Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States
Edited by Max Page and Randall Mason. New York: Routledge, 2003; 336 pp., illustrations, notes; cloth $90.00; paper $22.95.
In Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States, editors Max Page and Randall Mason outline a critical examination and engagement with how a new generation of preservation scholars, activists, and practitioners might return history to the center of our field. Essays by David Lowenthal, Rudy J. Koshar, Chris Wilson, Daniel Bluestone, Robert Weyeneth, Ned Kaufman, and others begin "to sketch," as Page and Mason assert, "the approaches of a new generation of scholarship on the history of historic preservation" that "suggest how preservation today might look different if we took into account an accurate history of the movement." Interestingly, Giving Preservation a History in many ways responds (perhaps unintentionally) to Robert Stipe's A Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twentieth Century (2003). In that book of essays, Stipe argues that we "must move beyond the problem of saving architectural artifacts and begin to think about how we can conserve urban neighborhoods, rural landscapes, and natural resources for human purposes." Stipe continues that "this is particularly urgent at a time when some special interest and ethnic groups, in an effort to discover their own heritage, have begun to isolate themselves even more, rejecting the notion of a common heritage for all Americans and placing a new emphasis on social and ethnic differences."(1) Stipe does not see what Page and Mason recognize as critical moments in any rethinking or retelling of preservation history: the effects of the civil rights and women's rights movements beginning in the 1960s.
Despite Giving Preservation a History's clarion call for a new set of "views from history" to inform a larger and more comprehensive story of American preservation, one can argue that the story of racial oppression still remains somewhat marginalized and understated in this seminal reexamination of the discipline of preservation: the history of preservation has roots in our national discourse that begins much earlier than the 1960s. The 1890s provides a better point of departure for understanding the long-term legacy of previous social reform movements based on analytical strategies of research and practice centered on race and gender. Any discussion involving preservation cannot ignore the work of African American women reformers who, in the 1890s, argued for and worked to inscribe a social and political ideology of "race uplift" on the built environment after slavery and the ferment over black nationalism, history, and identity. The story about women and preservation is not limited to Ann Pamela Cunningham and her efforts at Mount Vernon in the 1850s.
In his essay, "Historic Preservation, Public Memory, and the Making of Modern New York City," Mason provides important groundwork for establishing race as a new vantage point for historic preservation practice: "Preservation was among the several types of social-environmental reform that took hold under the rubric of the Progressive movement around the turn of the twentieth century." A new methodology therefore requires us to consider the built environment as a kind of repository of African American women's strategies for self-empowerment and for remembering the impact of enslavement on their communities and American society. While many white Victorians were primarily interested in promoting an appropriate history after the Civil War and consolidating their moral authority over the past, African Americans used space-making as a way of expressing their new-found social, political, and economic independence.
Daniel Bluestone's essay, "Chicago's Mecca Flat Blues," best reflects the kind of work that responds to Mason's challenge, arguing that race can become the critical narrative in a building's history. Bluestone writes that architectural historians have focused far too long on Chicago's skyscrapers and single-family houses while ignoring late-19th-century apartment buildings. Chicago's apartment houses combined public space and the private realm into a kind of hybrid model that some believed inappropriate for modern urban social life. Designed in 1891 by Willoughby J. Edbrooke and Franklin Pierce Burnham, the Mecca apartment building reflects the changing role of natural light and landscape in turn-of-the-century Chicago architecture. The building, once a showcase for Anglo-Saxon "flatseekers" with its glazed interior courtyard, was rented to black tenants by 1919.
The growth of the city's Black Belt and racial violence against African Americans on Chicago's South Side allowed apprehensive whites to label the building "a prime example of the worst slum tenements." Bluestone writes, "Over time, race intersected with urban space to alter the history and fragment public perceptions of the Mecca." The Mecca's decade-long preservation struggle, ending in its demolition to make way for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology, helped to emphasize the "alternative priorities" of housing and neighborhood over Chicago School aesthetics.
Bluestone, along with other contributors like Chris Wilson, helps to challenge established values and standards of American architectural history. Unfortunately Wilson, in "Place Over Time: Restoration and Revivalism in Santa Fe," waits until almost the end of his essay to critically engage with issues related to working-class Hispanic residents, gentrification, and heritage tourism—issues that are central to reexamining preservation and its future as a tool of civic engagement. I would second Ned Kaufman's concluding remarks in his essay, "Moving Forward: Futures for a Preservation Movement"—
I do ask preservationists to commit themselves and their practice to a social ideal appropriate to the dawn of the twenty-first century: a revitalized notion of citizenship within an equitable society, a public policy based in values of place, an invigorated concept of history, and a healthy skepticism toward growth and market forces. In short, to a passionate struggle to change how society imagines, preserves, and inhabits its heritage—a preservation movement.
Mason and Page argue that expanding solely on existing canons or historiographic conventions may serve only to legitimize the work of historians who have excluded the experiences of marginalized groups. By broadening the fields of architectural history and preservation, and, in particular, by incorporating the experiences of African American women, scholarship will effect a more inclusive dialogue that considers the role of the disempowered to preserve their heritage while initiating change through the built environment.
Angel David Nieves
University of Maryland, College Park
1. Robert E. Stipe, ed., A Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-First Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), xv.