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Mammon & Monuments

July 2024
13min read

Commercial enterprise and history seldom make comfortable bedfellows

So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain. —Proverbs 1:19

Buildings in America have always been imperilled by those who covet the land upon which they stand. In 1808, when the First Church of Boston, during the pastorate of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lather, sold its “Old Brick” Meetinghouse ot 1713 in Washington Street to move to Chauncy Place, the following lamentation appeared in the Independent Chronicle:
If a proposition had been made in London, Paris, or Amsterdam to the society owning the First Church of either of those respectable Cities, to sell (on a principle ol speculation) their ancient edifice, it would have been spurned with indignation—the trifling profit anticipated by the sale would never have led the proprietors to have ra/cd a house of worship so well repaired as the Old Brick to gratify the rapacity of a few men who trouble society both in Church and State. After the demolition of the Old Brick, there is scarcely a vestige of antiquity in the town. We hope “Old South” will maintain its original ground. Even the British troops, though they attacked other places of worship never dared meddle with the Old Brick—for Chauncy was there.

Nevertheless the Old Brick came down, and sixtyeight years later the Old South of 1729, a few blocks down Washington Street, came within an ace of doing so. That congregation, unable to resist $400,000 ottered them, also sold their meetinghouse for demolition. This time there was a clamor too great to withstand. The Boston Tea Party had been brewed in the OhI South Meeting House; the anniversary orations commemorating the Boston Massacre were delivered there. Poets and orators mounted the stump to such purpose that the Old South Association in Boston was formell to preserve the building as a historic monument. This was the first instance in Boston—and, indeed, the first of such magnitude in the United States—where respect for the historical anJ architectural heritage of the city triumphed over the considerations of profit, expediency, laziness, and vulgar convenience.

Historic preservation has progressed extensively in the years since 1876, when the Old South was saved. Now we have gone so far in that direction that new dangers arise. Those who are “greedy of gain” today not only covet the land upon which historic buildings stand. They also seek to exploit and pervert history, or invent pseudo-history, to suit their own purposes.

When history becomes “good business,” the genuine article may be imperilled by the imitation. A special report by Stanley M. Elliott, “Historic Buildings Exposed to Connscatory Tax Danger,” in the February 18, 1962, issue of the Santa Barbara News-Press , discusses a specific California instance.

In May 1960 the Santa Barbara City Council enacted :ui ordinance to preserve historic structures in the “old town” area, and to require the architectural conformation of new buildings erected in what was designated as El Pueblo Viejo.

Now, less than two years later, two unanticipated effects have become apparent:

1. Business concerns are willing to pay high prices for sites within this premium zone, where they have the assurance of quality environment in the future . [The italics arc mine.] A lot in the Pueblo Viejo section is reported to have sold for recently.

2. Because of this rise in values, the historic landmarks themselves arc threatened with being taxed out of their ownership. It is a privilege and a distinction to possess an adobe constructed more than a century ago, but there is a limit to what even the proudest possessor can tolerate on his assessment bill.

It was the Santa Barbara Historical Society that obtained the ordinance, and is behind efforts to protect the area. The IiI Pueblo Viejo ordinance provides that within a stated area in the center of Santa Barbara
no present existing building of adobe structure or of special historic or aesthetic interest or value situated within (lie area … shall he torn down, demolished or otherwise destroyed.

It further provides that any buildings thereafter constructed or altered must, conform in their exterior appearance to the “California Adobe type,” the “Montcrey type,” or “to the type of architecture generally known as ‘Spanish’ or ‘Spanish Colonial.’ ” Thus, if Kl Pueblo Vicjo has become—in the horrid phrase of the real estate world—a “premium zone,” with lots selling at a quarter of a million dollars, it can only be because it is thought that “Spanish Colonial” surroundings will seriously promote the prosperity of any business that settles there by providing “the assurance of a quality environment for the future.” Just what relevance adobe construction may have to the sale of hardware, whiskey, or insurance, to hanking, or to the Riling of teeth, is not clear, but the scramble for sites in El Pueblo Viejo indicates that the Santa Barbara business community thinks there is some. Thus, with spiralling values, the genuine elements of the region arc reported to be endangered.

