Preserving Historic New England: Preservation, Progressivism, and the Remaking of Memory

Preserving Historic New England: Preservation, Progressivism, and the Remaking of Memory

Preserving Historic New England: Preservation, Progressivism, and the Remaking of Memory

Preserving Historic New England: Preservation, Progressivism, and the Remaking of Memory

Synopsis

By the first years of the twentieth century the memory of old-time New England was in danger. What had once been a land of small towns populated by tradition-minded Yankees was now becoming almost unrecognizable with a floodtide of immigrants and the constant change of a modernizing society. At the same time, cities such as Boston, Portsmouth, and Salem were bursting at the seams with factories, high-rises, and uncontrollable growth. During a period when the Colonial Revival and progressive movements held sway, Yankees asserted their influence through campaigns to redefine the meaning of their Anglo-American forebears. As part of the reaction, the modern preservation movement was founded by William Sumner Appleton, Jr., a privileged, old-blooded Bostonian. Resisting not simply this avalanche of change but the amateurish romanticism of fellow antiquaries, Appleton founded the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in 1910. While examining SPNEA in the context of progressivism, Preserving Historic New England focuses on its redefinition of preservation to fit the methodology of science, the economy of capitalism, and the aestheticism of architecture. In so doing, preservation not only became a profession defined by those male worlds, but remade Yankee memory to accord with the modern corporate order.

Excerpt

When Appleton founded spnea in 1910, it was unlike any other preservation enterprise in the United States. Showing the imprint of progressivism, it assumed the task specifically of protecting endangered buildings and declared a commitment to scientific method, expert management, and the market economy. Organized as a regional movement from its corporate base, it also neatly interlocked with existing institutions. Appleton knew that historic preservation faced formidable obstacles. Many Yankees who possessed credentials that matched his own speculated on land and economic development. Lower-class residents, on the other hand, usually occupied the more ancient structures that had been abandoned by gentrifying Yankees. When Appleton formed spnea and enlisted his allies, he appealed not to these occupants, but to the upper classes with whom he had always associated. As was the case with the preservation movement in Virginia, this elite defined its interests as those of the region. With the sanction of the state, the commitment of progressivism, the independence of private initiative, and the blessings of wealth and education, they had the authority to define what was important in the past and, implicitly, in the future.

Appleton acknowledged that earlier preservation efforts had a very mixed record in New England, but he spotlighted the failures. "America's classic example of regretted destruction," he wrote, "must for all time be the house built in 1737 by Thomas Hancock on Beacon Hill" (Fig. 3-1). John Hancock had wanted the house to be given to the state, as did later owners who offered it below market value. That plan failed, and the land was sold for delinquent taxes. the new owners offered it to the city if it was moved from its valuable Beacon Street location, but the city declined. Appleton's uncle Greeley "came within an ace of securing the place for his home," but "was discouraged by the cost." One of the nation's masterpieces then fell to the wreckers. Oddly enough, Massachusetts savored its memory, and Appleton saw a replica at the Columbian Exposition.

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