In order to bring some bright colors to this rainy Friday in New England (in Vermont at least – where did last week’s weather go?), let’s take another jaunt to St. Thomas, USVI. Originally named Charlotte Amalia, a map misspelling changed the name to Charlotte Amalie upon U.S. acquisition. Charlotte Amalia was the first settlement on St. Thomas, established in 1672 by Danish settlers. In its early years, it was a haven for pirates. The Charlotte Amalia Historic District includes government, civic and residential buildings. Learn more about the USVI historic sites on the NPS travel site (the website is dated, but the information is good).
While stunning and colorful, I found the beauty of the buildings to be marred by the numerous utility lines and poles, modern street lights and the asphalt streets. Many of these modern amenities were likely added in the last few decades, when tourism increased exponentially. I hope that future improvements take into account the historic context of the district and the visual effects of existing infrastructure. With that said, the district is fascinating; partially because was an entirely new landscape to me. These photographs are an eclectic mix from our stroll through the historic district.
These photographs are mostly without pedestrians because we were strolling around on a Sunday, which is not a cruise ship day, and therefore much of the island is closed. While it limited where we could venture inside, it made for easy sight-seeing.
The collision of historic sites and the need for modern amenities is certainly not a new topic, yet it remains in relevant discussions about historic preservation and heritage stewardship. I’d like to continue that discussion and hear comments from others.
Where is the line between accommodating present visitors and maintaining the historic atmosphere? How much can you “get away with” on either side of the line, and how much is appropriate? By our American standards, insurance, and regulations, buildings (including historic sites) require up-to-code utilities and parking and accessibility modifications. It is our understanding that these amenities attract visitors, perhaps even those who are not typical historic site goers. At the same time, it is also our subjective opinion that telephone wires, parking lots and 21st century vehicles terribly detract from the setting and feeling of the historic site and landscape. Yet, we cannot have a profitable site without modern amenities. We need them. What do we have here, but a Catch-22 situation?
The question is: how do we enjoy our significant heritage sites while protecting their historic integrity at the same time? It is a very fine line, because change happens in unnoticeable increments. Before long, the site or building could look completely different. A few generations from now, preservation professionals may wonder just what we thought we were doing.
As to successfully integrating historic and modern, is the problem our perception? Maybe when we think of historic and modern, we should be thinking of it as a continuum of time rather than having a distinct boundary. The past connects us to our ancestors; it doesn’t separate us from them. Though, do we like historic sites as a way to step out of the present? Do we often perceive historic sites as removed from the present? So perhaps the problem lies wherein we begin to separate the past and the present too much, which creates that bubble of nostalgia. But, is there a proper way to look at history? If so, who gets to determine the etiquette? Of course, there are appropriate and inappropriate methods for presenting history, but how someone considers it is an entirely different subject.
Consider parking lots again, in terms of perception. If you are looking at photographs of a historic site from, say, the 1940s, do you find the cars less obtrusive than those in a picture from 1990 or 2000? Pretend it is an early nineteenth-century historic house. Are you losing the historic feeling with the cars nearby? If not, is that because the 1940s are further removed from us and therefore, more believable as historic? Does 1990 seem like it will ever be historic? Of course it will, but it seems strange to think that, doesn’t it? And if the cars bother you no matter what the decade, why, do you suppose, has no one figured out how to integrate the clashing cultures?
Let’s take a step back. An important distinction, which I’ve yet to make in this post, is between historic properties that are museums and historic properties such as your house on the National Register. Both are significant, but have very different audiences and purposes. Excuse the generalization, but I will simplify the distinction to museums and non-museums. Museums will exist in their own bubble of history, whereas non-museums must be incorporated into their surroundings. Thus, there will be more restrictions on museum environments and more give-and-take outside of the non-museum world, of course. Non-museums, those that aren’t public buildings, are not subject to all amenity requirements.
But, distinction aside, how much “interference” of modern amenities is too much and how much is acceptable? Should there be cases in which nothing modern is introduced? And then, do we run the risk of ostracizing our sites because they are not welcoming to present day visitors? Is our view of historic sites entirely an American point of view?
Some more questions for thought: Have you been to historic sites that are sorely lacking in welcoming amenities or sites where the line has been crossed and integrity harmed? Parking lots may be the biggest offenders, but how can we visit sites without them – at least in this autocentric country? How can we train ourselves and each other to see time as more of a continuum, one that blends past and present?
This remains an important topic of discussion because historic preservationists often get accused of preventing progress and disliking change, when really we carefully consider what is appropriate change. Of course we cannot be opposed to progress; that’s ridiculous. Our existence is part of the world’s progress, if you will think so boldly. Preservationists recognize that change without thought is careless and results in a negative quality of life. Thus, we must be alert as to what to protect and what to adapt with the rest of progress. If every site accepts all aspects of modern amenities, how will we know how it used to be?
Your turn: what do you think of the collision between historic sites and modern amenities? Ramble on.
When you visit a historic site, what do you see? Do you see just the building or do you see the landscape? What speaks to you about a particular site? Do you ever have a shot that shows off your skill and your feelings for the subject in the photograph? Do you ever impress yourself with your photography skills? Now is the time to share those skills?
How? Enter the National Historic Landmarks 2010 Photography Contest. From the website:
The contest name, “Imaging Our National Heritage” encourages people to use their cameras to capture the meaning of the National Historic Landmark in a photo. We hope you’re inspired to visit our nation’s National Historic Landmarks, seek out the stories that have formed our American history, and create your own image to share.