In a Chicago suburb, a luxurious eight-room ranch house in the “Williamsburg Colonial style,” with “unusual ‘windowpanc and shutter’ doors so the garage looks like a wing of the home instead of a garage,” is a harmless although confusing (light of fancy. Clearly it has nothing to do with the past of Illinois, but the comfortable “Gothic” houses of the last century, complete with coal grates, porches, and rocking chairs, had no understandable relation to the history of the Hudson River. The principle of free enterprise lias always supported the theory: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own?” it is to be profoundly regretted when private owners, disregarding all protests, tear down India Wharf on the Boston waterfront Lo make way for another parking lot. It would be a national disgrace to allow public or private action to befoul the present unspoiled view of the Maryland shore of the Potomac River opposite Mount Vernon. Such threats to historic buildings, like the poor, we have always with us. It is ironical that they arc now being augmented by threats springing from an imperfect understanding of the popularization of history. A straw in the wind a muplc of years ago was the proposal to remodel a respectable Georgetown house of the Federal period, lowering its roof and putting a new brick façade over the present one “along the lines of AVilliamsburg architecture.” If a rash of colonial imitations, whether of English or Spanish inspiration, covers the United States, the promoters thereof are likely, from confused motives or inadéquate knowledge, to do almost as much harm as those who destroy through simple greed.

It is needless to point out that the tourist trade is going great guns. Chambers of commerce, automobile manufacturers, and oil companies gloat over the spiralling statistics. Peanut stands, wax works, reptile farms, and gift shops stand ready and eager to benefit from the passing millions; so do almost as many sites claiming the mantle of history. Their variety is extraordinary. A rack of dyers in a Florida motel office may invite the traveller to include in his itinerary Thomas A. Edison’s winter home in Fort Myers, “Florida’s Shrine of Science,” or to “Step Back Into Time 800 Years,” by visiting the “Ancient Spanish Monastery, Oldest Huilding in the Western Hemisphere,” which is “only minutes away from almost any place in Greater Miami.” This monastery from Sacremenia in the province of Segovia is, I suspect, one of the buildings dismantled by the Spanish art dealers, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Byne, for William Randolph Hcarst that never reached San Simeon. At any rate, the liver states:
It is not a reproduction nor a copy. Jt is the original monastery itself. You have probably seen it on television, heard about it on radio, read about it in national maga/ines, newspapers, and foreign publications.

Although this monastery is indeed neither “a reproduction nor a copy,” a great many things offered the travelling public are. Where buildings thought to be of some interest have vanished, steps are often taken to reconstruct them. Sir John Summerson, in appraising suitable subjects for historic preservation, expressed satisfaction that in Great Britain, excluding Scotland, “we have never given way to the craze for preserving birthplaces, usually the least significant structures in any man’s life.”

Nevertheless, a generation ago George Washington and The(xlore Roosevelt, whose birthplaces had vanished, were posthumously furnished with reconstructions thereof. In spite of the preservation of Monticello, a stone’s throw away, certain residents of Charlottesville have recently supplied Thomas jclferson with a superfluous reconstructed birthplace at Shad well. On a humbler level, the New Orleans Time-Picayune for February 23, 1960, reported: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” built of cypress logs (binked with day, lias been restored near Natchitoches, where the legendary “Uncle Tom” may have lived.

“Uncle Tom” was the central character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Owners of the site recently reconstructed the cabin. 1 bey have offered to turn it over to the state parks and recreation commission.

The spectacle of a demagogue who interlards his purple passages with sup|jorting quotations from Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln—almost invariably taken out of context—is unedif\ ing. So, when it cloaks itself in the disguise of something superior, is the ignoble activity of touting goods to indifferent buyers. Julian P. Boyd has pointed out “the obvious dangers in our preoccupation with the American past”:
In much of it there is the base alloy of commerce which becomes at its worst an exploitation of history, keeping one eye on a handful of patriotic shibboleths and the other on the balance sheet.

The advertising profession too frequently exploits history in this way. A single sample will suffice. In the summer of iy^y members of the American Historical Association received from an oil company proofs of a full-page ad appearing in Times, Newsweek , the Saturday Review , and the National Geographic Magazine , urging tourists to “Visit Kings Mountain—where the mountainmen made you free.” Above, in full color, mother, dad, and the kiddies are admiring a young man disguised as a Revolutionary soldier in Kings Mountain National Militär) Park, South Carolina. Helow is the pilch:
Out of the mountains they came with hunting knives, Kenlucky rifles and freedom blazing white-hot in their eyes . And waiting for them on Kings Mountain was a superior force of Redcoats and Tories under the redoubtable Major Ferguson who boasted that “all the rebels outside of ——— couldn’t drive him from the mountain.” In one short, volcanic hour the untrained mountainmen won a crucial victory that fired up the Colonies and led to Yorktown and independence.

Today, Kings Mountain slumbers in the heart of one of the South’s most scenic vacationlands where you can swim, fish, ride … visit historic sites and stately country homes. At Kings Mountain, now carefully preserved, you can browse through the museum … recreate the action on a self-guided tour … and pause at the grave of the doughty Pat Ferguson who. true to his boast, is still there.

And you can muse lor a moment on the unlettered backwoodsmen who wrote a shining page in freedom’s book . The handwriting might be crude—but the message was unmistakably clear … no mountains is too high for men to scale when freedom waits at the top .

