How MUCH of the Past Should We Save?

I live in a town that goes crazy if you want o tear down an old building. Frankly, I don’t understand…all that is old is not good! I think we Americans view the past with rose-colored glasses, and people should remember that things are better now.
Take those historic restorations , like Williamsburg, VA. Its a gorgeous place…a nice colonial toen, appearing as it did ca. 1775…except you don’t see the awfuls stuff, like:
-filthy outhouses overflowing with human waste
-verminous children, with head lice and skin sores
-the fate of the village “crazies”, confined in the local madhouse
-flys covering the meat at the butcher shop, rotten vegetables
-the stink of unwashed human bodies
Instead, you see elegantly dressed ladies, and aristocratic planters in tricorn hats, with beautifully dressed children…and smiling black servants/slaves. The bakery smell wonderful, and as you taste the fresh-baked bread you forget that a lot of colonial bread was moldy! You pop in to the drugstore and chat with the local barber/surgeon, who tells you of the operations he’s performed.
Why don’t they show you the REAL life of 1775?
I could go on…but why romanticise the past? The “Disneyland” view of the past we have is not accurate…I’d like to see the “real” past! :confused:

Well, even historic preservationists accept the idea of progress – they don’t want to revert to the days when people died regularly of typhoid from untreated outhouse runoff getting into wells, offal in the streets, and such. “Historically accurate” does not have to include the undesirable and undesired-by-their-contemporaries by-products of past communities.

The State and National Registers are fairly generous in accepting candidate submissions for listings, but they do have criteria: the subject properties must be either: (a) at least locally of intrinsic historic value (the house where the man who was a well-loved mayor for 30 years in the early 20th century was born, for example), or (b) be a good example of something historically valuable. One of the last two houses in this region of the state built to this particular traditional design, for example, would be a typical candidate under the latter criterion. Also note that historic districts preserving architecturally what a given part of a community was like in its heyday will include all structures dating from the appropriate time period within the district boundaries, simply to preserve not merely isolated instances of historic structures, but an entire neighborhood where most structures are historically significant. Seven years ago we (my ex-boss and I, working this project as a volunteer team) obtained state matching-grant funds in behalf of a local historical society to acquire for that society and to stabilize the last un-restored structure within the Sackets Harbor Downtown Historic District – and the society plans to complete renovation and donate it to an arts group as a venue for exhibiting and selling their creations.

I suspect your penchant for exaggeration, Ralph, is present in “a town that goes crazy if you want to tear down an old building.” I suspect they pick and choose their targets for preservation much more carefully than that.

And consider, there are many places you can put a new building or a parking lot. But it’s impossible to get a new structure built in 1810 if you tear the old one down to put the new building or lot on its site.

The “Preservationists” are all for preserving the past at the expense of the taxpayers. My personal reaction is that if they want to preserve this, that, or the other they are welcome to do so IF THEY will foot the bill.

e.g. Last year it was an old rund down, dillapidated motel ready to be razed. Today it is called a piece of history to be revered restored and preserved because someone convinces someone in DC to add it to the list of “Historic Places.”

A $30 wheel tax is likely to be disapproved by the voters in November and needed projects for the county will have to be delayed again.

If a “wishful thinking” project can’t pay its own way don’t ask the taxpayers?

The true past of course! Bricks are not that important, compared the the memory of the reality.
What is the reality of the past? Difficult question. ‘Revisionism’ that tells the truth, as opposed to ‘revisionism’ that tells lies!
Exampes of the former - there has been a flood of books recently that try and show that that the British Army of WW1 won that war with comparitive efficiency. Compare this with those who have been so succesfull since that war in denying this. Add to this mix persons like Ludendorff and Hitler - and there you have it!
Power-mongers, madmen and tyrants and so forth seek to falsify the past - and present!
The true recognition of the past is all important. More than two thousand years ago a bloke called Thucydides tried this. Since then there have been many others.
Nowdays, films and telly are all-powerful. Who do you believe, Oliver Stone, or some non-entity who tries to tell the truth?

They try, but often can’t come up with the amount of cash needed in a short period of time to keep a building from being demolished. When the government steps in, it’s a god-send. Not just because history is being preserved, but because it’s often a good investment.

Historical sites don’t just sit there “being historical.” Often, they bring tourist money into the community which far outweighs the intitial cost of saving them. When I travel, I chose to stay at historic inns. I visit museums and shop in local historic districts.

Given the fact that there’s an entire tourism industry devoted to this type of thing, the tax revenue generated is often a boon for dying or neglected areas in communities. The restoration of old buildings can be the start of a rebirth of a once delapidated area. (I can think of quite a few cities which have turned their shabby historic districts into tourist attractions, or new business and office districts, all of which generate tax revenue.)

But even if they didn’t pay for themselves, I think it would be important to save these buildings.

There are a lot of people who don’t see the value in “old stuff” and it’s nigh on to impossible to explain why they should care. Either you appreciate history, or you don’t, plain and simple. Unfortunately, folks who don’t are in the majority, and sometimes their disinterest robs future generations of treasures that belong to all of us. We often only have one chance to save something special.

