HISTORICAL PRESERVATIONS AND RECONSTRUCTIONS
PRESERVED or recaptured structural creations by man that have historical, architectural, archeological, or related cultural values are in a sense at once large-scale exhibits-in-place and "living" museums. Museums into which life has been breathed are a comparatively recent development. Chronologically, the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum may not have been the first exponent of this comprehensive technique in presentation, but most assuredly it has first place as such in the public consciousness.
The "living" museum became even more alive in subsequent developments, wherein the interest-appeal was made to embrace the very housing of the variety of objects that so shortly before had seemed in themselves complete, if dormant, exhibits. It was as though, become aware that both an inside and an outside were part and parcel of its being, the museum became "fourth-dimensional." Restored Williamsburg, Virginia, effectively pictured the apogee of cavalier life in Tidewater Virginia before the Revolution. Dearborn, Michigan, made magnetic by a catholic taste and unlimited funds, attracted to Greenfield Village an anachronistic assortment of uprooted scientific and cultural shrines and their accoutrements for the new presentation.
There are those who will see no tie whatever between these presentations of the past and the wilderness preserve in public ownership. There are those who will challenge the appropriateness in a natural park of any and all structures not absolutely indispensable to human use of the park as a domain of Nature. Wherever the preserve is one of exceptional scenic or scientific interest, their contention is well-grounded. But the wilderness preserve not scenically or otherwise than historically exceptional is a singularly appropriate setting for further "fourth-dimensional" exhibits even more typically American and more widely appealing and understandable to the American public than either Williamsburg or Greenfield Village. This fitting complement of the natural park backdrop is the community of the early American scene the Frontier Village.
Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, perhaps other States, have sensed the common touch and ties of that phase of the American past. So, for purposes of recreation and education, traditional pioneer villages have been restored or reconstructed on sites of historical significance in these States. Ohio's Schoenbrunn Memorial re-creates a pre-Revolutionary Moravian mission settlement wiped out by a bloody Indian massacre.
Indiana's Spring Mill brings to life a pioneer outpost that sprang up around the activities of a stone gristmill, built by emigrating Virginia gentry early in the nineteenth century. The mill is so completely rehabilitated that it is again possible to grind corn by primitive methods, an operation which keenly interests park visitors. Its upper floors are given over to the display of early farm implements, household utensils, and handcraft items. The pharmacy is furnished with contemporary equipment and restocked with merchandise of the period.
Illinois' New Salem presents a chapter of the Lincoln legend by bringing back with well-fabricated authenticity the scene of his romance with Ann Rutledge in the village of his railsplitting and storekeeping youth.
Great interest attends upon the survivals of primitive industry as exemplified by the restored mills in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There is substance to inspire solemn retrospection in the reconstructed hospital and huts that were the soldiers' barracks at Morristown in the War of the Revolution.
Perhaps the time will come when each and every State will be moved similarly to crystallize into actuality some distinctive cultural, empire-building, exploitative, or industrial phase of its beginnings. It may well be that enough Texas longhorn cattle now fast stampeding to extinction can be corralled and managed so that a herd will again exist to bring thrill and meaning to some ranch carefully restored to re-create the heyday of the cowboy. Perhaps a southern cotton plantationbig house and quartersacquired and put again in operation will lend realism to the romantic tradition of the southern feudalism of ante bellum days. A mining community of midcentury Colorado, a wharf and the paraphernalia of shipping of clipper ship days at Salem or Newburyport, a community actuated by a primitive iron furnace in Pennsylvania, a fur-trading postthese and untold others may some day make the automobile, and not the book, the medium for teaching history and much besides. It is not difficult to imagine a transcontinental motor route of the future linking a succession of phases of the westward march of empire of our past.
All developments of this kind achieve reality and vitality by reason of careful attention to every detail in surroundings and furnishings. In the examples cited relics of historical association contribute to the interest, and minutiae of the period highlight the illusion. The educational and social values potential in such exhibits are incalculable. Surely it is not too much to claim that they stimulate an interest in history and the early arts and crafts and tend to bring about a reevaluation of the pioneering virtues and American ideals that seem progressively remote from us in modern life.
The curse of most historical restorations, reconstructions, or re-creations is an almost irresistible urge to gild the lily. Why persons charged with bringing authenticity to something out of the past feel licensed to indulge their personal tastes and fancies in the direction of improving on known historical or structural fact is not understandable, but it is almost the rule. As an instance, the chimney on a pioneer cabin was typically a strictly practical affair, utilizing no more materials than were needed to encase the flues, and, if it were on the exterior of the cabin, resulted in something probably ungainly and spindling in appearance by today's standards. The currently fashionable silhouette in chimneys is something very much more stocky and ample. The result? Present day reconstructions of the pioneer's cabin generally are garnished with chimneys proportioned to the tastes of today, and the gaunt and gawky utilitarian aspect of the frontier type is completely missed.
