August 23, 2007 Vision and Style Comments (0) 1034

No, this isn’t an comment on the Incompetent-In-Chief or his latest misreading of history – that would be too easy.

This is about the more difficult issue of taste and how it intersects with that most essential of historic preservation issues: time.

I was in the Wisconsin Dells recently, which is akin to admitting that you visited Branson or Vegas or Gatlinburg. It is quite outside of the educated taste that seems the center of preservation, and indeed many preservationists are refined in both taste and education. Preservationists don’t like billboards or overt commercialism, only the comfy chenille draped over their windows to history.

But at the same time, it is preservationists who first got us interested in Googie architecture and it is preservationists who led the charge for things like the Recent Past and Route 66 and Times Square and all sorts of Wisconsin Dells-like Paul Bunyans and Sinclair dinosaurs and even upside-down White Houses like the one pictured at right.

But it was always the new generation. Eight years ago, most members of preservation organizations did not care much for the recent past – it was the younger enthusiasts who embraced it. My former student Jeanne Lambin has just published an excellent National Trust publication “Preserving Resources from the Recent Past” which even has a Dells-style motel on the cover.

Kitsch becomes cool after a certain amount of time. It has always been so. When preservation began to take off in the earlier part of the 20th century, it was all about Georgian and Federal architecture, the period that was just over a hundred years old. As late as the 1950s the National Trust would go begging their membership to try to develop a feeling for Victorian architecture, which was viewed with Charles Addams’ horror well into the 1970s. There is now a Victorian Society in England, but there was not one a few generations ago.

Early Modern had it a bit easier, only because the first generation of architectural historians were generally modernists, and thus linked the “pure” styles of Georgian and Greek Revival to Early Modern, jumping over what Thomas Tallmadge called the “parvenu” of Victorian. In contrast, William Sumner Appleton found Greek and Roman styles offensive to Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. Like fellow Bostonian Richardson, he liked the Romanesque, a 900-year old style being reinvented as the latest thing.

Every generation creates the illusion of “new” by rejecting what immediately preceded them, often in favor of an older style, far enough removed to be rendered inoffensive, or at least far enough removed in time to be “rehabilitated.” Picasso’s Cubism drew heavily on “tribal” cultural forms, which he rehabilitated and appropriated. Newness is always scary, but it is rarely new. And “oldness” is always comfortable, because it has been rehabilitated. There is a key element of time at play here, the kind of time that makes what was obscene or outrageous in 1975 relatively innocuous in 1995 or 2005.

On my way to Wisconsin Dells, I passed loads of shopping malls and guess what – they are all Victorian, or at least the 21st century version of the style. Modern is back again – if you read Dwell, they are apostles of mid-century modernist minimalism and they do a good job of that. Of course, in this milieu, the tacky 1960s restaurants and motels of the Dells look, well, special and irreplaceable, because by temperament and demeanor they are over and done with. And thus nostalgic.

“Nostalgia” is like “neuralgia,” a disease of longing for the past. It is an odd disease, because rather than requiring rehabilitation it causes rehabilitation – of buildings, of ideas, of culture.

My sister Clare suggested we pick up rubber tomahawks as appropriately tacky souvenirs of the tacky Dells. And it struck me as we passed Indian trading posts and Pirate Coves that these ultimately kid-friendly thematic diversions – cowboys and pirates – were of course once the most terrorizing and uncivilized elements of the world. And now they are child’s play, just as the architecture of the pretty brutal medieval world of 1000 A.D. appealed to the sophisticated elite of 1910 Boston.

But is is never what it was. My Victorian house is not what it was, it is not used the way it was (we have toilets, for example) it had to be rehabilitated and preservation is always that rehabbing of buildings and concepts and even styles. Does this mean someone will want to preserve our neo-Victorianism someday? Probably. The haters always like to say that they will replace a landmark with something that will be a future landmark, as if they could know that. You can’t know it – even Picasso failed in his first try at the Parisian art scene. Hell, the Victorians thought what they were doing was Free Classicism or somesuch. The names and the fame come later.

Rehabilitation happens in history, too. The reviled master planner Robert Moses was the subject of 3 exhibits in New York last year, perhaps expressing a longing for a similar builder/autocrat.

Whether anyone can turn the White House right side up again is quite another story. Sometimes, there is nothing left to rehabilitate.

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