Does it really matter where “here” is?

John's Modern Cabins, Route 66 Missouri

Time Slipped Away From Me
John’s Modern Cabins along Route 66 in Missouri

As voraciously as I read, I really and truly ought to pass some of the things I consume onto you, oughtn’t I? Let’s give it a shot.

My work as a documentary photographer has inevitably led to my having an interest in preservation. Now, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing like shooting an abandoned, run to ground place like John’s Modern Cabins on Route 66, for instance. Being in and photographing a lonely site like that fills the imagination with a rush: questions about its appearance in better days; wondering who the last person to lock the door and walk away was, and what was going through their mind; curiosity about those who lived or overnighted there; wondering how long the spot is for this earth.

The decay is rather enthralling, and many a writer has attempted to nail down why so many have such a fascination with dilapidated, crumbling homes, motor courts, and other once-bustling, now-silent places. Despite being a photographer who loves documenting the present state of such premises, I’m not entirely sure about the source of the pull myself. For me, part of the appeal is my deep interest in history. However, I also gaze at such places and can’t help but think that those who lived there or frequented them are now gone, and the buildings are soon to follow—though so often the structures we build outlast us. There’s not a lot of discussion about mortality in our culture anymore; perhaps our fascination with these places has taken its place—a sort of allegory.

Anyhow (bunny trails are a specialty of mine). Despite my love for endangering my life and limb by photographing abandoned places, as my photographs of places like Mount Vernon, restored sites on Route 66, and more show, I love seeing a place spiffed back up for posterity to enjoy, too. Indeed, it’s important to me, because more and more, these places are our only connection to our history; it’s very important to keep them around! There’s also a great deal to be said for walking the same gardens as Thomas Jefferson, for visiting the homes of men like James Madison,Patrick Henry, Henry Ford, the Dodge

Patrick Henry's Red Hill

Inside Patrick Henry’s Red Hill

Brothers and Henry Clay Frick (lots of Henrys there, hm), for enjoying the streets of a Williamsburg or Greenfield Village. These experiences provide things that reading simply cannot do, important as study is.

Last week, I read this post about preservation from Ken over at Passion For The Past: Preserving History. If you don’t keep up with preservation news during your busy days, you may not know that there’s actually a lot of controversy surrounding preservation when it involves tearing a place down, moving it, and rebuilding it, but there is. If you ask me, some folks become downright irrational, preferring a place be destroyed on its “home soil” rather than being saved by removal and re-building in a safer spot, even one where it will be maintained for the rest of time. Instead, they cry and scream that the building’s context will be lost, and after that happens, it will no longer be as historically valuable. As Ken says, they can’t see the forest for the trees!

He shares with us a few examples—such as Firestone Farm, originally built in Columbiana, Ohio. Due to its location, the farm didn’t get many visitors after opening as a museum in 1965, so Harvey Firestone’s elderly sons gave the home, barn, and all of the furnishings to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. As a result, not only has Firestone Farm been saved, millions have walked through the hands-on living museum, learning about Harvey Firestone and his achievements in a very tangible way.

More shocking to me, though, was learning that the home of Noah Webster himself was nearly destroyed and would have been lost to us forever had it not been Henry Ford and his Village. Can you believe it?

Let’s go back to Mr. Ford and the original discussion of uprooting buildings from their original sites, thereby stripping them of their historical context, all in the name of historical preservation; I don’t believe many are aware that Ford had actually saved numerous buildings from certain demolition. One in particular, the home of Noah Webster, was already in the process of being demolished when Ford put a halt to the wrecking ball, had the old home dismantled and then shipped from its original Connecticut location all the way to Dearborn, Michigan, where now our children’ children’s children, and their children’s children children, may be able to see this home where the original owner wrote his first dictionary.

Gracious. Sometimes I can’t help but think we Americans can be awfully stupid. Thank God for Henry Ford—who also saved the Illinois courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law as a young man.

Ken gives several other examples, and shares photographs as well, including a bef0re-and-after. If memory serves, every historic building, or nearly every historic building in Greenfield Village, was saved from destruction or plain old dilapidation and collapse and moved from its original location. Much like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Greenfield Village means taking a step back to another age; everything is beautifully and organically arranged, from the tavern to the pretty little church (where  I believe Ford married his wife, Clara) on the green.

Isn’t disassembling, moving, and rebuilding a historic building in a place like Greenfield Village or Colonial Williamsburg better than letting a place be demolished, as Noah Webster’s home nearly was and as, for instance, the Coral Court of Route 66 was, or letting it crumble to dust, like the town of Cuervo, New Mexico or John’s Modern Cabins in Missouri? So much of our history has been lost, and thus, not only have opportunities been lost to us, but by losing these pieces of our past, we are, in a way, losing pieces of our culture’s and country’s very foundation. This is dangerous indeed.

I think about St. John’s Baptist in Stotesbury, West Virginia; though residents and others had been trying to save the church for years, not long after I photographed it, the pretty old church collapsed during a storm. Though it’s a part of our history many of us forget—being in the home town of none other than KKK leader Robert Byrd, it was a blacks-only church (apparently some people were so bigoted they couldn’t even have people with different skin colours worship together)—it was a piece of our past, and one that should be remembered so it never happens again (it was a lovely church, too).

I do understand that not every single place can be saved; for instance, Meadow Farm, where the great Secretariat and Riva Ridge were born, is currently considered endangered. I’d hate to see Penny Chenery’s old farm paved over, but what if it cannot be saved from another type of development? It would be a still greater shame to lose the foaling barn where Somethingroyal gave birth to her famous colt. Would it not be better, for example, if the foaling barn were to be moved to, for instance, the Kentucky Horse Park or Churchill Downs? Not only would it be saved and well-maintained, but thousands of horse lovers would be able to enjoy what, to them, is a very important little building. The barn could even be turned into a miniature Secretariat/Riva Ridge/Penny Chenery museum—and what a draw that would be for racing fans!

Heart Stopper!

Robert E. Lee Motel, Bristol, VA, where Colonel Sanders served fried chicken at one of his first restaurants, lost

While not every historic building can be rescued where it stands, if someone is willing and able to preserve it, even if that means removing it to another spot, to refuse them would be, frankly, silly. When the Robert E. Lee Motel in Bristol was razed (despite my semi-crazed fantasies about buying, restoring, and returning it to business), the enormous sign was, at least, saved. Certainly Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater would, indeed, be tremendously changed by removing it from its intended context, but I must confess that I think, for the most part, quite a few endangered places could be re-homed with little loss—and certainly much less of a loss than allowing them to decay entirely or spend their remaining years as shabby, ill-maintained, and unknown. As Ken says,

Thank God for Henry Ford’s curious and refreshing hobby in collecting Americana, for, in my opinion, if it wasn’t for theuprooting of buildings from their original sites, thereby stripping them of their historical context, there would be little historical preservation to be had, thereby losing so much (too much) of our American History.


2 thoughts on “Does it really matter where “here” is?

  1. I agree with you! So the building sits on a different bit of earth than it did when originally built? Can this not be remedied with placards that tell the story of said building’s rescue from sure destruction? Perhaps a map showing its original location? Wouldn’t the timeline and context be preserved by telling where the journey began and how it ended in this certain spot? Here! Here! Save the pink bathrooms! (Well, you get what I mean! LOL)

  2. Oh, I am ALL for saving the pink bathrooms! LOL

    Also, I’ve not been to Greenfield Village in ages; they may have a map showing the original location on a placard. I know the documentation in the Museum itself is marvellous, though, so they may…

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