I feel that it’s everyone’s responsibility to try to preserve historic sites, not just those who have a particular interest in that area. I know that in my line of work, we curse with bitterness the names of some short-sighted inviduals who destroyed important historical sites or items, which we’d now give almost anything to have.

Recently, a very unique and historically important building in our area was scheduled for demolition because of highway construction. Local residents formed a campaign to try to raise the money to have it moved, but despite their best efforts, they fell short of the goal. Thankfully, the government stepped in with a grant which made up for the shortfall. The building has been moved, will be restored to its former granduer and will be a museum. The story could have ended so differently.

Personally, I’m very pleased that my tax dollars are going to such a worthy cause.

I can appreciate the need to keep some of the old stuff around, but really there should be some limits to this! In my town, we have a 120-year old building that is becoming vacnt. It has no structural steel, and the old brick walls are deteriorating. It cannot be used for housing, because it cannot meet modern fire codes. So this building will just sit around, doing nobody any good, and draining the tax rolls.
To me, it isn’t anything architecturally significant-it ought to be torn down and replaced with a good modern building.
How many of you would like to inhabit a 120-year old house?

Ralph and Spingears, I’d like to get some specifics on the sorts of campaigns you’re objecting to.

I can easily believe that there are extremist preservationists who want to save everything, just as there are extremist environmentalists who want no desert, wetland, or forest used by humans for any purpose whatsoever. But quite bluntly, I’ve never encountered any such people – the historic preservationist folks I know of, including the state bureaucrats, are quite interested in preserving the best of historic structures, and more than willing to triage, relegating the not-particularly-interesting and ruinous to demolition.

Ralph, yes I would want to live in a 120-year-old building that had been properly maintained and had attractive features and a well-appointed interior. I saw a stone house 15 years ago of precisely that age that I would have jumped at the chance to buy – it was gorgeous inside and out. But I can go along with the idea that a brick structure of no particular special historic value could easily be torn down. Can you link to anything about it – local press coverage, a real estate ad, etc.? It’s got me curious what the situation with that place is, that you would use it as your example in this discussion.

I grew up in a house built in 1830, and the museum in which I work is comprised of two houses, one built in the early 1820s and another built a decade later.

Houses built during this time are remarkably solid. Even if they need a lot of renovation, they’ve got good, strong structures. You won’t see foundational issues as often with houses like these as you will with modern homes.

Secondly, these houses often have a lot of features which you don’t find in modern houses: lovely woodwork, high ceilings, large rooms, thick walls and that effervescent quality that some call charm.

I’d take a 120 year old home any day rather than one of these horrid modern McHouses.

Preach it! I live in the old K-town and most of the stuff they want to preserve is essentially unloved by anyone. most fo the stuff with real historical value has already been registered; the new fights are over places that have no historical value as far as I can figure out.

It would be really nice if they’d just save up and buy it, though, rather than holding up needing housing developments in the university district. IU don’t know about other towns, but what they’re trying to do to Knoxville is insane.

Not Knoxville. Nobody comes to Knoxville to see the architecture of a couple old homes in Fort Sanders. They’re not big enough to be anything except family homes, and they weren’t even that pretty (frankly, they were pretty ugly, IMHO). Moreover, This neighborhood has seena a bad rash of a fires from old houses burning up. There are old houses there that will stay because it makes sense fo them to be there. But the preservationists want to maintain empty facades.

I don’t generally hang out in GD; but I have to address this subject.

Our built environment speaks volumes about us, and our society.

There’s a reason that millions of tourists flock to Europe every year, spending billions of dollars. As Eddie Izzard joked about being from Britain: “You know–where the history is!”

While bustling commerce and restless redevelopment are hallmarks of North American culture (and therefore deserving of historical commemoration themselves), it is important for us to preserve a range of structures and even historic viewscapes as part of a communal cultural heritage.

Only fanatics would want to freeze a whole city centre in time; life goes on, and people have to work and live. But our built heritage–which surrounds us all–can be adaptively re-used: preserving the heritage character of a Savannah, or Hell’s Kitchen, or even a Levittown, while continuing to flourish and be a vital place where communities thrive, enriches all of us–whether we take time to realize it or not.

Not all “historic” buildings need be saved, or turned into museums (although it’s generally best for those judged most significant, or representative of an important era, person, or event). More and more, the interiors of structures wit heritage value are being carefully renovated for “new” use; whether that use is in keeping with the building’s original design, or (for example) turning that old cotton warehouse into trendy loft apartments. In the last case scenario, only the facade of some buildings are saved, with an entirely new building constructed behind–while this is fairly destructive of that original structure, at least it preserves the outward, street aspect of the building; one which is generally on a more human scale than glass and steel towers, or giant box stores.

And sure, we can’t save everything–only a fanatic would want to–but we have to be careful to preserve a range of heritage structures. Not just the pretty houses of rich folks, but structures that reflect how workers lived (and worked), industrial heritage, ethnic and religious history. We’ve cleared away too much of the history we don’t want to remember: slums, slave quarters, ghettos. Some of these need to be commemorated–if only to remind ourselves of how tough the “good old days” were for the majority, and to spur us to improve quality of life for all, today.