Again, it is sought allegedly to recapture the surroundings of an historic personage whose misfortune it was to have made history at a time when architecture and the decorative arts were degradedso degraded, in fact, that the restorer, with commendable compassion but utter lack of honesty, feels called upon to warp the personage's period by a decade or two in order that his returning ghost may enjoy a décor more glamorous than the revolting black walnut and chromos he had to endure in life. A kindly and artistic impulse, but in violation of the basic obligations of the responsible restoration technician.
Wherever it is proposed to restore or reconstruct anything with pretensions to historical value, there should always be on hand a stubborn horse-sensible codger, skeptical enough to ask "Why?" and too smart-headed to mistake mere enthusiasm and sentiment for a right answer. He should be crowned with laurel forthwith, enthroned as chairman of the project, and charged to ask "Why?" at half-hour intervals until the proposal is tabled or the keys to the finished product are turned over to the Park Authority. This is Recommendation No. 1 for Intelligent Restoration.
This shrewd skeptic is a realist who knows that restorations worthy the designation are not tinkered out of hearsay, three generations removed, and sentiment only. Well and stubbornly may he refuse to become party to a so-called restoration, if he is privy to all that has been done and blithely called by that name. Righteously he croaks his doubt that there can be either evidence or glamour enough in a single excavated hearthstone to validate an entire new building fabricated around it.
Chairman Smart knows that misguided efforts in so-called restoration have forever lost to us much that was authentic, if crumbling. He is aware that the faint shadow of the genuine often makes more intelligent appeal to the imagination than the crass and visionary replica. He recognizes that for a group to materialize largely out of thin air its arbitrary conception of what is fitting and proper is to trespass the right and privilege of the individual to re-create vanished or near-vanished things within his own imagination.
Large or small, restoration and reconstruction projects in parks call for exceptional skill and sympathetic collaboration on the part of the many professions and interests concerned with park planning, if successful accomplishment is to result.
The general restoration policy adopted by the National Park Service, upon recommendation of its Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments, reads:
"The motives governing these activities are several, often conflicting: aesthetic, archeological and scientific, and educational. Each has its values and its disadvantages."
Educational motives often suggest complete reconstitution, as in their heyday, of vanished, ruinous or remodelled buildings and remains. This has often been regarded as requiring removal of subsequent additions, and has involved incidental destruction of much archeological and historical evidence, as well as of aesthetic values arising from age and picturesqueness. The demands of scholarship for the preservation of every vestige of architectural and archeological evidence desirable in itself might, if rigidly satisfied, leave the monument in conditions which give the public little idea of its major historical aspect or importance. In aesthetic regards, the claims of unity or original form or intention, of variety of style in successive periods of building and remodelling, and of present beauty of texture and weathering may not always be wholly compatible.
"In attempting to reconcile these claims and motives, the ultimate guide must be the tact and judgment of the men in charge. Certain observations may, however, be of assistance to them:
"(1) No final decision should be taken as to a course of action before reasonable efforts to exhaust the archeological and documentary evidence as to the form and successive transformations of the monument.
"(2) Complete record of such evidence, by drawings, notes and transcripts should be kept, and in no case should evidence offered by the monument itself be destroyed or covered up before it has been fully recorded.
"(3) It is well to bear in mind, the saying: 'Better preserve than repair, better repair than restore, better restore than construct.'
"(4) It is ordinarily better to retain genuine old work of several periods, rather than arbitrarily to 'restore' the whole, by new work, to its aspect at a single period.
"(5) This applies even to work of periods later than those now admired, provided their work represents a genuine creative effort.
"(6) In no case should our own artistic preferences or prejudices lead us to modify, on aesthetic grounds, work of a bygone period representing other artistic tastes. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, but more varied and more interesting, as well as more honest.
"(7) Where missing features are to be replaced without sufficient evidence as to their own original form, due regard should be paid to the factors of period and region in other surviving examples of the same time and locality.
"(8) Every reasonable additional care and expense are justified to approximate in new work the materials, methods and quality of old construction, but new work should not be artificially 'antiqued' by theatrical means.
"(9) Work on the preservation and restoration of old buildings requires a slower pace than would be expected in new construction."
Last Updated: 04-May-2012