Category Archives: Historic Preservation

Tidings of comfort and joy

This ought to bring some holiday cheer to anybody who cares about battlefield preservation.  The Civil War Trust has an opportunity to acquire one of the most historic parcels of ground in the country at Brandy Station.  I second Eric’s call to action: This is the time for all of us history aficionados to help make this happen.

If you’re like me and aren’t in a financial position to write a big fat check with lots of zeroes in it, here’s a simple way to pitch in.  Lots of our friends and co-workers are scrambling around to find last-minute Christmas presents for us.  What if we e-mailed these folks and asked them to take the money they’d normally spend on a gift for us and send the same amount to the Civil War Trust instead?  Every little bit helps.

Alternatively, if you need to find a Christmas present for the history buff in your life, consider making a donation to the CWT in their name.  They’ll appreciate that more than a sweater or fruitcake, and it’ll last longer.

Cavalry Charge near Brandy Station, by Edwin Forbes. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (reproduction no. LC-DIG-ppmsca-22378)

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Want to help reclaim the Franklin battlefield?

The Civil War Trust is trying to raise $339,000 to close on three important parcels.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation, Tennessee History

Judge refuses to have Blair Mountain put back on the National Register

Let’s imagine for a minute that I blew up Cemetery Ridge.  Just hypothetically, I mean.  Imagine that Gettysburg National Military Park up and decided to sell off some land, and I bought Cemetery Ridge and then bulldozed away all the soil, and then I drilled down into the rock and placed some explosives and then just blasted it all to smithereens.

If that scenario disturbs you, consider this: Last week a federal judge, siding with coal companies, refused to have the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain put back on the National Register of Historic Places.

You’d think a place where one of the biggest armed uprisings in American history happened, and one of the most significant historic sites in Appalachia, would get a little more respect.

Why did Blair Mountain get removed from the register to begin with?  Believe it or not, Randall Reid-Smith, West Virginia’s State Historic Preservation Officer, asked for it to be taken off, claiming that most of the property owners objected to the designation. When a real estate lawyer took a closer look at these dissenting property owners, a funny thing happened.

The list of objectors, Bailey discovered, included two dead men—one of whom had perished nearly three decades earlier—as well as a property owner who had sold her land years before the nomination process. In addition, Bailey identified 13 property owners who did not appear on the SHPO list at all. “The final count we reached was 63 landowners and only 25 objectors,” Ayers said.

Hey, if two guys came back from the hereafter and asked you to get a site taken off the National Register of Historic Places, you’d probably get right on it too, wouldn’t you?

There’s a sickening irony here; the Battle of Blair Mountain happened because the miners got fed up with the coal companies’ rapacity, and now the site itself is threatened by coal companies’ rapacity.  Picture an original safe house on the Underground Railroad being torn down to build a whites-only restaurant, and you’d have an analogous situation.

If you care about historic ground, now would be a good time to let some elected officials know it.

After the battle, the miners of Blair Mountain hand over their guns. West Virginia Division of Culture and History (wvculture.org)

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NPS battlefield report is ready for your comments

The report, which examines Civil War battlefield preservation over the past twenty years and offers some recommendations for the future, went online today at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/battlefields.  The NPS will be taking comments until October 12, so take a look and sound off.

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If there’s one thing we don’t need near Manassas

…it’s more highways.

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The Cyclorama building is another step closer to demolition

In 2010 a judge ordered Gettysburg National Military Park to re-evaluate its plan to demolish the Cyclorama building.  The park just finished that review, and tearing it down remains the best option as far as the NPS is concerned.  The Recent Past Preservation Network is apparently putting together a response.

For whatever it’s worth, I wouldn’t miss it.  Its removal would help conform the landscape more closely to its 1863 appearance, which is the park’s primary preservation aim.  The painting has a new home in the visitor center, so as of now, the building is an empty shell that doesn’t really serve any interpretive function.  The architect’s son would like to see it turned into a Lincoln museum, but since the visitor center exhibit has pretty thorough coverage of the Gettysburg Address and the larger context of the war, another display doesn’t seem like the best use of a crucial piece of battleground.

And aesthetically…well, this pretty much comes down to personal taste, but to me it looks like some sort of sacred kiva built by ancient aliens, which isn’t the kind of thing that seems at home on a Civil War battlefield.

Cue Richard Strauss fanfare from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Still, I can see where the building’s supporters are coming from.  It’s an interesting example of twentieth-century architecture, and it’s been there so long that it’s sort of a Gettysburg institution.  The whole situation is reminiscent of the Electric Map ruckus.  You’ve got an interpretive tool that’s outlived its original purpose—in fact, it’s standing in the way of advancing the park’s long-term goals—but the tool itself has become so venerable that some people see it as an integral part of what makes the site such a special place.  In other words, when you have a longstanding connection to a particular historic site, the individual level of personal and sentimental memory gets woven into the larger fabric of collective, historical memory.

Of course, sentiment isn’t the only point at issue; opponents of demolishing the building argue that it’s got enough architectural significance to make it inherently valuable.  Thus we have an unusual situation in which some of us history buffs oppose a preservation effort, albeit with the aim of restoring the landscape around it.

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What to do with that historic home you’ve got sitting around?

Hey, the most logical option is to burn it down so the fire department can get in a little practice, and then build something else there.

STOCKBRIDGE — An historic home is scheduled to go up in flames today.

