether of English or Spanish inspiration, covers the United States, the promoters thereof are likely, from confused motives or inadéquate knowledge, to do almost as much harm as those who destroy through simple greed.
It is needless to point out that the tourist trade is going great guns. Chambers of commerce, automobile manufacturers, and oil companies gloat over the spiralling statistics. Peanut stands, wax works, reptile farms, and gift shops stand ready and eager to benefit from the passing millions; so do almost as many sites claiming the mantle of history. Their variety is extraordinary. A rack of dyers in a Florida motel office may invite the traveller to include in his itinerary Thomas A. Edison’s winter home in Fort Myers, “Florida’s Shrine of Science,” or to “Step Back Into Time 800 Years,” by visiting the “Ancient Spanish Monastery, Oldest Huilding in the Western Hemisphere,” which is “only minutes away from almost any place in Greater Miami.” This monastery from Sacremenia in the province of Segovia is, I suspect, one of the buildings dismantled by the Spanish art dealers, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Byne, for William Randolph Hcarst that never reached San Simeon. At any rate, the liver states: It is not a reproduction nor a copy. Jt is the original monastery itself. You have probably seen it on television, heard about it on radio, read about it in national maga/ines, newspapers, and foreign publications.
Although this monastery is indeed neither “a reproduction nor a copy,” a great many things offered the travelling public are. Where buildings thought to be of some interest have vanished, steps are often taken to reconstruct them. Sir John Summerson, in appraising suitable subjects for historic preservation, expressed satisfaction that in Great Britain, excluding Scotland, “we have never given way to the craze for preserving birthplaces, usually the least significant structures in any man’s life.”
Nevertheless, a generation ago George Washington and The(xlore Roosevelt, whose birthplaces had vanished, were posthumously furnished with reconstructions thereof. In spite of the preservation of Monticello, a stone’s throw away, certain residents of Charlottesville have recently supplied Thomas jclferson with a superfluous reconstructed birthplace at Shad well. On a humbler level, the New Orleans Time-Picayune for February 23, 1960, reported: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” built of cypress logs (binked with day, lias been restored near Natchitoches, where the legendary “Uncle Tom” may have lived.
“Uncle Tom” was the central character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Owners of the site recently reconstructed the cabin. 1 bey have offered to turn it over to the state parks and recreation commission.
The spectacle of a demagogue who interlards his purple passages with sup|jorting quotations from Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln—almost invariably taken out of context—is unedif\ ing. So, when it cloaks itself in the disguise of something superior, is the ignoble activity of touting goods to indifferent buyers. Julian P. Boyd has pointed out “the obvious dangers in our preoccupation with the American past”: In much of it there is the base alloy of commerce which becomes at its worst an exploitation of history, keeping one eye on a handful of patriotic shibboleths and the other on the balance sheet.