A Restoration of Significance

By Larson, Jonathan | Journal of Economic Issues, September 1995 | Go to article overview

A Restoration of Significance


Larson, Jonathan, Journal of Economic Issues


Historical significance is a highly elusive concept, especially in the United States where teaching history is a neglected art and historians are considered vaguely subversive. Because of this, the act of preserving an old building for historical reasons is usually surrounded by local controversies and fund-raising difficulties that ensure that work is delayed for years, if not decades. The Veblen farmstead in Minnesota was almost lost from lengthy neglect caused by such forces--a classic case study in the dilemmas of American historic preservation.

The case for saving the Veblen farmstead was utterly flawless. Thorstein Veblen's writings are admired around the globe by students of industrial culture. All of his books (save his translation of the Lexdaela Saga) are still in print--his most famous, The Theory of the Leisure Class, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1899. His ideas inspired a school of thought that publishes a professional journal, and international organizations exist to discuss the relevance of his ideas. Veblen's intellectual stock is currently rising because the political economist who spent his career railing against industrial waste has much to offer in addressing modem industrial environmental problems. How could the farm where Veblen lived and worked from the age of seven until he finally left at 34 NOT be saved?

Actually, there were so many reasons against preservation that its successful completion in August 1994 is cause for genuine astonishment and delight for those who despaired that it would ever happen.

* The Veblen farmstead was not designated historical for architectural reasons. Although architects lose their share of preservation battles too, they have the tremendous advantage of being able to dress up their proposals in the largely non-controversial language of high design that appeals to the personnel staffing the relevant historical societies. By contrast, Veblen's life and writings were the essence of controversy.

* Nearby Northfield has two small church-affiliated liberal arts colleges that both had legitimate claims on the local farm boy turned world-class intellectual. St. Olaf College was founded by the Norwegian ethnic enclave of which Veblen was a member, while Carleton College is where he went to school. Carleton indeed inspired Veblen's great genius-but hardly in the way schools like to advertise, for he spent his professional career assaulting the intellectual foundations of everything he learned there. St. Olaf s claim to Veblen's legacy is that they refused to employ him when he badly needed a job--even with a Ph.D. from Yale--because he could not toe the line on the sacred Lutheran dogma of vicarious atonement. As a result, while Carleton College actually owned the property for some years, their institutional bias prevented the sort of commitment that spends money. St. Olaf basically took the position that Veblen was Carleton's baby even though they otherwise attempt to glorify all accomplishments Norwegian.

* The Minnesota Historical Society, like most such institutions, is dominated by curators who define themselves by their ability to organize and catalogue the collections. Such people seem institutionally incapable of internally assessing the historical merits of restoring the home of an intellectual. Lacking an organized and vocal local constituency adept at pressure and presentation, the Veblen farmstead restoration project barely made it on any agenda, much less get funds. As a result, all the important work of saving the Veblen farm came from outsiders.

The first great break came when John Kenneth Galbraith, the long-time Veblenian scholar at Harvard University and best-selling author, took the time to ensure that the farm was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. He was writing and producing the 10-part BBC/PBS series in 1974 called "The Age of Uncertainty" in which he traced the history of economic thought and needed the farm as a "set" for some of his shots. …

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