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.

George Washington and the Problem with Replicas

Although not necessarily of local concern, the recent announcement that archeologists have discovered George Washington’s boyhood home raises important questions about objects and memory. Here is my response, which appeared in the July 25th edition of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.

Don’t build on a cherry-tree myth–again

July 25, 2008 12:15 am



–Earlier this month The Free Lance-Star joined media outlets across the country in reporting on the discovery of George Washington’s boyhood home by archaeologists working at Ferry Farm. This is the iconic home made famous by Parson Weems’ ubiquitous cherry-tree mythology.

The George Washington Foundation, which owns the site, has additionally announced its intent to construct a replica of the boyhood home as it would have appeared during the 1740s. This is not, of course, the only Washington boyhood home. In fact, nearly 80 years ago, The New York Times printed a similar story by then-director of the National Park Service Horace Albright. “Washington’s Boyhood Homes” (March 29, 1931) reminds us that Washington’s youth spanned three homes: Wakefield, Ferry Farm, and Mount Vernon.

Albright wrote specifically to announce the Park Service’s plans to erect a replica of Washington’s birth house atop its original foundations on the family’s old Wakefield plantation in Virginia’s Northern Neck peninsula, about 30 miles east of Ferry Farm–the same plan, incidentally, announced by Ferry Farm’s owners. Dr. Phil Levy’s recent assertion that “what we see at this site [Ferry Farm] is the best available window into the setting that nurtured the father of our country” (“Ferry Farm Yields Secrets,” The Free Lance-Star, July 3, 2008) could have just as well been said of Wakefield by Albright eight decades earlier.

And yet, although we all know the cherry-tree story and most of us know something about Mount Vernon, why isn’t Wakefield a household name? A little more digging begins to explain why Washington’s first boyhood home has long since fallen into obscurity. Only months after heralding the Park Service’s work at Wakefield, Albright found himself taking the defensive in “Wakefield Washington Shrine Was Begun After Long Study” (The New York Times, July 19, 1931). Rumors had begun to circulate concerning the location and appearance of the replica birth house. Was it built in the right place? Did it really look like the house Washington was born in? Was it actually a replica?

Albright assured readers that it was, but whether he knew it or not, those in charge of building the replica had uncovered a previously undocumented brick foundation just feet away. Alarmed by the discovery, workers moved quickly to backfill what they called “Building X.” Who would know? It was, after all, the eve of Washington’s 200th birthday, and Depression-weary Americans were eager to feel good about something. Why disappoint them by not completing the replica in time to celebrate?


It was, however, too late. Backfilling alone was not enough to hide the long shadow cast by Building X. Over the next 30 years, vested interests battled furiously over the replica’s meaning, purpose, and destiny until the Park Service finally managed to officially recognize Building X as the actual foundation of Washington’s birth house. That today we don’t immediately count the birthplace among Washington’s various boyhood homes owes at least in part to the confusion created by our clumsy handling of it.

So what, then, might the proprietors of Ferry Farm learn from the Wakefield story? Ferry Farm has been part of the popular American historical conscience for nearly two centuries now, and is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon. What’s more, historical archaeology has come a long way since Horace Albright’s time, and the work done at Ferry Farm is, by all accounts, top-notch. Even so, I wonder if building a replica of Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm is really the best way to interpret its historical meaning for the broadest possible audience. The notion is certainly tantalizing–who wouldn’t want to see the house where George chopped down the cherry tree? But, then again, George didn’t chop down a cherry tree at Ferry Farm or, as far as we know, anywhere else. Will seeing the replica house really convey that lesson or will it reinforce the myth?

The impulse to build shrines to our national heroes is strong right now, especially as we contend with ongoing military entanglements and a faltering economy. Levy’s excitement to study the “the father of our country” resonates today exactly as Albright hoped his patriotic replica would hedge against some of the hardest times this nation has ever known. Unfortunately, Albright failed to anticipate how powerfully Americans react to misrepresentations of their most sacred heroes. And because we all value Washington uniquely, any attempt to solidify his myth inevitably draws criticism.

So, rather than navigate those perilous shoals, perhaps the George Washington Foundation should dispense with its replica and make Ferry Farm a place to learn important lessons about the construction of knowledge and historical meaning. Why do the imagining for us when, after all, it’s in learning how to imagine the past responsibly that we develop the ability to think critically about our own world?

Seth C. Bruggeman is an assistant professor of history and American studies at Temple University, and the author of “Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument.”

Copyright 2008 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.