October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
From the very beginning AMERICAN HERITAGE has viewed history as inseparable from the place where it unfolded. Indeed, the first words in the first issue of the magazine were not about a famous person or a great event; they were about a place. Bruce Catton described contemporary Gettysburg to connect his readers with what had happened there almost a century before. The present place made the past more accessible.
How vividly a place can stimulate a sense of history was made especially clear to me when my wife and I moved to New York City some twenty years ago. We quickly fell in love with the brick and brownstone row houses lining a few downtown blocks, and as soon as we could we set out to buy one. Early on in our search we visited the Merchant’s House, a museum located on the Lower East Side. This high-style late-Federal house was built when East Fourth Street and Astor Place were the epicenter of wealthy and fashionable New York society. Today the neighborhood is exemplary of the grimy, dispiriting reality of late-twentieth-century urban decay. But inside the house you are effectively transported into the comfortable domestic elegance of another time.
A similar pleasure awaits the visitor to Saratoga Springs, New York, the first winner of American Heritage ’s Great American Place Award. We will present this annual award, which we introduce with this issue, to a destination that offers the traveler a particularly rich historical experience and imaginatively uses its past to promote tourism.
Traveling with a sense of history is familiar ground for the magazine. For more than a decade we have made it the theme of our special April travel issue and of our regular column “History Happened Here.” We are now devoting even more space and resources to historic tourism, and for good reason. When you visit a place where history has happened—be it a battlefield or a racing paddock or the parlor of a nineteenth-century house—the past is not so abstract. It simply seems more familiar, more present, and more real. And in a world that changes as rapidly as ours, a sense of history is a useful thing.
It is no mere exercise in nostalgia. It tells us who we are, how we got where we are, and where we may be going. It situates us in the world and provides perspective. Unless we keep history alive and vividly before us, we risk losing its real meaning. We have chosen Saratoga Springs—as we will our future Great American Place Award winners—for its power to remind us that history is not something dead and over. It is always alive, always changing, and we are inescapably part of it.