Below are the addresses thai will supply liée lour inlonnaiion and maps. In the margin the advertiser “salutes the American Historical Association,” which is, with unhistorical inaccuracy, slated to have been chartered in i8;)(>. The whole is typical of the corporate mind at work when il enlists the services of Madison Avenue to enable it to pay a heavy-handed pseuclo tribute to a cultural institution. A covering letter from the chairman of the board concludes with the immortal sentences:
We believe that the American people are indeed fortunate that the Association has existed since 188.) to promote the study of history (and not, as inadvertently shown in our salute in several publications merely since i8i)(>!). It is our hope that this advertisement will bring added attention to tlie many distinguished historians who contribute so ably to the understanding and continuity of the American civili/alion.

The advertisement attempts, rather crudely, to present “history” as an unholy alliance between a learned hislorical association on the one hand and a greal body of tourists on the other, whose main object is to “swim, fish, ride … visit historic sites and stately country homes”—an alliance manufactured by a great corporation whose only aim is to increase gasoline sales. Such instances give force to Adlai Stevenson’s inquiry:
With the supermarket :is our templr and the singing commercial as our litany, are we likely to fire the world with an irresistible vision of America’s exalted purposes and inspiring way of life?

It is not necessary to take to the road to find examples of the misuses of history. Every local newspaper lias its quota of the perversions that all too readily spawn in the heads of politicians, public relations men, advertising types, and other promoters. The Boston Herald of September 30, 1951), showed a group of women in fancy dress with the caption:
James Frazier, chairman of the 1'lymoutli board of selectmen, shows an engraved certificate Io townsfolk in I’urilan [sic] dress announcing the award of a Federal grant of $1,027,873 for a 30 acre urban renewal project at 1'lymoulh.

A fortnight later the Herald ’s, readers were treated to a view of a bus collision on the upper level of the Mystic River Bridge in which twelve persons were injured. These unfortunate victims were members of the American Association of State Highway Officials in an eleven-bus caravan inspecting the new Massachusetts expressway systems. They were at the time “en route to a re-enactment of the Mayflower Compact signing.” Il is not clear why they were being carried on October i], 1959, to the re-enactment of an event that took place on November 11, 1(120, or, indeed, what possible relation the Mayflower Compact has to highway officials and new expressways. But apparently it is always a good thing to pull in the Pilgrims somehow.

The celebration of anniversaries often furnishes the opportunity for commercialism to disguise iiself in sheep’s clothing. Mr. Robert T. Taylor’s study of the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition of 1907 in the April, 1957, issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography furnishes a beauiil’iilly documented and dispassionately presented case history of how a supposedly historical celebration can get out of hand when it hills into the grip of promoters. This deserves careful study. In May, 1960, when the Civil War Centennial was still a year in the future, I warned the Virginia Historical Society that unless Virginians and New Englanders banded together to laugh at the commercial perversions of history that would be offered us in increasing quantity, the years from ujlii to i5 would be very unpleasant indeed.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch , supporting my view in an editorial of May 7, 1960, entitled “Against Hawkers and Hucksters,” pointed out in reinforcenient:
The sort of crudity against which Dr. Whitehill warned has popped up already in New Jersey—as a dismaying editorial on this page from the Newport News Z)MiVy Press shows. Special cigars, rum drinks and hats arc being created lor sale at a race track there—all of them tied up in some remotc and ridiculous way with the Civil War anniversary …

The year 1961 provided its quota of opera bouffle , including the event satiri/ed “by a Combat Artist of The Washington Post ” in its issue of (uly 24, K)Oi. A cartoon entitled “Survivors fleeing the Battle of ^d Manassas (igOi)” shows a job-lot of dusty tourists with thermos bottles, lunch baskets, and squalling children, leaving the hot sun of the battlefield in (he company of individuals disguised as soldiers, who are refreshing themselves after combat with soft drinks.

The appointment late in 1961 of Professor Allan Xevins as chairman of the Civil War Centennial Commission gave promise of hope, particularly when he stated on January 31, 1962, that
If we confine ourselves to battles and campaigns, the sigh of relief that went up over the real Appomattox in 1865 may conceivably be nothing to the national sigh of relief that will go up over the commemorated Appomattox of 1965.