Commerce and heritage can co-exist, and do very well; heritage tourism is big business, and brings a moneyed, educated clientele to an area. My small city brings in a billion dollars a year (Canadian), largely on the strength of cultural tourism. That means a lot of jobs–and the industries that once thrived here are all dead.

Finally, what does the city that you want to leave to your children look like? Midsize brick and stone (or shiplap wood), on a human scale? Or more giant impersonal glass towers, in a “dead zone” which empties at 5 pm? Or more strip malls full of the same stores, in the same styles (often aping old buildings that were torn down to clear the space!)?

Um, sorry to burst your bubble, but towns had ordinances about how you dealt with your ‘ordeure’ or wastes…Outhouses were regularly slaked with lime [odor control, fly supression and helped dissolve the wastes by forming a caustic liquid in contact with organic liquids] and moved frequently.

Cleanliness was extant, people actually did bathe, wash their clothes and change their underthings…and a number of different preparations were available to keep with the clothing to kill any insects like moths, and there were other preparations used that killed lice nits [eggs on the hair shaft] and dry shampoos that removed excess hair oils and scented the hair [many witn an orris [sweet flag/calamus/ base and herbs like pennyroyal [insecticidal] peppermint [also insecticidal, and nice smelling] rose petal [scented] sandalwood, musk, lavendar, bay or cinnamon…whatever ingredients people preferred.] Underclothing was washed with regularity, and serfved to keep body oil and sweat from the outer clothing. Outer cloting was drycleaned with a number of different substances, depending on the location but frequently included flour, sand and herbs. Clothing was hung in airing closets, and occasionally fumigated with sulfur if it had fur in the construction.

Bedlams [named for the hospital of Mary of Bethleham] were not common in the colonies like Williamsburg, people kept their mixed nuts at home. Bedlams were more a functrion of large scale city dwelling.

Oddly enough, butchers shops like you are describing are also a large scale city function. In smaller scale communities, you tended to slaughter to order, with an exception being pigs in the late fall - there they were slaughtered by the owner, and at the time of slaughter the basin of blood, certain innards and scrap meats went to be made into sausage, larger cuts like the legs were smoked as hams, large cuts like tenderloins were roasted fresh or salt cured [does canadian bacon ring a bell?] pork belly was cured either by salting [fatback] or smoking [bacon] skin and fat was cut up and rendered in a large kettle and teh impurities removed, and the resulting fat poured into molds [pure leaf lard] and teh skin that was fried becomes cracklings [chicharrones for our spanish speakers, or pork rind for our anglo junk food junkies] Beef was actually handled in a similar way, though less smoked and more salted and brined. More large animals were made into sausage and preserved than ever were served fresh. Chickens and geese tended to be kept in flocks and slaughtered at need. Game animals were eaten when hunted.

Bread bakers on the commercial level had excruciatingly strict regulations as to the composition freshness and weight of their loaves. Women baking in home baked every few days or daily, depending on the size of the home. Many vegetables were never bought in a store, women had ‘pot gardens’ in the yard. The general population didnt have grass lawns, they had chicken and pig yards, and gardens. Many vegetables were stored in root cellars, and were turnips, cabbages, onions, dried beans, dried fruits, beets, winter squashes [think hubbard, not zucchini] all very durable vegetables. Greens were not fall or winter items, but spring and summer when they were gathered daily when they were fresh and in season. Dairy was stored for the winter in the form of cheese, and in general fats used for cooking were lard and tallow as butter was not generally available in winter as foddering for the winter was done more to keep the chosen breeding stock alive, not to provide dairy for the winter, the ultra rich being the exceptions…

Living in colonial america, and renaissance europe was very different from today, but believe me nowhere near as bad as you claim. Most of the bad mental images are actually late 1800s city dweller problems of supply line problems - bad meat and vegetables, unsanitary living, and sewage problems…

True, but they were often ignored.

In the city I live in (founded in 1800) pigs became a terrible problem within the city. It seems that despite the law, people threw their garbage out of the windows, and other people took advantage of the free pig food and let their oinkers roam. The pigs were rather happy with this arrangement, and bred prolifically. The problem was, they impeded traffic by making mud wallows in the middle of the dirt streets, and napping wherever they saw fit. The problem was eventually solved by an enterprising lawman who captured all the pigs and made the owners pay a dollar to spring them. Such a heavy fine convinced people to just keep their pigs at home. The garbage problem, however, was worsened.

A great many cities have tales like this one. Some dealt with the problem earlier than others, but garbage disposal wasn’t usually a top priority. The link between poor sanitation and disease hadn’t fully been made yet, so people didn’t see much urgency.

A fastidious person may have taken a sponge bath every morning, but full immersion in a tub of water was usually too labor and time consuming for greater frequency than once per week-- sometimes, less than that in the winter, because of fear of catching a “chill.”

Of course, folks with servants probably bathed more often, but most people likely smelled.

I work in a museum, and we have a large collection of early American clothing. Most articles are stained with sweats and body oils to the point where it’s obvious that linen didn’t completely protect the clothing from being soiled-- and that the garments most likely were pretty stinky, despite being aired.