Heritage, Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 1990 Page: 5
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Avoiding the Roman
he preservation movement in the United States began as
a lobbying effort by a relatively few persons. From that it
grew, gradually, into a national consensus. The change in
the size of the movement, and in the degree of its acceptance,
means a change in its meaning and in the tactics that are
appropriate to it. This issue of Heritage is a case in point.
The preservation movement's roots go deep into the nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. They include such landmark
events as the preservation of Mount Vernon, the re-creation of
Williamsburg, and the Historic American Buildings Survey.
Nevertheless, the preservation movement as we understand it
today cannot be said truly to have begun until the 1960s. Once it
did, it grew with such explosive force that it must be regarded as one
of the most astonishing environmental movements in American
history. It gained much momentum from the reaction against the
wholesale slaughter of American cities that often resulted from the
federal urban renewal programs of the 1950s and 1960s.
Preservation was a heady cause in those days, a political war cry, a
satisfying march of triumph against all odds that offered, to its
adherents, a powerful sense of identity and purpose.
When such a movement at last succeeds, something deflating
and a bit sad occurs. The movement loses its definition. It melts
indistinguishably into the national store of received wisdom. It no
longer offers the joy of combat or the sense of identity that come
from setting oneself against the tide.
Such a deflation has occurred in preservation and it is important
that we all realize it. Preservation action is still important but it is
important in a different way. Despite the political conflicts over
individual buildings and neighborhoods that still occur, and always
will occur, preservation today isn't really about being adversarial.
Indeed, if preservationists continue to think of themselves as being
adversarial, they will be forced into more and more extreme
positions in order to distinguish themselves from the crowd. A few
frightening examples of just such a development are familiar to
everyone in the field.
In such a situation, it is time for the preservation movement to
turn away from advocacy as a primary focus. Instead, we should be
devoting ourselves to the task of enriching and enlarging the
preservation ethic by means of serious scholarly investigation. We
should be thinking more about increasing the quality, rather than
the impact, of our preservation efforts. This refereed issue of
Heritage is an encouraging step in that direction.
Preservation offers any number of fascinating issues-legal,
philosophic, economic, social, moral-that deserve the kind of
investigation we're talking about. A favorite example is what you
might call the Roman Forum Conundrum.
The Roman Forum of today is certainly an example of
preservation triumphant. But what is disturbing is that it is also one
of the most boring, more tiresomely pedantic places on earth. As
such, it should stand as a caution to everyone in the field.
Everything at the Forum has been excavated, everything has
been labeled. There are even little holes in the ground, covered
with sheets of glass, so you can peer down into still deeper
excavations of still earlier eras. An exciting chunk of history is
reduced to a mere text, a museum display of labeled artifacts. All
you can do in the Forum today is learn from it. No longer can you
One should compare today's Forum, in one's mind, with the
Forum that was known by Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth
century, or by Keats and Shelley in the nineteenth. Sheep grazed
there then on grassy slopes. Poking up through the grass were the
astonishing relics of antiquity-unexcavated, unexplained,
unlabeled, yet surrealistic in their power to evoke the mystery of
the passage of time. The sense of a living past-a past experienced
as a foil to the present-was far stronger then than now, and the
Forum captured the imagination of artists in a way it no longer does.
I was reminded of the Forum Conundrum recently when I
visited a historic house that was in process of being restored as a
museum by a distinguished preservation organization. Like most
such houses, this one had undergone significant changes over the
course of its life. New walls had been built that concealed earlier
walls. A fascinating argument was taking place. To which of the
house's various pasts should it be restored? The answer seemed to
be none. Instead, sections of later periods would be cut away so as
to reveal, beneath them, the work of earlier eras. The house as
restored would become a lesson in the architectural styles and
construction techniques of different eras. But it would do so at a
price: it would not look as it had looked at any moment in real time.
It would become, in fact, a display not so much of itself as of late
twentieth-century attitudes about restoration.
I don't know the answer to the Forum Conundrum. I present it
only as one example of a number of subtle issues, many of which
involve difficult moral and artistic choices, that are now receiving
the quality of debate for which there is seldom enough time in the
heat of adversarial preservation.
Some of these issues touch on the very purpose of preservation.
What is it for? To render the past tangible and apprehensible? To
prevent the destruction of patterns of life and of design that were
superior to those common now? To teach the pluralism of culture?
To record the march of construction technology? Or is
preservation a game, like stamp collecting, the primary purpose of
which is to offer the preservationist an opportunity for the
acquisition and display of expertise? Or is it, rather, a means to
sanctify and embalm the great works of the past?
Then there are legal and practical issues: zoning and
landmarking and, especially, design review. And conservation
issues: how best technically to deal with wood rot or old mortar.
And social issues: who is preservation for? How does it affect the
living community? And issues of absolute value versus pluralistic
relativism-is the first McDonald's, for instance, worth saving for
its historic value although hideous? Does "hideous" mean
anything? And historical issues that require a scholarly journey
into the past?
The four papers in this issue of Heritage suggest the exciting
range of topics in today's preservation world. William Chapman
traces the history of an important ethical debate both backwards
and forwards in time from the key figure of Morris. Michael Ann
Williams turns to today's Japan for perspective on an emerging
concern of preservation. George Kramer composes an exhortation
on one aspect of the ever-present risk-or is it a certainty?-that
preservation will distort the past according to the prejudices of the
present. And Ann Hoover Henderson offers a practical case study
of how one state is dealing with its Olmsted parks.
I found these essays welcome reading.
Robert Campbell is an architect in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and architecture critic of
the Boston Globe.
HERITAGE * SUMMER 1990 5
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 1990, periodical, Summer 1990; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45427/m1/5/: accessed April 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.