Giving Preservation a History
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Giving Preservation a History

Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States

Randall F. Mason, Max Page, Randall F. Mason, Max Page

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eBook - ePub

Giving Preservation a History

Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States

Randall F. Mason, Max Page, Randall F. Mason, Max Page

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In this volume, some of the leading figures in the field have been brought together to write on the roots of the historic preservation movement in the United States, ranging from New York to Santa Fe, Charleston to Chicago. Giving Preservation a History explores the long history of historic preservation: how preservation movements have taken a leading role in shaping American urban space and development; how historic preservation battles have reflected broader social forces; and what the changing nature of historic preservation means for efforts to preserve national, urban, and local heritage.

The second edition adds several new essays addressing key developing areas in the field by major new voices. The new essays represent the broadening range of scholarship on historic preservation generated since the publication of the first edition, taking better account of the role of cultural diversity and difference within the field while exploring the connections between preservation and allied concerns such as environmental sustainability, LGBTQ and nonwhite identity, and economic development.

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New Chapters for the Second Edition


Personal Politics, Preservation, and Power1
Stephanie E. Yuhl
One need only take a quick walk down the National Mall in Washington, D.C. or along Wall Street in New York City to understand that the built environment is very much about power—those who have it and those who do not. In material, scale, and style, these spaces work to impress upon passersby the authority, rightness, and permanence of the state, the economy, and the nation. But what happens when that same passerby, a tourist, for instance, moves through a preserved historic landscape of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century domestic buildings? Do visitors as readily understand that this kind of space is also the result of individuals exercising power to select for a community certain structures, and their associated histories, as worthy of protection, restoration, and interpretation—at the exclusion of other structures and counter-histories? Or might the alluring aesthetics of a preserved landscape—of mansions, cobblestone streets, gas lamps, and sweeping side porches— obscure the power dynamics behind its creation and, therefore, provide an illusory sense of history as quaint, orderly, and knowable? All preserved built environments result from choices that often reveal more about the anxieties and values of the people doing the preserving than about an elusive, complex past or present of a place. Early preservation efforts in Charleston, South Carolina, the country’s first broad-scale movement, provide a rich opportunity to explore this central element of preservation work and its greatest challenge as an agent for social justice: how are the personal politics of preservationists imposed on the built environment, and how do they shape the stories that are, and are not, represented through it?
In 1920, a group of elite white Charleston women asserted their role as guardians of the city’s endangered historical landscape by founding the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings (hereafter SPOD). Unlike later preservationists at places like Greenfield Village, Michigan or Williamsburg, Virginia, Charleston preservationists did not invent a historic landscape from scratch nor from a small handful of buildings; rather they worked with the city’s existing structural resources.2 The significance of a building, however, depended on the extent to which it functioned for preservationists as a highly personal and concrete reminder of “traditional” cultural customs and values that were synonymous, in preservationists’ hearts and minds, with Charleston. SPOD activists, for example, were largely descended from the enslaver and planter class, so when they bestowed “sacred relic” status on the grand eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century residences of that group, it was a highly subjective and emotional act of claiming history. So too were their choices to disregard the enslaved black labor that created those elite domestic spaces (much as their ancestors took as an invisible given the labor of their chattel slaves). In the 1920s and 30s, Charleston preservationists extended this racial sensibility as they advocated the destructive “clean up” of modest vernacular, usually working-class and black-occupied, structures. In these preservation decisions, SPOD members turned as much to historical amnesia as to historical memory, deeply rooted in family and racial values.
In the late 1920s, as historic preservation became more fashionable and potentially profitable, professional male architects and city officials assumed the reigns of Charleston’s movement. Buttressed by their gender and credentials, these men established the nation’s first historic zoning ordinance, carving out valued and devalued spaces (and people) on the city’s map, in a manner similar to the European imperial agents who created imagined colonial and postcolonial nations through remapping spaces in India, Africa, and Asia. The creation of a Board of Architectural Review (BAR) in 1931 further reinforced the status and aesthetic control of Charleston’s male powerbrokers in Charleston.3 While the authority to regulate the cityscape may have shifted hands from female to male in this period, the elite white spirit that defined the city’s historic spaces and public memory remained constant. Preservationists continued to project their personal politics onto the three-dimensional fabric of the city.4 Through preservation, Charleston became a flattened and fundamentally ahistorical “historic” landscape serving one group of citizens and disserving another.
