Literature and Landmarks

January 17, 2015 History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (1) 261

This is the building in Harlem New York where Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man.  There have been extensive alterations, some of which were there in 1947 when he wrote the book. 

This week Ray Bradbury’s classic book Fahrenheit 451 was occupying our living room couch because my daughter was reading it as a high school assignment.  As I did, as many of us did.  It is a classic about the need for books, for culture, in the face of dystopia.  At the same time, the author’s home for over 50 years was being demolished a few hundred miles to the south, in Los Angeles, by the prize-winning architect Thom Mayne.  You can see the demolition and read about it here.    People are so upset that Mayne himself said it was “a bummer,” and you know how hard it is to crack an architect’s ego.

But the larger and more interesting question is:  How do we preserve the legacy, the memory, the significance of a literary landmark?  The issue is at the heart of many of our current debates about the National Register of Historic Places and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, both of which are geared toward architecture and are not always ideally suited to the preservation of memory, of culture, of the rich loam that nourishes books like Fahrenheit 451 and all of the students who have read it for the last half-century.  Here are a few examples I have used to illustrate literary landmarks over the years, and each of them betrays an architectural modesty, if not monstrosity.  They are significant not because of their form, but because of what happened there.

Carl-Sandburg

This is where Carl Sandburg wrote his Chicago poems in 1916 while living on the second floor. 

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His birthplace, in Galesburg, Illinois, is also a landmark and he only lived there six months and wrote nothing.

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Emily Dickinson lived and wrote in this Amherst, Massachusetts house built by her grandparents.

I lived many years in Oak Park, Illinois, which in addition to loads of Frank Lloyd Wright houses, has not one, but three houses that Nobel Prize winning writer Ernest Hemingway lived in before the age of 18.  The one my Literary Landmarks tour usually included is the birthplace house where he lived to age 6, and it has been largely restored to the appearance it had when he lived there.

hemignway

The architect was Wesley Arnold, and I remember folks coming to Steve Kelley’s house (Arnold’s own home) to see his staircase so they could approximate the one that was lost here.

The challenge with sites that are SIGNIFICANT for cultural contributions that aren’t architecture is how do you preserve a significance that may or may not be conveyed architecturally?  The Hemingway Birthplace and the building below are examples of the traditional approach:  restore the property to the way it appeared AT THE TIME it became significant, so for the 1911 building below, that meant, in part, 1957, when Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and so many other legends began recording some of humanity’s most significant songs there.

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Chess Records, 2120 S. Michigan Ave, Chicago.  The storefront of this 1911 building was modified by Chess Records in 1957, so that is how it was restored, because that is the period of significance.

So that could work – you are seeing the place as it appeared when the history happened.  But arguably you need to do other things, like make or record music there.  A literary landmark should presumably host readings and seminars, and indeed, the Hemingway Birthplace had a project where a writer lived and wrote for several months on the third floor.  These are all excellent efforts at preserving – and sustaining – cultural heritage.  Still, trying to save culture with a toolbox defined by buildings is an exceedingly difficult challenge.  Perhaps that is why Mayne thought he could tear down what he considered an architecturally significant house and create some OTHER sort of memorial to Ray Bradbury.  And we certainly have examples of monuments to cultural figures that aren’t habitable buildings.  One of my favorites is the Benjamin Franklin “house” in Philadelphia.

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Two points here:  One, the house was not demolished by those memorializing it.  Two, the creative interpretation is itself now an architectural landmark of Venturi and Scott Brown.

The impulse to save a BUILDING is that we connect, haptically, to a three-dimensional place more than we do to a written sign or story.  Is this true for cultural heritage sites whose significance is, literally, stories?  (Or literally, literature.)  Or music or visual arts?  Or, can you argue that a memorial or artistic installation at a site could be even MORE evocative of a place’s historical and cultural significance?

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Haymarket site, Chicago.  21st century sculpture by Mary Brogger.  As a historian, I tend to find the cobblestone alleyway and surviving buildings more evocative, but I’m an outlier.

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Roger Brown Home and Studio – since it has its collection, you actually have a fully outfitted time capsule of how the artist lived and worked. 

I taught many courses on the use of artistic installations to interpret historic sites where the original fabric was gone or failed to convey the significance effectively.  But this is not the same as Mayne deciding to remove the house and memorialize the author afterwards – we always dealt with sites that were already missing something.  Even if there is a better way to memorialize Bradbury than the house he lived and worked in, no one made that comparison prior to demolition.

As a historian who sees history in every landscape, I am not a reliable consumer of interpretation, although I do think you can make a strong argument for the quotidian.  My favorite aspect of the Roger Brown Home and Studio is the medicine cabinet, full of ordinary medicine cabinet things.  It doesn’t tell me anything about the art of Roger Brown but it makes it really clear that he was a person and he lived like a person, so for me it creates a connection.

rbrown med cabtS

Real people get indigestion.

I was struck on my visit to the Frank Sinatra House in Palm Springs by two things:  First, the stunningly detailed restoration of this late 1940s modernist treasure, its comprehensive outfitting with period furniture and even a 1947 stereo system.

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But what was the one place that everyone wanted to see?  The one story that created the greatest connection in this architecturally AND historically significant house was the one BROKEN thing in it.  The sink where Frank threw a bottle at Ava Gardner, or so the story goes.  It still has a visible crack in it.  All that architectural perfection and the key element is the one imperfection.

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There is very little in our Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation that gives any sort of consistent guidance as to how to deal with culturally significant sites from literature, fine arts, music, theater and the like.  Architectural form is the default, which arguably is a disservice to the bulk of cultural enterprise.  Perhaps a Hollywood celebrity scandal is not as weighty as the President Lincoln’s cottage or Georgia O’Keefe’s Studio, but the challenge in determining how to PRESERVE cultural history, memory and the significance of various events and people remains the same.

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President Lincoln’s cottage, Washington DC.

We recently lost one of the most eloquent and intelligent voices in the preservation world who was trying to tackle this subject, Dr. Clement Price, whom I knew as a Trustee of the National Trust for HIstoric Preservation.  More than anyone, he was trying to find ways to conserve the rich and diverse cultural legacy of the United States, a legacy that is not contained within and cannot be told solely through architecture.  His early demise leaves a large job for the rest of us because he knew that our roster of historic sites had massive gaps in terms of MEMORY and intangible cultural heritage.

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O Henry House, San Antonio, Texas

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O Henry House, Austin, Texas

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O Henry plaque, Asheville, North Carolina

I think the most important challenge we have as we approach the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (2016) is to find effective ways of preserving our cultural heritage.  I think the process of cultural heritage planning laid out in the Burra Charter can provide a protocol for doing this.  I think the process of IDENTIFYING, EVALUATING, and TREATING cultural heritage can work anywhere, but not if our only treatment is architectural.  We should  revamp our Standards and work to find effective ways of conserving the depth and richness of our cultural heritage, not simply the facade.

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Old Ryman, Nashville, TN

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Monument to Ether, Boston Common

One Response to :
Literature and Landmarks

  1. Gayle says:

    Interesting article…I love literary history, and you make so many great points about preservation of our cultural influences. I found this while researching a different kind of landmark ‘creation’ but so glad I did. Keep it up!

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