Category Archives: Historic Preservation

Princeton Battlefield is back in the news

It had the unenviable distinction of making the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the eleven most endangered sites in the country.  Here’s an article out of Philadelphia about the ongoing tussle over proposed housing on the battlefield.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historic Preservation

The collapse of Carter’s Grove

About the time I was first getting seriously interested in early American history, my parents and I took a trip to Colonial Williamsburg.  We planned to visit Carter’s Grove, the plantation home of Carter Burwell (and before that, site of a seventeenth-century English settlement excavated by famed archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume), but it was only open on certain days of the week and we got our schedule mixed up, so we missed it.  CW sold the property five years ago.

Now it’s falling apart, because Halsey Minor, the tech investor who bought the place, has evidently overextended himself and can’t afford to keep it up.

Inspectors from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources have been monitoring the property and have noted in reports the continuing deterioration of the mansion.

“Very little general maintenance work has been conducted,” inspectors said in a March report to the court after a visit to the mansion earlier this year.

“Of critical importance is the need for repairs to the failing HVAC system,” the report says. “During this site visit, there was visible standing water in the mechanical room in the basement, emanating from the chiller water pump. The risk for flooding is very high and could result in an explosion should water make contact with the gas burner.”

The inspectors found water leaks and worsening signs of rotting, cracking and mold throughout the mansion. It was unclear, they said, whether recent repairs actually stopped the water intrusion.

On the outside, they found more shingles missing from the roof, more bricks missing from the walls and more mortar cracked.…

[A court-appointed trustee] discovered that the insurance on the property had lapsed, the property’s caretakers had not been paid in a month, and that utility companies were threatening to shut off the gas, electric and water services for lack of payment. The Carter’s Grove bank account had only a few dollars left.

Pretty sorry outcome for one of the most significant pieces of architecture in the country.

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It tolls for thee

A news item out of Georgia.  I’m never happy to see potentially significant ground torn up, but one can’t help but be impressed by this developer’s honesty.

The Jonesboro City Council cleared the way this week for a funeral home to be built on about 11 acres on Ga. 54 just off Tara Boulevard after a contentious fight to preserve what is believed to be the last piece of unspoiled Civil War battleground in the county.…

Representatives for Weisbaden told city officials and residents at Monday’s meeting Jonesboro is a sensible place for a new funeral home because of its aging population.

Hey, all you elderly folks in Jonesboro—the people at Weisbaden Investments have big plans for you!

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Admiral Farragut, both remembered and forgotten

Knoxville historian Jack Neely has written a fascinating article on the legacy of East Tennessee’s own Admiral David Farragut, with an update on the disappearing birthplace monument.

Wikimedia Commons

The current status of Farragut’s boyhood home and the marker that once stood there is…well, complicated.  Very, very complicated.

What I didn’t know before reading Neely’s piece is that Farragut has become a hero among Americans of Spanish-speaking descent.  His father was a native of Minorca who settled in the Knoxville area back when Tennessee was still the Southwest Territory.

Knoxville historians once assumed they were the only ones who’ve ever heard of George Farragut, the early settler. But there’s a high-quality portrait of him at the Smithsonian. He’s the one Knoxville settler of whom we have the clearest physical image: a robust fellow on the verge of a chuckle. Now he has his own Wikipedia page. George Farragut has emerged as a Spanish-American patriot of the Revolutionary War.

His son who became an admiral has also gained new attention. “I am extremely proud of sharing the same heritage as Admiral Farragut,” says Coral Getino, the Spanish-born leader of Knoxville’s HoLa Hora Latina, hosts of the popular annual festival. “Farragut is a role model for us: A first-generation Hispanic-American, hard-working family man, who earned the highest Navy rank for the first time in history,” she says. “His bravery, determination, and perseverance—in battle and in life—exemplify values we want to teach our children. He is a national hero who was born right here, almost in my neighborhood.” Learning the Farragut story, she says, helped inspire her to get involved in the Knoxville community.

Navy guys, Civil War buffs, and various other constituencies are also keenly interested in the fate of Farragut’s birthplace. A pity more people from the admiral’s own neck of the woods aren’t as concerned.  Neely notes that at the time of its dedication, the birthplace monument was probably the most prominent marker of its kind in the Knoxville area.  You wouldn’t expect a rock like that to fade from memory, but then you wouldn’t expect it to grow legs and walk away, either.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Historic Preservation, Tennessee History

A jaunt through Jonesborough

If you want to see a stellar example of what happens when a community embraces historic preservation, you should visit Jonesborough, TN.  It’s the oldest town in the state (founded in 1779, when eastern Tennessee was still part of North Carolina) and a history lover’s paradise.  My cousin and I paid a visit the other day, after our tour of Carter’s Mansion in nearby Elizabethton.

The first thing you’ll want to do is stop by the visitor center to pick up a walking guide.  These brochures are only $1.00, and they point out all the important historic structures and locations, most of them within easy walking distance.  The visitor center also has a nice little exhibit on various aspects of Jonesborough’s past, including some nifty antique fire pumps.

Jonesborough has, at various times, been the seat of Washington Co., created by North Carolina out of some of the western districts across the mountains; a capital of the abortive State of Franklin, which ceased to exist in 1788; a government and economic center for the Southwest Territory, when North Carolina ceded her western lands to the federal government; and finally, a county seat for Tennessee.  A monument in front of the current courthouse building marks the approximate spot where a log courthouse sat over two centuries ago.

One of the oldest structures you’ll see in Jonesborough (one of the oldest structures you’ll see in the whole state, actually) is the log home of Christopher Taylor, built in 1788.  A young backwoods lawyer named Andrew Jackson lived there for a short time before moving on to Nashville and national fame.

