Thursday, June 30, 2011

Historical Preservation - Let's Keep It Going

The "Stone Castle" from Lexington, Michigan - made from the stones that came off the beaches of southern Lake Huron in the early 1930's. It is now a family cottage

You've read about my living history excursions, no doubt, and how there are those of us who take it so seriously that we make the attempt to, in a way, travel through time.
You've also read (in my previous posting) how reenacting inside a period house nearly accomplishes my time-travel wish.
I like to think that as living historians and reenactors we are preserving history by our actions, appearance, manners, surroundings, and speech.
But there is too much actual history, probably right there in your own town, that is disappearing before your eyes.
I am speaking of the historic structures that tend to go unnoticed until it's too late.

From 1844 - this home still survives in Romeo, Mi.
Romeo itself is a historic village of the 19th century - not unlike Colonial Williamsburg is with the 18th century

Saving old buildings is something that doesn't happen nearly enough. It seems that every week I hear of or read about a historic building being torn down for one reason or another. A consistent complaint of mine is how the city fathers will let a structure sit for years, turning down all offers of purchase until it becomes dilapidated, just so they can do what they originally wanted to do...raze it.
This nearly happened in my hometown of Eastpointe. We have numerous old homes in this very modern suburb of Detroit, most having been built from roughly 1920 to 1950. But we have a few that were built in the 19th century such as the Kern home built in 1874 and the 1892 Ameis house.

The 1874 Kern Home in Eastpointe, Mi

We almost lost the Kern home, however, when a few years ago it was listed for sale as commercial property. You see, being on a main street gives the property that much more value for a business. And, as is normally the case, a Wal-Mart or some other chain store purchases the land and house, tears it down, builds their own very modern (and hideously ugly) structure, and voila! all signs of the past are gone without a care.
Lucky for us this did not happen with the Kern home; it was purchased by a law firm and the historic building remains for all passersby to enjoy, hopefully, for generations to come.
What really threw me was that it was the Kern descendants who sold the house. I mean, if you had the opportunity to live in your ancestral home (and it was in a nice family town), wouldn't you just grab it with both hands?
Anyhow that got me to thinking about how quickly so many of our historical treasures are being disposed of, so lately I've been photographing many of the old structures that I see while I drive around my state. A few I've seen my whole life but never gave a second thought to. Others just seem to pop up out of nowhere, and I'll yell out to my wife, 'Look! We gotta stop and take a picture!"

One of my "stop the car!" moment houses - located in Vicksburg, Mi

And we do.
Most often I have no idea the age of the building - I can make an educated guess and come fairly close - but I still take the picture. Unfortunately, I do have some photos of subjects that have since been torn down. Yup! A Wal-Mart (no kidding) and gas station have replaced two of them.
And this is out in the country where one would think such structures would be safe.

Port Huron certainly has its share of beautiful Victorian homes

I suppose if the houses belonged to someone famous they might stand a chance. But as you probably well know most were just owned by plain everyday folk like you and I.
And who cares about houses owned by nobody's?
Well, for one, Henry Ford did. The greater majority of the homes inside of his Greenfield Village were owned by regular folk like you and I: George Matthew Adams (a newspaper columnist), John Chapman (a school teacher), Dr. Alanson Howard (a, um, doctor), and Samuel Daggett (a housewright) for example. The funny thing is, Mr. Ford was laughed at for the houses he chose to preserved. As a newspaper article from 1977 stated: When (Ford) started out, hardly anyone believed that old buildings were worth saving unless they had been the homes of the very famous, like Mount Vernon or Monticello, or that old furniture was worth saving unless it came from palaces.
But it was because of Ford's ordinary home collection that preservation became a national concern.
Ford, however, even had his critics amongst preservationists; what most modern experts agree on is their objection to Ford uprooting buildings from their original sites and moving them to his Village in Dearborn, thereby stripping them of their historical context. For example, in 1937 Ford bought and moved from Dayton, Ohio, the Wright Brothers childhood home and their cycle shop where they built the world's first successful airplane.
And he had Orville's blessings to do so.
And it wasn't just the Wright Brothers structures that have been removed: the homes of Harvey Firestone, Luther Burbank, H.J. Heinz, and others also are now located in the same "neighborhood."
Many historical preservationists find this disturbing and even slightly bizarre.
But, in Ford's defense, one can argue the fact that if it wasn't for this tourist attraction known as Greenfield Village, buildings kept on their original sites might not have been utilized as they would have, nor, possibly,would home preservation have become popularized in the way that it did. Also, in the case of the Susquehanna Plantation, The Eagle Tavern, the Ackley Covered Bridge, or Noah Webster's home, some may have been razed, denying future generations from enjoying and learning about not only American history, but social history in general; Mr. Webster's homestead had already begun to feel the force of the wrecking ball before Henry Ford's son, Edsel, saved it for his father's village.
Even Ford's own home faced demolition if it hadn't been moved due to the widening of the street.
I do understand that not everything from the past can be saved, but...
The Ford Farm, all safe and sound and restored.
...Wait - no, I don't understand! Why can't we save whatever and as much as we can? Why tear something down because it doesn't fit the local government or the modern chain store owner's vision? We hear so often of how the chain stores plow into the small towns and attempt to build their ugly modern monstrosities that would most certainly take away from the charm of small town America. We also hear of those townsfolk fighting - and winning - against those big guns.
I pray that trend continues.

Downtown Holly, Michigan - no modernized garbage amongst this group of 19th century buildings! Um...except the cars...

Please see the following postings for further preservation-type information:
Save Our History
Michigan History
Where Did All the Farmland Go?
My Modern Suburban City Was Once A Village of the 19th Century



Lenette Alfirov said...

I love historic structures and it really does sadden me when they are left to "die". I love my modern conveniences but they can be worked into any dwelling.

Historical Ken said...

"Left to die" is a great way to put it.
I know where you live history is much more plentiful than up here. You should be taking pictures!

Lenette Alfirov said...

I drove through town today running some errands and was specifically looking at the homes because of your posting. Tony and I used to walk and we really need to start again. We walked the streets of town and along our Riverwalk. If the humidity drops this weekend, I'll talk him into taking a walk.