Storied Landscapes Narrate the History of Historic Preservation in Architecture Professor's New Book

January 04, 2011

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January 6, 2011 — Historic preservation was not a defined academic discipline before the late 1960s. Prior to that time, the field fell under the purview of "architects, historians, politicians, civic groups, and legions of dedicated volunteers, often dismissively referred to as 'little old ladies in tennis shoes,'" said Daniel Bluestone, a specialist in American architecture and urban history who heads the historic preservation program in the University of Virginia's School of Architecture.

The rise of the discipline in academia runs parallel to the adoption of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, almost 150 years after the nation began to consider its history and its connection to place.

In his new book, "Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory," Bluestone chronicles historic preservation in the United States through 10 case studies that look at preservation from the early days of the new nation, when French general and American Revolutionary supporter Marquis de Lafayette toured the United States in 1824 and 1825, to the restoration and preservation of lands that were once toxic landscapes, which provides a more broad and more diverse understanding of our world today.

Bluestone said he wrote the book to help preservationists think critically about their work by focusing on the intersection between values, politics and culture in the decision to either preserve or not preserve historic buildings, landscapes and resources, he said.

"I want people to be able to focus on that relationship to the past and the relevance and significance of that for the way in which we live today and the way in which we hope to live in the future," he said.

The case studies represent different genres of preservation.

In the chapter on Lafayette ¬– the last surviving Revolutionary War general at the time of his tour – the earliest traditions of preservation in the U.S. are tied up in politics and place. Bluestone points out "people weren't engaged in historic preservation as a means of engaging the aesthetic character of architecture. What they were doing was investing political and civic memories in particular places. I was fascinated in looking at the choreography of the tour and following the decisions where actual places are used as a way of helping people remember and value the lessons of revolution. Part of what the tour does is surface all the ways in which place can be a living or existing embodiment of historical memory."

Preservation also encompasses decisions to destroy the past. In Brooklyn, N.Y., the choice to not preserve trumped the desire to protect the memory of the place as an agricultural landscape. The late 17th- and early 18th-century Dutch homesteads that dotted the landscape were obliterated, save for one home that was moved and preserved in Prospect Park. As Brooklyn rapidly developed from a farming community to a suburb and then urban center, "The people who were building the next generation of housing decided that the Dutch homesteads were irrelevant to them, that they have nothing to value," Bluestone said.

"The transformation left the landscape devoid of architectural traces of a quarter millennium of local settlement and history," Bluestone said.

The Mecca Flats housing in Chicago suffered a similar fate. The apartment building, constructed just prior to the 1893 Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World's Fair), was an example of forward-thinking housing that incorporated an atrium space that acted as an interior street for its residents. After about 20 years it became "the most visible massing of African Americans on the south side of Chicago," following the rapid population increase of blacks as they migrated north.

The story of Mecca Flats, its architectural and cultural significances and eventual destruction is tied to the politics of place. The building was "narrated in blues bars on Chicago's South Side, where there was an improvisational music called Mecca Flat               Blues, which told stories of heartbreak, love and drama played out around the interior atrium," Bluestone said. "There was also poetry and fiction that focused on this extraordinary interior world of the Mecca Flats."

After a succession of owners, Mecca Flats was purchased by the Illinois Institute of Technology and, although civic groups worked to preserve the building and its distinguished historical heritage, it fell into disrepair and also was in the way of the institute's campus expansion. The institute campaigned for more than 15 years to tear it down.

"There was legislation passed in both houses of the Illinois legislature banning the demolition because they were trying to destroy it at a time during World War II when there are African-American servicemen whose families were living in the building," Bluestone said.

It is ironic, Bluestone added, that the building would have made a wonderful student dormitory promoting social interaction in the interior "street," which was lacking in the tall 20th-century high-rise dorms on campus.

Bluestone noted another irony. "The building does get demolished and what goes up on its site is Crown Hall, probably the most important building that Mies van der Rohe builds in Chicago and certainly at IIT," he said.

Mecca Flats' loss, Bluestone said, "helps to conjure up the relationship between what we value architecturally, what we value in terms of community and what we don't value. The story intersects with race and its role in shaping American cities and I think preservation has fit into that or not fit into that in important ways."

Closer to home, Bluestone chronicles the stories of three Virginia landscapes. "Drive-by History," the Virginia historic highway maker program, is a chapter about economics and the use of history to generate historical tourism and eventual business expansion in the state by out-of-state visitors. The effort was a loosening of the preservation link to place as the markers told of events that happened "nearby."

"The fascinating thing is that history doesn't always happen along the modern highways. It took the things that were so powerful about preservation, attachment to specific places, and broke the connection to place, a way that preservation had always trafficked in, so there's a loosening of what it was to be a storied landscape," Bluestone said.

Many markers commemorate Civil War battles, though Bluestone said it was notable that they always referred to the events as an engagement, retreat or battle to "sidestep the reference to the Civil War. It was an interesting effort to make palatable history to different constituencies."

The marker program was successful in supporting community pride in the history and the effort of people to "literally put themselves on the map."

Court Square in downtown Charlottesville is the story of a colonial revival landscape that has nothing to do with the courthouse town settled as Charlottesville in the 18th century.

"It's actually a creation of the 20th century. It's more of a colonial revival landscape and what we see are elements of fabricated history," Bluestone said.

The preservation of Court Square began during the "City Beautiful" movement of the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, which sought to improve cities by inspiring civic pride and correcting social ills. The preservation effort was tied to the reclamation of Court Square as a white civic space.

"Some of the oldest buildings in Charlottesville, just west of the Court House, were demolished not only to provide a site for the fine equestrian statue of Stonewall Jackson, but also by the nineteen-teens the entire west side had flipped demographically and became the residence of working-class African-Americans," Bluestone said. The removal of African-Americans from proximity to Court Square "is an anticipation of urban renewal and early displacement of African-Americans from the downtown area."

A chapter, "Captured by Context," also explores the relationship between U.Va.'s  Academical Village and the Jeffersonian architectural tradition.

Bluestone praises the preservation work at the University. "It's done with a level of integrity and rigor that is refreshing and that landscape of the Academical Village connects us to our founder and to our designer. It's a landscape that connects current students and faculty back to the traditions of the University. But I also feel that perhaps Jefferson did us a disservice by leaving such an extraordinary landscape," he said.

Bluestone traces the propensity for the use of white columns and red brick in new buildings on Grounds today back to the 1895 fire that destroyed the Rotunda and the "sentiment to replace it exactly as Jefferson designed."

The University's adoption of guidelines for new construction is part of larger preservation issues related to historic resources. Dealing with development adjacent to historic sites and establishing community guidelines to preserve a sense of place is a dilemma many communities address. Santa Fe, N.M., adopted a regionally Pueblo/Spanish style; Charleston, S.C., established a board of architectural review to oversee the "old and historic district" of the city; and John D. Rockefeller restored pre-1790 Williamsburg buildings and destroyed those that came after. All were put in place to "create harmony with history," Bluestone said.

The chapter uses the University to focus readers on the impact of historic regulations and preservations guidelines on the continuing unfolding of place.

"The real value of preservation as a public good," Bluestone said, "is letting people understand history in the places in which they live, letting them experience it and understand the landscape that they occupy, the buildings they occupy as storied and storied in ways that let them look at architecture in new ways, let them look at history in new ways and let them look at their own living in new ways."

— By Jane Ford

Media Contact

Jane Ford

Senior News Officer U.Va. Media Relations