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To Save The World We Built

July 2024
18min read

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.

Twenty years ago nobody thought much about saving old buildings. The phrase urban renewal had an optimistic, forward-looking sound to it, and entire urban centers were razed with little thought of what might be lost in the process. Today communities across America are fighting to save their architectural heritage. James Marston Fitch, more than any other individual, has championed that cause. Born in Wash- ington, D.C., he grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a family proud of its pre-Revolutionary American ancestors but numbering among its members many whom he considers failures. At the age of fifteen he entered the University of Alabama intending to become an engineer. The following year he transferred to the architectural program at Tulane, but financial reverses forced him to leave after two years and find a job. At the beginning of his career he designed traditional houses; later he became a staunch advocate of the modern style. In 1954 he began teaching the history of architecture at Columbia University, and ten years later he instituted the nation’s first graduate curriculum in historic preservation there, creating the prototype for the dozens of programs that now exist.

Fitch is currently director of historic preservation at the architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle in New York City.

Now I am a curator of antiques, not a designer of replicas.

You began your career designing eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century-style buildings, then turned against them to become a committed modernist. But in recent years you’ve again become involved with traditional idioms. Why?

When I began, the only mode of design given students in the Beaux-Arts system of teaching architecture was the idiom of the past. That restriction led to my rebellion against the whole apparatus. Now, fifty years later, I am working again with artifacts designed in these older idioms, but with the crucial difference that now I am a curator of authentic antiques, not a designer of replicas. Under no circumstances would I design a replica for a new site as I did in the beginning of my career. Of course, there are times when a preservation project requires the insertion of a new element, which- while being clearly new—must also be congruent. Two of my firm’s recent projects—the South Street Seaport Museum and the proposed Hearst Tower—illustrate that principle.

What made you stop designing traditional buildings?

I began to recognize the contradiction between designing houses in the traditional styles and having to conceal within them all the new technology. My first published piece, which appeared in Architecture in 1933, dealt with this subject. I had recently finished a replica of the famous Natchez mansion Auburn, which had many aspects that pleased me in 1933: the woodwork, the vaulted plaster, the beautiful handcrafted freestanding spiral stair with no metal supports, the handmade sand-finished brick. This was also the first house in Nashville to have air conditioning, which meant ductwork. But ducts were a flagrant contradiction with the solid masonry walls, so I had to sneak them in. Every time I put a piece of modern technology into a traditional structure like that, I found that it was troublesome and expensive.

The turning point for me came as we were remodeling a vulgar, “catalog” colonial house. Our task was to style it up to make it look like a literate, polished piece of historic architecture. We were installing a room that was to be the library, although as I remember it, the clients owned few, if any, books. We had bought an old, very handsome Empire cypress chimney breast in New Orleans, and I had designed the shelving and paneling for the rest of the room in the same style and wood. When the installation was completed and the workmen and I had finished admiring our handiwork, I said, “Well, boys, the next thing we have to do is antique all this new wood so that it matches the old mantel. I want you, Joe, to take this chisel and knock off all the sharp edges of the moldings—not too brutally, just so the molding looks as though it had been bumped into for 150 years. Bill, I would like you to beat all the new cypress with this bunch of keys. Tom, mix a couple of pats of cow manure and some lime in a fivegallon pail of water and slop it all over the woodwork with this big brush, but before it’s completely dry, wipe it so it has the same patina as the old cypress.” There was a dead silence. Finally I asked, “What’s wrong?” One of the men said, “Mr. Fitch, do you mean that you want us to spoil all this beautiful new woodwork we just got finished putting in?”

That really ran me right through the heart. I call it my “Balaam’s Ass Story”—you know, an ass saw an angel and Balaam didn’t. That was a turning point in my intellectual approach toward fakery and imitation in architecture.

What finally made you decide to leave Tennessee?

In 1930, at the age of twenty-one, I got a job with an architect in Nashville. All of a sudden I was working for the richest people in town, and although I didn’t have the same social background, I was going to all the balls and dancing with the debutantes. For two or three years I was really riding high. Well, the Depression taught me how evanescent those things were. The copy of Auburn was finished in 1934, and for a year or so, I couldn’t get any professional employment. In order to make a living, I was doing maintenance gardening for some of the houses I had designed. I remember a very vivid nightmare from that time. It had to do with a house I’d been working on. The entrance hall was floored in black-and-white marble tiles, with a circular stair at one end and a cloakroom and a powder room on either side of the entrance door. I had had trouble laying out the pattern of the tiles in these two tiny rooms. In the dream. I was not drawing this floor but actually in the room trying to fit the tiles, and they wouldn’t quite fit. When I finally got the thing worked out, I was sitting back on my haunches admiring my handiwork when I saw a blade of grass. So I picked the grass out. I saw another blade of grass, picked it out, and then another. All of a sudden the room was on fire with grass, and I woke up in a panic. The message of that dream was perfectly clear—Fitch, get the hell out. I was trying to impose a formal pattern on a life that was out of control.