The contest is easy to enter by posting your photographs to Flickr and tagging them appropriately (read: “2010nhlphotocontest“). The photographs must be of National Historic Landmarks, which you can look up in the database. Find all of the official rules and specifications on the NHL Photo Contest website (download the documents on the left hand side). The contest ends September 10, 2010 and NPS employees across the country will vote for the winning entries.
Visit the NHLs and capture your feelings! Enter one image per NHL, but you can submit up to 10 images. You could be famous!
Planning your June weekends? We have lots of good stuff going on in Vermont throughout the next few weeks. Check it out:
1. VERMONT DAYS! This weekend, June 12 and 13: All Vermont State Parks and Historic Sites are FREE to the public. Visit Historic Vermont (click) and use the drop down menu for a list of sites. Also, click on the sidebar to choose houses, shipwrecks, presidential sites, or the Revolutionary War. You can also visit the Vermont History Museum (click) for free! There are so many options, rainy weather or sunny weather. I hear the Calvin Coolidge Historic Site is one of the best.
2. Modernist Architecture Comes of Age: Preservation Meets Sustainability – Friday June 25, 2010. It is a symposium held in Burlington at the University of Vermont, “exploring the preservation of historic modernist buildings and how to rehabilitate them to be sustainable and functional in the 21st century.” The speakers are excellent, including the keynote speaker Christine Madrid French, who is the Director of the Modernism + Recent Past Program at the National Trust. The cost for the full day is $100 for adults or $60 for students. Registration is open until June 18th. Come join us, it will be amazing!
3. Vermont History Expo 2010 – Saturday June 26 – Sunday June 27 in Tunbridge, VT. $10 for adults, $5 for students, 1/2 if you attend in period costume. There will history exhibits, a parade, an auction, music, entertainment, movies, food. It looks like a lot of fun. Read more here.
Show Vermont some love – get out and about!
Currently at the Long Island Museum of Art, History, and Carriages (the Stony Brook Carriage Museum) is the Historic New England traveling exhibit, “America’s Kitchens.” The museum is located on Route 25A in Stony Brook, NY. The main buildings are the art museum and the carriage museum and there is a collection of historic buildings including a blacksmith shop, a barn, a schoolhouse, and a privy.
We were most excited for the America’s Kitchens exhibit so we headed to the art museum first, where the exhibit is housed. Pictures were allowed, so here are a few.
The exhibit included a few period kitchens from historic houses and displays of changing technology such as ovens and refrigerators.
We enjoyed the entire exhibit and had a good time looking at everyone, but we came out feeling like it was not thorough enough. The layout may be different in each place, but the layout here wasn’t exactly chronological. It just seemed to be too much of an overview, and we kept wanting to know more. We wanted to open the ovens and learn more about the gadgets. A few other small groups of people walked in while we were there but didn’t spend as much time as we did, so maybe we are just really into kitchens. Other visitors seemed to enjoy it as well.
After America’s Kitchens we walked around the grounds and looked into the other buildings. It was a beautiful day for strolling the grounds. We did not visit the carriage museum, though we have previously (school field trips).
For anyone in the area, we would recommend the entire museum. Admission prices are $9 for adults and $4 for students. It’s a beautiful place. After the museum, walk down the street to the historic grist mill, the duck pond, and Avalon Park.
Quite often throughout the day I find myself thrilled by a new bit of information that I am learning in class, whether facts in American history, lessons in architectural conservation, or understanding more of how the law operates. One professor always names places that he recommends as a must see: historic sites, engineering feats, villages, factories – he never stops exploring. Sometimes I want to share my notes with anyone who does not have the opportunity to sit in on my classes and hear the lectures that my classmates and I hear. Since I cannot send around my notebooks or recite the lectures, I’ll just share bits here and there. For today: canals.
One of the most fascinating lectures recently was about the canal system in the United States. Did you know that canals preceded railroads as the major successful transportation? Cities were built facing the canals (which sometimes makes the buildings appear backwards to those of us on the road). People lived on canal boats. People traveled on canal boats as a way to experience the scenery at a serene pace. Beginning around the 1820s, the canals opened the United States to western settlement. Canal locks were major engineering innovations. Around the canal locks, towns developed in a linear form. The canal era began to decline around 1860 because they were expensive to build and maintain and the routes were slow, and the railroads were lurking in the background. But canal evidence is still visible on the land today, particularly in our street patterns. Cities filled in the canals to create streets.
Maybe I’m one of the few who has never heard about the extent of and the influence of canals, but I am intrigued by this mode of transportation and the evidence remaining on the land. Looks like I’ve got to go exploring. Here are few links to historic sites about canals:
Does anyone else love (or have a newfound love for) canals?
For those who haven’t heard, the Lake Champlain Bridge is scheduled to be demolished on Wednesday December 23, 2009 at 10am. (Talk about a terrible Christmas present for preservationists, huh?)
See this NYSDOT Press Release. The public may view the demolition at specific areas, such as on Vermont 125 (read this release from VTrans). If you are unable to attend the demolition, it will also be available online via live streaming – see the NYSDOT website on Wednesday morning.
How do preservationists feel about watching the demolition of a bridge they fought to save? Is it a once-in-a-lifetime type of situation or more of an I-can’t-bear-to-watch issue or more like I-will-not-dignify-this-decision-by-watching-it? What lessons could preservationists learn from watching it? Please share your thoughts.
UPDATE: NYSDOT has issued a press release stating that the bridge demolition will be on December 28, not December 23. Read it here.