Saturday, June 03, 2006

Save It or Pave It?

If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday. ~Pearl Buck

Not long ago, there was a program about moving historical buildings. Now, I've always been fascinated by this business of moving large structures. I've seen houses being trolleyed from one place to another, and I'm always amazed that you can pick up something that big, cart it down the street, and plunk down in a new location in a way that will make it look like it's always been in the new location.

One of the buildings that was being moved gave me some pause for thought about this whole saving history idea. The building was the King of Prussia Inn, located in – surprise, surprise – King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The inn is famous because, during the American Revolution, the Hessian mercenaries were housed in and around it. These are the same Hessians who awoke one morning to find George Washington in their midst telling them to kindly stick 'em up. It seems that the clever General Washington had engineered a little amphibious landing from one side of the Delaware River to the other, catching the Christmas-celebrating Germans sleeping off the festivities.

So, the old inn, which ultimately lent its name to the surrounding village, is justifiably famous and presumably worth saving. But, the old stone building was in horrific shape; there was considerable doubt as to whether it could survive a move. Finally, after an incredible amount of trussing, bracing, and binding together with steel rods and a generous amount of chewing gum and bailing wire, the building was successfully moved. My thought was, “Is this really worth the trouble?”

One can question why the people of King of Prussia let the old tavern get into such horrid shape. One can also wonder, beyond the “George Washington nabbed a bunch of Hessians here” provenance, was there anything sufficiently unique about the building to make it worth saving? If the locals hadn't worried about keeping it up, why go to this sort of trouble?

Perhaps naively, my feeling is that they would have been better served to just take the old building down, construct a new building using the old stones but with a reconstructed interior. This could have been turned into a living museum, rather than an abandoned wreck. I can't imagine that it could have cost any more than it did to move it.

The real question, though, is, was the building even worth saving?
Beyond Washington and the Hessians, there is nothing particularly unique about this tavern. There are probably dozens in better shape up and down the eastern seaboard. Given that there are only so many dollars to spend saving historical sites, was this a case of squandering scarce resources?

I don't know the answer in this case, but I suspect that we have an almost knee-jerk reaction to the demolition of old things. Now, don't take me for someone who wants to turn everything into a strip mall. I am impressed by efforts of cities like Montgomery, Alabama, where a lot of effort has been put into saving old buildings by moving them to an area called “Old Alabama Town”. But the buildings are “adopted” by organizations who provide some of the cost of maintenance. These houses are fun to visit and are kept in good shape. Sometimes, though, no one adopts an old house. If that happens, this old house becomes this old empty lot, available for development.

Probably very soon after people began building structures, they also began tearing them down and reusing the materials and the land to build new structures. There is plenty of evidence for this in Egypt, Greece, and wherever one finds Roman settlements. But they also built some things to last. The Parthenon, the Pyramids, the Pantheon, even the Coliseum are still with us. Some are the worse for wear, usually thanks to armies using them as ammunition dumps and forts, often due to earthquakes and similar natural disasters. Yet, they still stand, providing evidence of the skills of these ancient civilizations.

My father, by the way, grew up in Hungary and his gymnasium (equivalent to an American high school) was a several-hundred-year-old pile built by the Turks, which is an excellent example of retaining a historical edifice while putting it to a new use.

The important structures are the ones that teach us about how people lived or represent something very meaningful historically speaking, like Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It's necessary, though, to actually assess the historic importance of the site, and one should try to err on the side of safety.

In Europe, where land has always been a precious commodity, any acre may contain layer after layer of different habitations. Often, these are discovered when a new building or other improvement is going in. Most of the time, such a discovery brings everything to a halt until archaeologists can investigate the site and save as many artifacts as possible. Occasionally, though, there is a rush to develop. Recently, in Spain, a Roman settlement was found during construction of a parking lot. Work was halted only for the briefest time before the site got paved, causing much potential information to be lost.

Perhaps the greatest measure of whether a site should be saved is what it can teach us about those who built it. The Roman settlement could have filled in a few of the gaps in our knowledge about the Roman Empire. Paving it was a terrible loss. In the case of the King of Prussia Inn, though, what cam we learn that we don't already know? If the idea is to commerae a significant event, a reconstruction would be as meaningful and potentially more useful for education than a dangerous ruin that no one can safely enter.

There is no easy answer to what to do about the clash between history and progress. But perhaps by making decisions about what's important to save and what is not, we can learn more about what is important history and what is merely nostalgia.

Maybe then we'll appreciate both more.

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