Randall Mason


On his book The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City

Cover Interview of July 19, 2009

A close-up

These two “close-ups” might compel readers:

The first is the book’s collection of images.  The portfolio, chapter images and the book’s cover capture the extraordinary moment in New York’s history in which the book is set.  In the 1900s and 1910s, New York was perched on the brink of becoming “the capital of capitalism,” the epitome of modern metropolises.  Yet at the same time some of its leading citizens were thoroughly devoted to preserving material aspects of the city’s past as part of its public space.

This cultural foment—searching for usable pasts in all forms of culture—enabled images mixing past and future in delicious ways: the airplanes hovering above old City Hall (spliced in by the photographer), streetcars rushing past vernacular buildings as the photographer tried to capture a portrait, an architect (Hugh Ferris, known as champion of the New York skyscrapers) lovingly sketching an historic church about to be lost, Bronx River Parkway images of “before” and “after” proudly documenting slum clearance and landscape design.

The second “close up” is the revelation that preservation depends so much on destruction, that old buildings (those associated with the “wrong” memories) are not infrequently destroyed at the insistence of preservationists.

That preservationists rely on destroying buildings as much as saving them is one of those great ironies that reveal so much about the discourses and images preservationists project.  There are many examples of selective destruction in the service of historic preservation.  Williamsburg, the famous historic site in Virginia, was “restored” as an 18th town in the 20th century by destroying a lot of buildings created in the 19th century.  Independence Hall in Philadelphia (where I teach) has a vast lawn in front where whole city blocks were cleared in the 1950s to create a proper “jewel box” setting for the main attraction—Independence Hall itself.

The built environments imagined and designed by preservationists are often highly selective—some memories are in, other are out.  In preservation parlance, this is the “scrape” approach used by restorers (such as Viollet, or Scott), as opposed to the “anti-scrape” attitude of Ruskin and Morris.  The 19th-century debate between these approaches continues to animate historic preservation in the 21th century.

Why do preservationists use destruction as one of their tools? Preservation is about shaping and sustaining memory—particular, collective, historical memories—and fundamentally not just about saving old buildings and objects.  Saving old stuff—in preservationist parlance, “historic fabric”—is a means to the end of shaping collective memory.  Forgetting this context of their work, preservationists too often fetishize a few old buildings, and sound like self-righteous, narrow-minded, arrogant connoisseurs.