The power of Charleston’s preserved landscape resided not only in its claim to represent a single story of History with a capital H but also in its ability to obscure through aesthetics the personal politics of its origins. As the following examination reveals, Historic Charleston was actually less a preserved place than a place made through preservation. Historic Charleston, then, might be best understood as less about history and more about heritage: the elevation of the inherited values of a specific group and the objects that convey, normalize, and naturalize those values as universally agreed-upon, in a way that both masks and substitutes dangerously for history itself. Like so many other communities whose economies are based on historic preservation-led tourism, the result for Charleston has been highly curated process of place-making that, until very recently, has failed to consider in a serious way if and how history and preservation can be partners in social justice.
On Wednesday afternoon, April 21, 1920, a group of thirty-two white Charleston residents gathered in the front parlors of number 20 South Battery, the home of Nell and Ernest H. Pringle, Jr. They congregated at the request of Miss Susan Pringle Frost, a descendant of Charleston’s patrician class, who was a local realtor, and in some cases, relative, of those gathered. The group listened to Frost’s impassioned pleas that they organize themselves into a group to safeguard certain examples of the city’s architecture—that is, structures associated with the enslaver class from which Frost and most of the assembled were descended. Frost described in vivid detail the imminent destruction of the Joseph Manigault House (1802–1803) at the corner of Meeting Street and Ashmeade Place for the construction of automobile garages on the site. Designed by Charleston architect Gabriel Manigault for his brother Joseph, both among the largest enslavers in the South Carolina Lowcountry, the mansion featured elaborate ornamentation and a sweeping staircase; it was a local jewel of Adam-style architecture.5 The potential loss of this monument to elite white Charleston— especially at the hands of such a modern entity as a car garage—was too much for the assembly to imagine. To prevent such a tragedy, those gathered created an association that became known as the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings (SPOD).6
SPOD was neither the first nor the only group of individuals who mobilized to rehabilitate the physical remnants of a remembered past. Its membership drew on a tradition of organizing both in and outside of the South, such as the Mount Vernon Ladies Society, the Ladies Hermitage Association (Tennessee), the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Charlestonians, however, differed from their organizational ancestors. Unlike the more reactionary APVA, for example, Charleston preservationists did not act as a last defense against change. They did not promote a wholesale return to the culture of the Old South.7 Instead, they worked within a somewhat modern framework, attempting to organize certain areas of the city as historic and representative of a personally revered past while allowing other spaces to develop along commercial lines. Indeed, SPOD hoped that their organization would become a kind of consulting firm for the business community, able to “influence commercial interests to select for their business places localities in which old charm is not sacrificed.”8 Frost presented SPOD’s position to the public in a 1928 letter to the editor of a local newspaper:
SPOD also envisioned preservation as a way to resuscitate the local economy by transforming dilapidated structures into “income producing” properties, such as hotels, apartments, and even retail spaces.10 Frost regularly pointed to her own real estate career and the modest living she had earned from restored properties as an illustration of preservation’s economic potential.11 On a smaller scale, SPOD also advocated charging tourists admission to gain access to Charleston’s historic properties in order to offset preservation costs.12 Engaged in a delicate balancing act between past and present, preservationists tried to turn old buildings into bridges that spanned the generations and helped the Old South adapt to the New.13
Most vitally, Frost and SPOD considered historic preservation an effective symbolic vehicle for educating future generations of Charlestonians about their aesthetic inheritance by alerting them to their duty to stop the “desecration” of the city’s historical landscape. “Let us keep to the things that have stood the test of centuries ...;” Frost argued, “[the] beauty and dignity that [have] been handed down by those gone before.”14 To Frost and her followers, these buildings were more than mere brick and mortar. They were the visible remnants of an inherited set of values—of continuity, gentility, and racial order—that she and others like her perceived to be threatened in post-World War I Charleston. Thus, afraid that the destruction of old residences would lead to the alienation of white Charlestonians from their heritage, as well as the “cheapening in the taste of the next generation in home building,” Frost used SPOD to inculcate “in the mind of the public ... a veneration” of the city’s finer buildings.15 For Susan Pringle Frost, her people’s historical memory was at stake. Without it, she scolded, “We are not worthy of these treasure houses that have been handed down to us, and treasures which will be required of us by her children and her children’s children.”16
Frost’s desire to restore the eastern portion of Tradd Street, which had fallen into blighted conditions by the 1910s, including the presence of black-run brothels, stemmed from what one colleague described as her “golden haze of memory and association” about Charleston’s past.17 She purchased the Georgian mansion at number 61 Tradd, built and once-occupied by Frost’s distinguished colonial ancestor, Jacob Motte, a prominent banker, public treasurer, and legislator.18 In doing so, Frost acted on an inherited conception of Tradd Street’s former glory as one of the city’s oldest residential and commercial centers. She sought to put it “back to where it was for so many years before my knowledge. [emphasis added]” To Frost, the real Tradd Street was a place she had never experienced firsthand, but understood through the stories told by her elder kinfolk. It was the place where only “the best people” of Charleston—as opposed to its majority of contemporary African American residents— had resided.19 A significant demographic shift was required to bring this reimagined past into the present. Despite the fact that Charleston has long been a black-majority city, for Frost, the houses on Tradd had to be restored to the state where white occupants (her clients) would move in. Without a shred of irony or self-awareness, Frost relied upon the skills of Thomas Mayhem Pinckney, a local African American ar...

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