Later, after his election to the presidency, Jackson was a guest at the Chester Inn.  Built in the late 1790’s, this building has also hosted Presidents Polk and Johnson, along with various other historic luminaries.  Now it’s the home of the National Storytelling Festival.  Check out the exhibit on the first floor; it offers a fine overview of the town’s history, and includes some pretty neat artifacts.

Next to the Taylor cabin is the site where Elihu Embree published two anti-slavery newspapers, The Manumission Intelligencer and The Emancipator.  The latter was the first newspaper in the country devoted solely to promoting the eventual eradication of slavery.  The son of Pennsylvania Quakers, Embree was actually a slaveowner himself until age thirty, joining a Tennessee manumission organization in 1815.  The Emancipator circulated as far as Boston, but its run ended when Embree died at a young age in 1820.

Our last stop was the town’s old cemetery, which sits on a hill near the historic district.  Noticing a couple of small Confederate flags on one monument, I walked over to have a closer look.  Turned out to be the grave of Brigadier General Alfred E. Jackson, who served as a quartermaster and paymaster before spending much of the rest of the war engaged in the small-scale actions that often flared up in the mountains of Appalachia.  Jackson was quite unpopular among other Confederate officers; subordinates in Thomas’ Legion (which constituted part of his brigade) considered him “morally and physically unfit” for command and asked Jefferson Davis to give him the boot.  The end of the war found this formerly prosperous businessman farming rented land in southwestern Virginia.  He was eventually able to recover some of his antebellum prosperity and died in Jonesborough in 1889.

There are plenty of other stories and buildings to check out in Jonesborough, along with quite a few historic inns and small restaurants.  The town is just a short drive from some of Tennessee’s best parks and historic sites—Sycamore Shoals, Rocky Mount, Andrew Johnson’s home, and Tipton-Haynes Historic Site, to name a few—so if you’re looking for a place to spend a history-soaked weekend, it’s hard to beat.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Princeton Battlefield Society sues to stop construction

From Planet Princeton:

Opponents of the Institute for Advanced Study’s plan to build faculty housing have filed a lawsuit to block the project, arguing it will destroy the site of Washington’s counter-attack in the Battle of Princeton, the historic battle that changed the course of the American Revolution.

The lawsuit, filed in Mercer County Superior Court by the Princeton Battlefield Society, also claims the project is barred under the terms of a 1992 settlement agreement between the Institute and Princeton Township.

“The development, intended to provide housing for 15 faculty members, will completely obliterate the Battlefield site that has remained untouched for the last 235 years,” said the group’s attorney, Bruce Afran. “The Institute housing plan will destroy what is probably the most significant Revolutionary War site left in the United States, along with critical archaeological and historical evidence.”

The suit alleges that the construction, intended to build housing for 15 Institute faculty members, is barred under the terms of a 1992 settlement that the Institute reached with Princeton Township that was intended to preserve the Battlefield site from future residential development.

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What better time than the sesquicentennial

…to slash federal funding for Civil War battlefield acquisition in half?

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Extending the American Battlefield Protection Program

…to help preserve early American sites is an idea whose time has come.  More info here.

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Re-fighting the Battle of Princeton

There’s a dispute going on in Princeton, NJ over a parcel of land that may or may not be a critical piece of the Jan. 3, 1777 battlefield.  Enlisted to speak for those wishing to build on the site is Dr. Mark Peterson, who argues that the case is not as clear-cut as opponents of the project suggest.  For all I know, he may be right about that.

I do, however, think he’s wrong when he invokes precedent as a guide to current behavior:

 Dr. Peterson suggested there are other ways to memorialize historic events, in addition to preserving the land from development. He pointed to several sites that were important in the Revolutionary War, but that have since been developed and do not reflect the way they looked in the 18th century.

In Lexington, Mass., where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired, the bodies of the American militiamen who died were buried in cemeteries scattered around the area, he said. But many years later, the bodies were disinterred and reburied next to a monument that was placed on the site.

A plaque at Cambridge Common, which also figured in the Revolutionary War and which was the site where Gen. Washington took command of the Continental Army, is part of Harvard Square. Land has not always been set aside as “sacred ground,” Dr. Peterson said.

This reminds me of an argument I used to hear in support of the Gettysburg casino.  There’s plenty of schlock around the battlefield already (as this line of reasoning went) so it makes little sense to freak out over a single gambling resort.  I’ve never found this persuasive.  One could just as easily make the same argument about natural resources: People used to clear-cut forests with merry abandon and shoot down every bison in sight, so what’s the big deal?

Lousy stewardship of historic ground in the past shouldn’t be a license for us to proceed carelessly today.  If anything, it should serve as a cautionary tale.

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Leftovers

Here are a few items of interest to digest along with your microwaved turkey remnants.

  • Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill is hosting an exhibit of old North Carolina textbooks and the bizarre material contained therein.  The First Dixie Reader, published in Raleigh in 1863, extolled the idyllic lifestyle of the elderly female slave: “Many poor white folks would be glad to live in her house and eat what Miss Kate sends out for her dinner.”
  • The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is approaching, and the bureaucrats in Albany, NY couldn’t care less.
  • Some interesting stuff turned up when a bank employee opened up a box that had gone neglected.
  • The fate of (what’s left of) the historic K-25 plant in Oak Ridge, TN is in dispute.  The Department of Energy had promised to keep part of it intact, but now they want to tear down the whole thing.
  • Think historic preservation doesn’t make economic sense?  Think again.

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Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Tennessee History