- Historic Sites
To Save The World We Built
Every town you pass through has felt the impact of the modern historic-preservation movement. Now a founder of that movement discusses what is real and what is fake in preservation efforts.
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
Not really. Helen Bullock, a social historian employed at Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s, was asked to assist the architects in the re-creation of preRevolutionary kitchens. She had no training in historic buildings, but neither had they. Being an intelligent person, her first instinct was to collect old cookbooks and original cooking equipment. But that didn’t provide the link for the reconstruction of the kitchens. Meanwhile the architects—all of whom were men, of course—were busy designing kitchens that they thought were historically accurate but which always had six-foot yule logs in the fireplaces. It was to Helen’s credit that she put the artifact and the process together and began to try to cook according to original recipes. She found very quickly, for example, that you couldn’t possibly have cooked anything in a fireplace with a roaring fire. It turned out that colonial housewives had many little fires going on the hearth, just as we have on modern ranges. Helen was one of the pioneers in this kind of pragmatic analysis. In the conservation of even an ordinary old building, much less one with frescoes on the walls or gardens on the outside, you run across a whole spectrum of activities that the average architect doesn’t touch and really isn’t trained to handle.
What was the reaction to your early efforts?
At Williamsburg, for example, I was at first persona non grata , because I was critical of some aspects of the restoration. This led them to believe I was hostile to the whole concept. I remember pointing out that I had raised the money to bring the class down there and that if I was truly hostile, we wouldn’t have come. They had a very closed picture of the function of restoration and had created an upper-class, elitist, very static, partial image of what life in Williamsburg was all about, ignoring fundamental factors—first and foremost the presence of a black slave population that outnumbered the whites three to one. Things like that made it very apparent that we should have to learn to deal more objectively with the whole life-style that produced the artifact. But once I became identified as a preservationist, I began to be perceived as an ally by people trying to save their communities. Most laymen involved in preservation had a very bad impression of architects and planners, for very obvious reasons. All the schemes for modernization, urban renewal, and slum clearance had architects and planners as principal advocates. When one went to any old city where there had been battles for preservation, it wasn’t surprising to find that most of the veterans of these battles were very skeptical about architects.
Has that changed?
It has, and I think the Columbia program and the other programs in the country—now staffed and, in some instances, organized by former students—are an important reason for that change. I always insisted that it was impermissible for professional preservationists to take a patronizing attitude toward lay people. They are our strongest allies. All these preservation programs, as well as those in American studies, tend to produce people who have a new perspective on the past. They just can’t look at a town like Williamsburg and not realize that, in its time, it was a very complex organism with a lot of shady aspects. I think it’s wonderful that Williamsburg is now employing many of these younger people to help them develop new interpretative policies.
In view of the large number of major landmarks that recently have undergone a similar réévaluation of early restoration work, would you say we’re in a period of revisionist preservation?
That’s right. It’s very clear at Monticello, for example, where recent archeology in the gardens represents a radical departure from what they had been doing for decades. Now the archeology of the garden, studied in conjunction with Jefferson’s garden notebooks, has led them into a fascinating new field of landscape archeology. It has proved to be so popular with visitors that, beginning next year, they are going to initiate a program of propagating authentic eighteenth-century plants for sale.
Former students hold you in high esteem. What do you consider the most important qualities of a teacher?
I would say, and I’m not being pious, that my success as a teacher really has been greatest since I became involved with preservation. I think it was the quality of the students that made my teach- ing much more dynamic, because in these students I found a commitment to the subject that I had seldom found in architectural students. It is the distinction between the creator and the curator.
The people who are attracted to the preservation field are fundamentally caretakers, people who really like to take care of the artifacts of the built world. Architects are too often self-centered and arrogant, since artistic creation involves a certain arrogance, and the schools cultivate it in the most outrageous fashion. Of course, we’ll always need creators, but they have severe limitations. They really don’t have an interest in what happened before them, and once the artifact is finished, they don’t care what happens to it afterward. Preservation students often have a quite passionate commitment to the protection and amelioration of the world we live in.
What attracts so many young people to such a poorly paid profession?