What is the Fabric of Cultural History?

September 24, 2016 History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation Comments (2) 325

This is the Malt House in San Antonio.  Dating to 1949, it is the classic car-service restaurant, known for its malted milkshakes.  Generations experienced their localized version of American Graffiti with Mexican and American comfort food and the best malts in town.

At the San Antonio Conservation Society we have not yet formulated a statement on its proposed demolition, but it is becoming apparent that much of the significance of the site is its cultural history – it was a place where things happened and memories were made for many decades, and it is clear that the architectural forms, in this case, may not contain or represent that history.

malt-house-carport-views

You could have experienced the restaurant without ever going inside.  Perhaps its distinctive neon sign is the most designed and most recognized aspect of the site.  Certainly converting the building does not preserve this cultural memory – so how do you conserve it?

malt-house-signs

The Malt House is part of a larger question.  What is the fabric of cultural history? Sometimes it is architecture, but in many cases it is not.  The San Antonio Missions were inscribed as a World Heritage Site not because of the architectural refinement of the mission churches – although some are very fine – but because they were a cultural landscape.  They are World Heritage because they illustrate a confluence of civilizations visible throughout the landscape not only in churches but also ruined walls, agricultural fields, acequias and even a working aqueduct (which your San Antonio Conservation Society saved many years ago!)

Mission Espada aqueduct.jpgEspada Aqueduct

Readers of this blog – and attendees of National Trust conferences – will recall that I have been working on the issue of diversity in our historic sites for many years now.  Earlier this year I gave an important paper at Goucher College describing a series of (fairly minor) reforms in the National Register of Historic Places (which is 50 years old) and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties (40 years old, with the last reform 26 years ago).  You can see some of my thoughts here and here.

relive-moments

I think we have a solution for the integrity problem, thanks to the work of Donna Graves and Wayne Donaldson and others, but we still have an architectural problem in preservation because our regulatory and – especially – our incentive  programs are designed around architectural concepts.  IF we understand sites of cultural and historical significance as not being defined by architectural forms, how do we “preserve” them?

s21-survivor1Phnom Penh, Cambodia

WHAT is being preserved is not a building, but a collection of cultural events, memories and associations.  Perhaps the answer is to require an interpretation on the site as part of its re-use, much as a city might require public art as part of an infrastructure improvement to a road or waterway.

ug-rr-maywood-inssMaywood, Illinois, underground railroad site at a McDonald’s

Now the Malt House is on a busy corner surrounded by various chain retailers and restaurants, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do effective interpretation.  In Maywood, Illinois, they discovered a documented Underground Railroad site near the Des Plaines River.  The building was gone and a McDonald’s was going in.  So they created an artistic installation on the corner of the site that preserves that important historic event and cultural memory.

UG RR maywood plqS.jpg

Of course substituting an interpretive requirement for a rehabilitation requirement presents a significant challenge, since the range of interpretive installations and elements is quite broad.  Perhaps again the “percent for art” formula used by public buildings and public improvements could be a guide, at least for the question of tax incentives.

franklin-court-vw-w-scoop-copy-copy

Franklin Square, Philadelphia

The challenge for the heritage conservation community is to insure that identification and evaluation of cultural history sites determines what elements of a site are necessary for the conservation of its history at the time of designation.  This way we would not treat architecturally significant sites with the exact same tools we use for cultural history sites.

W Guadelupe house w history c.jpg

West Guadelupe Street, San Antonio

As I rode my bicycle home from the Malt House this morning, I noticed a long stretch of West Guadelupe Street where fences and buildings had large signs describing the histories – personal and communal – of the area.  They were part of nice buildings and worn-out buildings, of fences and lots.  Cultural history is about place, but it isn’t always about architecture, and we need to provide a new set of tools to reclaim the fullness of our inheritance.

W Guadelupe history signsS.jpgWest Guadelupe Street, San Antonio

 

2 Responses to :
What is the Fabric of Cultural History?

  1. I agree that new tools are critical to development of cultural heritage, as landscapes or other forms. As the missions “illustrate a confluence of civilizations visible throughout the landscape,” I would only add that they are a tangible presence embodying multiple generations of interpretation, and as a follow on, every new generation’s twist on previous interpretation. I have observed that preservation as a movement effectively inspires communities by channeling emotion to save individual resources. The recent past, by definition, has fewer interpretations and feelings, and such resources might be better off adaptively reused until the next generation can tell the story. I think cultural history is, at least in part, a critical mass of different perspectives. If nothing else, we need more voices.

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