Where did you go?

Eventually I got a job with the Tennessee State Planning Commission, one of the emergency agencies that had just been created by Roosevelt. One of our first projects was an employment survey of architects and engineers in the state, which showed that about 93 percent were unemployed. Well, that radicalized the thinking of many people of my age. It began to seem to me that the corrupt social system that was collapsing around our heads and the corrupt design idioms that we were employing were two sides of the same coin.

In 1935 I was lucky enough to get a very interesting job as an architect with the Federal Housing Administration in Washington, but I was really headed for New York, where the social and political action was and where I hoped to learn more about the modern style. A year later Lawrence Kocher, the editor of Architectural Record , read my piece in Architecture and offered me a job in New York.

What was your idea of “modern” architecture at the time?

It was as much social as aesthetic. This was the beginning of the New Deal, and I was becoming more and more interested in social issues—trade unionism, politics, housing, city planning, education. I also began reading articles on European housing that included pictures of the work of the Bauhaus—beautiful, immaculate white stucco buildings with huge amounts of glass to the south, balconies flooded with sunshine, and beautifully kept lawns and public gardens. They were designing schools, nurseries, and sports facilities that were a summary of the social and cultural ambitions of the times. Another source of images was the extensive publicity for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, which extolled modern architecture. The model houses impressed me most, particularly George Fred Keek’s “Crystal House.” which included steel frames, prefabricated wall panels, and “dematerialized walls,” as Le Corbusier called the transparent screens. The handful of other sparkling functionalist buildings in this country were widely publicized. It was a rnilitantly contemporary concept of a bright new world of space, sunlight, and freedom from any kind of hierarchy, of any indication of rank.

But when the time came to build your own house, it was inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, not that of the International Style. When did you become aware of Wright?

Because of the peculiarities of his career, during the latter part of the 1920s and the early 1930s Wright was almost in complete eclipse. I don’t think I had heard of him before coming to New York in 1936. Since I was earning my living by writing and editing, it was not until 1950 that I again did any architectural design at all. Though I was intellectually enamored with the clarity, the purity, the classlessness of the modern European architecture, it perhaps did not completely satisfy me sensually. By the time I again had an opportunity to design, my tastes had been modified. When I designed my first house, it was in the Wrightian mode.

What was life in New York like when you arrived?

It was fantastic. I had the advantage of immediately becoming part of an exciting circle of architects, writers, editors, and critics. All the great WPA cultural projects were thriving—theater, music, ballet. I had a relatively big salary- thirty-eight hundred dollars a year—and the city was incomparably cheaper and more secure than today. My wife Cieo and I were intoxicated by how safe it was as compared with the South. Cleo could come home at twelve o’clock at night on the subway and feel completely secure. This was psychological as well as physical, because the racism in Southern society had made everybody so fearful. We were stunned by the freedom of living in a big city where you had a real choice of circles and movement, whereas in Nashville there had been no choice: your street address indicated exactly who you were.

When did you become interested in historic preservation?

When Cleo and I traveled in Kurope in the first years after the war, we behaved like ordinary tourists, visiting the standard landmarks and looking at them just as interesting old artifacts. I don’t think it even occurred to me to be surprised that they were still standing, that it required organized curatorial activity to keep them there.

After four or five years of making these annual trips, the State Department asked me if I would meet with a visiting architect from Czechoslovakia. Although I had heard of historic preservation, she was the first specialist in that field I had ever met. I was even more startled to learn that her specialty was churches. She claimed that every church of any historic significance in that communist country either had already been restored, was in the process of being restored, or was slated for restoration. The next year. I toured Czechoslovakia and, by God, I found it was true. That’s when I really got introduced to the whole concept of restoration.

There’s no point in pretending that restoration is a cheap activity.

The other reason for my growing interest in preservation was an increasing dismay at the consequences of urban renewal, which originally had struck me as a logical therapy for ailing cities. I must say it wasn’t until Jane Jacobs began her polemics that I was forced to look at what was happening. The more I looked, the more dismayed I was at the wholesale destruction of old buildings in every city in the country.

Since we had no governmental agencies dedicated to preservation, it seemed to me the universities should assume the responsibility and begin training people. My approach was pragmatic, not antiquarian. The next step was how to accomplish it.

How did you feel entering a field that traditionally had been the domain of ultraconservatives?

When I became involved in the historic preservation movement, I was compelled to reorient my thinking about the active preservationists in towns like Charleston, Savannah, Natchez. Ninetynine percent were white, upper-class Southern women, very often the kind of women I had grown to dislike or distrust because of their political biases. But then I began to realize that many of these same women, in their own context, were really quite radical. They insisted that the historic patrimony be preserved and were quite militant in the battles they fought to do it. I realized there was the possibility of united action, and it was really none of my business whom these women voted for as President so long as they were in favor of preserving all of downtown Savannah and were willing to go out on the picket line to do it. Until very recently the vast majority of landmarks in this country have been saved by such women.

How do you feel about being called the godfather of the preservation movement in America today?