He announced that the commission planned a series of thirteen scholarly volumes concerning the impact of the war in such areas as agriculture, poverty, crime, charities, and literature, to be written by competent historians and published by Alfred A. Knopf. His promise that “The National Commission would reenact a battle only over my dead body” gave great relief to many. Nevertheless, the very day that Dr. Nevins was addressing the Civil War Centennial Commission in Washington, the attempt to fire a cannon in the driveway of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to celebrate the opening of an exhibition, “The Civil War, The Artist’s Record,” only succeeded in breaking numerous windows in neighboring apartment houses. Then, alas, perhaps because of President Kennedy’s remark: “I like sham battles,” a local committee went ahead and re-created the Battle of Antietam in September, 1962. Thus we may apparently expect to have hostilities break out at any time through April, 1965, despite the implacable opposition of the Civil War Centennial Commission.

While national celebrations offer the richest field for commercial exploitation, even the mildest local anniversary furnishes an opportunity for someone to dress up and make a fool of himself. A well-organized event causes beards to be grown (by “brothers of the brush”) and hoopskirts to be worn (by “sisters of the swish”) in quantity. Hawkers and hucksters swarm to it like flies to honey.

It would be charitable to assume that many organized celebrations spring from legitimate motives and that commercial exploitation of history only slips into them by the way. Such an assumption cannot apply to “Freedomland U.S.A.” in the Bronx, which opened in June, 1960. Notwithstanding Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s misleading endorsement— Freedomland is the ultimate expression of the effort to dramatize our history and to bring it home vividly to everyone who sees it.

—Freedomland, for all its veneer of pseudo history, was from the outset a commercial effort of Mr. William Zeckendorf’s firm, Webb and Knapp. It was (and is) simply an amusement park, charging admission at the gate, plus fees for the “attractions” within.

Freedomland, according to its Texas-born engineershowman creator, C. V. Wood, Jr., was to offer its visitors “a giant slate of assorted wholesome fun, integrated around a theme.” Of his profession Mr. Wood observed: “I view it as an imaginative combination of big business, show business, design creativity and mass education through entertainment. What more could a person want?” Of this particular instance, he explained:
In building this world’s champion outdoor entertainment park, I told my design staff I wanted to tell the whole American story in one vast area shaped like the nation’s map and segmented into regions. We came up with 500 thrilling American themes, discussed and discarded until we had the top 14 major stories now in the park, some of them with four or five separate attractions. This is our way of dramatizing the American heritage.

The Times , in a pre-opening description, reported on June 18, 1960, that the theme being America’s history, the new kind of showmanship is able to offer many of the thrills of the old carnival-type rides by overlaying its “new” rides with a veneer of history. Thus the “Dragon Ride” in the New Orleans enclave is presented as part of that city’s Mardi Gras. Many an old-timer will recognize in it the basic philosophy of the old-style tunnels of love, as the dragon snakes its way, puffing and blowing, with people inside it, through the streets of New Orleans.

Other attractions included a “Continental Tour” on the Santa Fe:
… buckskin-clad riders of the Pony Express, red-shirted firemen who will strive every twenty minutes (with the help of any volunteer patrons who want to pump the old-fashioned fire engines) to put out the Chicago Fire of 1871; camps of authentic Red Indians from seven tribes, some of whom with gun and tomahawk will be raiding the Santa Fe express as it crosses the Great Plains.

From time to time during the summer of 1961 I heard, unwillingly, an FM radio commercial, extolling Freedomland as “a world of fun and adventure where you can ride high in the sky in an open ore-basket"; “also there is dancing to big-name bands.” The announced addition of a Roman chariot race, King Arthur’s knights, the Three Musketeers, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the Bengal Lancers indicated that the theme had been expanded beyond American history. I do not know what has happened since.

A major misfortune of such abuses of history is that they may mislead the uninformed. A seventy-twoview, brightly colored souvenir booklet, The Adirondacks, The World’s Largest Park , widely offered to tourists in upper New York State, illustrates on terms of absolute equality with the basically genuine Fort Ticonderoga, the reconstructed Fort William Henry at Lake George and a variety of purely commercial attractions, such as Storytown, U.S.A.,—“where your favorite nursery rhymes come to life” plus outlaws and jungle safaris—Gaslight Village, a reconstruction of the “Gay Nineties” with dancing in a beer garden, the imported “Wild West” Frontier Town, the Land of Makebelieve, and Santa’s Workshop at North Pole, New York.

As commercialism seeks to cloak itself in history, it becomes absolutely essential for legitimate historic houses, restorations, and outdoor museums to avoid even the appearance of evil in their actions. If they disfigure the highways with billboards identical to those of commercial “attractions”; if they offer tawdry “souvenirs,” banners, and penny-catchers in their shops; if they affix bumper placards to visitors’ automobiles; if, from whatever motives, they embrace commercial tactics to increase attendance, how in God’s name can the average man distinguish between the popularization of history and its commercial exploitation? Freedomland indicates that there must be an insurmountable wall between history and the entertainment business, or indeed any other form of commercialism. If historical organizations cannot survive without resorting to such tactics, it is time they died.

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