The controlled burn of the Hightower House, named for its owner, Dr. Richard Hightower, is part of a ceremony hosted by the City of Stockbridge.

The burning, which also serves as training for county firefighters, will be Thursday, at 7:30 p.m., at 117 East Atlanta Road, in Stockbridge.

“The control training burn will be directed by the Henry County Fire Department,” said Henry Fire Capt. Sabrina Puckett.

The Hightower House was built in the 1800s, prior to the Civil War, according to officials. Its original purpose was to be the only medical facility in the area, having a doctor’s office, drugstore and small hospital. The Hightower House has been used in several capacities over the years, including a private home, a business, and recently to train Henry County firefighters.

City officials said they are burning down the historic house in order to make room for city improvements.

Preservationist that I am, I obviously find this depressing. On the bright side, however, the mayor provided a sound bite that is nothing short of unintentional comedy gold:

“It is only fitting that we stop to remember the historical significance this house has played in the development of Stockbridge, and Henry County,” said Stockbridge Mayor Lee Stuart. “The Hightower family history shows that [family members] have always been committed to community, serving [in various capacities] as sheriff, medical doctor, firefighter and emergency medical technician… We look forward to having the citizens of Stockbridge participate in the final chapter of this grand old house.”

“My fellow citizens, it is only fitting that we stop to remember the historical significance this house has played in the development of Stockbridge, and Henry County. Now pass the lighter fluid, so we can burn this sucker right down to the ground.”

Image from myfoxatlanta.com

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Time to call your congressman

The House of Representatives can now vote to allow the NPS to acquire important Revolutionary War and War of 1812 sites.  Drop a line to your representative and tell him or her to support the American Battlefield Protection Program Amendments Act (H.R. 2489).  It’ll only take you a few minutes.

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In heritage tourism no one can hear you scream

Historic site preservation keeps getting more and more complicated.

The reality of imminent commercial space tourism is exciting — and threatening. The temptation for tourists to visit Tranquility Base, to walk in Armstrong’s footsteps or to pocket some small treasure as a keepsake may be too strong to resist. Artifacts too small to notice may be trampled. Those too large to move may be vandalized. The three-dimensional relationship of these objects — which tells the story of the Apollo 11 crew’s activities and makes the site so significant — could be destroyed. The integrity of this historical site could be irreparably damaged. It is imperative that these artifacts be protected in their current positions.

Your homework assignment is to design a brochure for Tranquility Base National Historical Park using the venerable Unigrid System.

“Come on, kids! The cyclorama starts in five minutes!”

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Historic preservation is overrated, says a guy who really needs a fact checker

Eli Lehrer wishes the National Trust for Historic Preservation would get out of everybody’s way.

While nobody disputes that certain areas do deserve preservation or the Trust has done good work in protecting them them [sic], many places on the 2012 list have little to do with actual history and much to do with a busy-body attitude that seeks to diminish private property rights and waste tax dollars on dubious “preservation” efforts.

Judging by his op-ed, I think Lehrer’s main criterion for whether a site merits protection is that it be deemed worthy and interesting by none other than Eli Lehrer:

Many courthouses in rural Texas (another item on the list of “national treasures”) are in poor shape but it’s not clear why they’re of any national significance — most have hosted nothing beyond workaday civil and criminal trials and few are architecturally distinguished. There’s no reason why Texas taxpayers should do what the trust wants and shovel millions more into “protecting” them if their own counties don’t see a value in doing so. Likewise, there’s no reason why a building that once housed a gym where boxer Joe Frazier trained is of any importance at all: while Frazier himself does have importance to sports history, it’s not typical or expected to preserve sports figures’ practice sites so tourists can visit them. They just aren’t very interesting. The same goes for utterly ordinary corrugated steel warehouses in the Port of Los Angles and an unexceptional small town in Ohio. Nothing truly historic happened in either place.

Personally, I might give his opinions more weight if he wasn’t such a sloppy and uninformed commentator.  Citing the controversy over proposed housing at Princeton Battlefield, Lehrer claims that “local busybodies still want to prevent Princeton University from building some housing in any area near the battlefield because they believe, among other things, that soldiers en route to the battle marched across it.”  In fact, it’s not Princeton University that wants to build the housing, but the Institute for Advanced Study, which is completely independent of the university.

More importantly, the Princeton Battlefield Society has identified the portion of the field in question as core battlefield land.  Indeed, the very PBS document to which Lehrer links in his “local busybodies” quote identifies the parcel as such.  Is it too much to ask that an op-ed writer read a little about the subject of his piece, especially that he read the documents to which he refers directly?

Lehrer also writes that the Princeton battlefield is “already a state park.”  The implication that historic sites are out of harm’s way once they receive designation as a park betrays ignorance of a seemingly obvious point.  Such sites do not contain all the historic ground relating to a particular event.  They only contain what preservationists and agencies have been able to acquire.  The existence of a battlefield park only means that part of a given battlefield has obtained protected status, not that all the ground on which the battle took place is within the boundaries of a park.  Even land within park boundaries is not immune from the traffic congestion, ruined viewsheds, and other problems that come with encroachment.  In some cases, parcels of historic parks aren’t even contiguous, but instead are separated by other parcels of land over which park agencies have no control.

Preservation doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  We can have informed, reasonable discussions about this stuff—but we can’t do it with people who don’t really know what they’re talking about.

Princeton Battlefield. By Daderot (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under American Revolution, Historic Preservation