That’s not correct. If there’s any godfather of preservation, Charles Peterson certainly would be it. He founded the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1933, which was one of the main generators of the movement. During the restoration of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Charlie vehemently opposed the demolition of dozens of historic Victorian buildings to make way for a series of plazas like Versailles that would have put Independence Hall in a completely artificial context. If I’m the godfather of anything, it’s education in historic preservation. There’s no question that the program at Columbia has contributed mightily to the cohesiveness and strength of the field.

What sort of curriculum did you envision?

One thing I learned in Europe was that preservation involves not just architects but a range of specialists trained as art historians, engineers, social historians, planners, chemists—a whole spectrum of talent. That struck me as logical and that’s what we aimed for at Columbia.

Since this was the first full-scale graduate program in the country, how did you manage to get the teachers you needed?

There was no possibility of hiring fulltime preservationists, even if we’d had the funds. Instead, I brought in a whole range of specialists to lecture—usually at nominal fees. For example. I persuaded a remarkable woman from Michigan who had degrees in home economics and nutrition to prepare a series of talks on preRevolutionary cuisine, relating it to the physical aspects of the colonial kitchen: what the recipes were, what the equipment was, what the foodstuffs were. We had a Canadian specialist on pre-electrical lighting who really understood the physics and chemistry of early lamps. Another chap lectured on the American food industry, one lecture being on ice and refrigeration and its impact on what people ate and another on canning and transportation.

Aren’t students of architecture usually exposed to many different bodies of knowledge in their training?

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?

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.

Who paid for it?

There was some federal money, but most of it came from the City of New York. You have to decide whether it is a socially and culturally desirable cost. The militant group of people that fought for its preservation thought it was a worthwhile expenditure, and I’d guess, from the way the Board of Estimate voted, the people think so too. Mayor Koch has supported a lot of expensive restorations—for example, the bridges in Central Park. There’s no point in pretending that restoration is a cheap activity. You have to think of it as a cultural activity and fund it on the same basis as you would a museum or a library.

How has your profession changed in the last few years?

The most noticeable change is the growing interest in vernacular artifacts, especially recent ones like filling stations, motels, and strip developments. From an objective point of view, this is appropriate. Undoubtedly the time will come, perhaps very quickly, when people will say, “For God’s sake, why didn’t you save a few of those filling stations when you had the chance?” These artifacts are undoubtedly significant sociologically, and they should be studied, surveyed, and described. But from an aesthetic point of view, most of the structures you see along the American highway today are stylistically corrupt beyond description. What disturbs me is that a lot of young preservationists in their enthusiasm have difficulty in discriminating between historic significance and aesthetic value. There may come a time when people will think that a White Tower hamburger stand is a beautiful artifact. I find it hard to believe. In any case, it’s entirely proper that such artifacts be evaluated as part of our historic patrimony.

But didn’t your generation have the same poor opinion of the aesthetic value of Victorian artifacts that are so widely prized today?

It did, and that’s precisely how I learned this lesson. Obviously you’re entitled to your personal standard as to what you consider valuable, beautiful, ugly, and so on, but you can’t allow your private preference to dictate your policies in the public realms.

Does preservation lead to gentrification?

In the preservation of whole historic districts such as in Savannah or Charleston, there has been a wholesale evacuation of the original population. It’s a nasty development, but don’t blame it all on historic preservation—American cities have always had gentrification in the form of prosperous neighborhoods and poor slums. Whenever the poorer areas were redeveloped, real estate values increased, rents went up, and the original population was forced out. We could avoid gentrification if we wanted to: in Bologna, Italy, everyone living in the historic district has the right to re- main there if he chooses, and every effort is made to guarantee that the ground-floor shops will be occupied by local merchants and craftsmen.

What do you think of the way the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island projects are being handled?

The way they’ve been commercialized is very bad. After all, they belong to the American people and stand on parkland. If we didn’t have a military budget of $321 billion, there might be money to pay for the restoration of these islands out of the public purse. Perhaps, after the opening, that kind of commercial exploitation will be largely over. The reception center on Ellis Island will become a straightforward museum of American immigration. It looks as if the enormous hospital complex there will be converted to a conference center by private investors with very stringent controls. In view of its huge size and poor condition, that’s probably the best deal we can get just now.

If the move to demolish McKim, Mead & White’s Pennsylvania Station in New York had arisen today rather than in the early sixties, would we have lost the battle?

I think we have passed the stage in our national development where that would really be conceivable.

Peter Samton, an architect, suggested that the present Pennsylvania Station be demolished and the original building reconstructed on the site. What was your reaction to that proposal?

Yes, I read that letter in The New York Times . From one point of view, of course, it is a grotesque idea. Nevertheless, the very fact that the proposal was made indicates the radical change in public opinion that has occurred in the past twenty years. A large portion of the public recognizes that the demolition of Penn Station represented an enormous loss. But landmarks cannot be replaced any more than a Rembrandt painting can. A copy will always be nothing more than a copy.

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