Hard Time

I’ve been thinking a lot lately–more than usual, at least–about what to do with historic sites where the primary attraction has all but vanished. This all started a few weeks ago after I read John R. Maass‘s response to my Ferry Farm op-ed wherein he dismissed my concerns as “silly.” Inelegance notwithstanding, Maass’s criticism is worth thinking about. He argues that no mater what we academics think or say about it, constructing replicas of long lost buildings like the house that George Washington grew up in is really all about “luring people off I-95 and capturing tourism dollars. Most tourists want to see *something.*” He’s right, of course, and historic site managers are necessarily far too busy balancing visitor demands and shoestring budgets to worry much about the so-called “theoretical issues.”

But, then, where does that leave us? Maybe I am silly to think that Ferry Farm visitors will settle for anything less than a “replica” approximating what Washington’s house might have possibly looked like during roughly those years when George wasn’t chopping down cherry trees. Does that mean, however, that we can’t come up with an alternative to replica building that, while still earning a few bucks for the good folks at Ferry Farm, is less apt to perpetuate the kind of myths and misunderstandings that we in the academy have been working hard to destabilize for the last thirty years? What other kinds of *somethings* might we offer up?

Preservationists have been wrangling with this one for a long time and have come up with some creative responses over the years. Consider, for example, the representational strategy called “ghosting.” Ghosting involves creating a kind of three-dimensional life-sized sketch of a bygone building right on the spot where it once stood. The hope is to pique the onlooker’s imagination without eclipsing it. Ben Franklin’s house and print shop were famously ghosted right here in Philadelphia during the 1976 bicentennial celebration. Whether or not ghosting is any more or less effective than building replicas is a whole other question. Ghosting is, however, certainly a viable alternative.

So is arrested decay. In those fortunate cases where a historic structure remains in whole or in part, but is dilapidated beyond ready repair, simply stabilizing the thing in situ can have remarkable results. This is the strategy, for instance, at the Bodie State Historic Park in California. Bodie, like many western mining towns, boomed and busted during the second half of the nineteenth century leaving nothing today but an abandoned ghost town. Park operators keep Bodie in a state of perpetual decay while preventing it’s collapse so that visitors might be impressed by the the legacy of economic caprice.

Hilary and I recently witnessed a stunning example of arrested decay at what definitely ranks among the coolest historic sites I’ve experienced: Eastern State Penitentiary. Eastern state looms like a castle (it was built to look like one) above the otherwise subdued row homes just northeast of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is the original penitentiary. When it opened in 1829, Eastern State was the only prison in the world intentionally designed to induce penitence. The idea was to keep prisoners constantly occupied in silent solitary labor until Eastern State’s edificial magnitude cracked their criminal tendencies. Overcrowding trumped isolation in fairly short order, but Eastern State stayed in business for a long time and wasn’t completely shut down until 1970. During its long life, the prison hosted thousands of inmates–including, of course, Al Capone–and fundamentally influenced the architecture and theory of incarceration throughout the world. If you’ve ever seen an old prison movie (or 12 Monkeys which was filmed there in 1995), you’ve seen shades of Eastern State.

Today the place stands in a state of semi-ruin. Visitors stroll through tumbledown cell blocks pierced by persistent weeds and an occasional errant sunbeam. A self-guided audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi (who is, by the way, inexplicably perfect for this) weaves together a host of clever exhibits and points of interest where additional recordings address topics ranging from preservation to sex and sexuality behind bars. But, even more compelling than the history of this place is its aesthetic onslaught. Perhaps it has to do with the weird juxtaposition of impenetrability and collapse, but there is something overwhelming about this place. It’s a real sensory tour de force that creates a unique opportunity to witness bygone objects in various states of meaning. Each crumbling cell is at once relic, art, and exhibit. We are forced here to recognize that historical meaning, like beauty, exists in the eye of the beholder. Both join in stunning harmony at Eastern State.

Whatever it is that makes this place so interesting evidently speaks to a broad public. In fact, it’s worth noting that Eastern State is staffed by a throng of hip city kids who are as enthusiastic about their work as any costumed interpreter you might find strolling around Independence Hall or, for that matter, Colonial Williamsburg. Scenesters forging common ground with history buffs! That’s an impressive accomplishment for any historic site and I can’t help but think it owes in most part to the museum’s honesty. This is a place, after all, that can’t–and couldn’t even if it wanted to–claim many heroes or make patriotic appeals. It is, rather, a place that makes palpable the slow yet irresistible power of passing time. At Eastern State, we learn that history is change and change, by in large, is good. That is a vitally important lesson and one, incidentally, that is very difficult to convey against a backdrop of unchanging replicas.

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