To Save The World We Built

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What I just said. It’s quite significant how few of the people who’ve gone to Columbia, or into the movement generally, have a working-class background. Apparently if you come from a workingclass family, the ethos is to climb out of the working class. The last thing you want to learn is how to be a plasterer like dad. The people who are coming into the crafts now, almost without exception, come from the upper end of the scale. All of them have degrees, many of them more than one degree, and they are really in flight from middle-class life—from being stockbrokers or lawyers or doctors. It’s a paradox.

Was timing an important factor in the success of the preservation movement?

Actually, in view of what was happening to the built world in America, the movement appeared at the last possible moment, the fifty-ninth minute. In that sense it’s remarkable what’s been accomplished in such a short time. The average person is so dismayed, offended, and outraged by the dominance and misuse of technology, running all the way from TV commercials up to nuclear war, that he is beginning to think, “Well, hadn’t we better reevaluate what we’re giving up before we plunge any further?” Preservation is one reflection of that thinking.

When the house was restored, it changed, in a way for the worse.
 
 

The growing emphasis on presenting historic buildings as they really were rather than as how one would like them to have looked has raised difficult questions. How do you feel about intentionally giving an interior a lived-in, untidy appearance, or having scrawny but historically correct chickens running around in the yard?

In the last analysis the reason for orthodox historic preservation is didactic—that is, to show people how it really was. You can’t show people a 1625 diet built around a 1986 chicken. So the maximum verisimilitude obviously involves a certain kind of artificiality. For example, at Plimoth Plantation, near Boston, to maximize the reality of seventeenthcentury conditions in this reconstructed community, the docents carry on housekeeping tasks in each house. It’s all based on very careful research. They kill chickens, for example, and boil them. Slop water is thrown out of the window. There are no fly screens on the windows. They have taken great pains to reconstruct many other things that are unattractive, even offensive to middle-class urban taste today. Obviously, such things as open privies are prohibited for sanitary reasons, so there are always limitations as to how far you can carry it.

What is the reason for the many current “revisions” of previous restoration projects?

More information. Because of the amount of documentary research that’s been done in recent years, historic houses that were furnished twenty-five or more years ago are probably all up for reexamination. We know, for example, that there was a great deal more travel than we formerly realized; Jefferson almost bankrupted himself because of the number of his houseguests. They were bedded down all over the house, so their notion of privacy was obviously very different from ours. There was a great deal more flexibility in living habits. In hot weather people ate where it was coolest, not necessarily in the dining room; when it was cold, they ate near the fire. Furniture was moved by servants to meet these changing demands.

A chief argument for preserving our architectural heritage is the reassuring sense of continuity landmarks afford. Is it possible to subject a structure to that process and still retain the impression that it really has been around for a hundred years?

It’s very difficult. One can frown on “antiquing” new materials, and I do frown on it. But take the Alice Austen House on Staten Island. It is a wooden house, the earliest section dating from the seventeenth century, that had been Victorianized in the mid-nineteenth century. It was in very bad condition. We went to extravagant lengths to use every scrap of the old wooden fabric that was recoverable. But when all the carpentry was done and the house was painted, it changed, in a way for the worse. All sorts of obvious clues to its antiquity were lost. And yet Alice Austen was a merciless housekeeper—until she went bankrupt—and had the house painted whenever she could afford it. So at times the contradictions are just not soluble.

Ultimately, of course, the Austen House will age. Here again we can look at the new maintenance regime at WiIliamsburg. It used to be that they whitewashed the fences every spring and mowed the grass and weeded the paths regularly. Then they realized that this is not a housekeeping style that farmers could have afforded. Now they’ve cut way back on these schedules. So you see shabby fences, sagging gates, and grass that isn’t mowed as often as it used to be. These are not affectations but serious efforts to come closer to the way it used to be.

That also helps cut down on the maintenance cost, but what about the initial cost of restoration projects?

They’re very costly. The restoration of the Alice Austen House and garden cost $1,135,000.