Thursday, June 29, 2017

Looking Backwards & Forwards at History at Valley Forge

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Susan reporting,

The perception of the historical past is always changing. Each new generation looks at history with fresh eyes, and fresh ideas, too.

Nowhere is this more evident than in how we Americans have treated our historically important buildings. In the years following the American Revolution, many of the place we now venerate most were simply old buildings, allowed to grow more shabby by the year.

Portions of Independence Hall in Philadelphia - the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence - had already fallen into such disrepair that they were torn down in 1812. Federal Hall in New York City - home of the first Congress as well as where George Washington was inaugurated as the first president - was also demolished barely a generation later in 1812. Built in 1713, the Old State House in Boston witnessed the Boston Massacre, but was later cut up into shops and businesses, and finally suffered the ultimate indignity of having a subway station built into its basement.

But the Centennial celebrations of 1876 brought a new interest in preserving the past. Older buildings were finally beginning to be recognized and preserved for their historical importance. Sometimes, however, these early preservationists often relied on a romanticized version of the 18thc, with some interesting  results.

The present-day Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania first became recognized as a state park focused on history in 1893. Then, as now, the centerpiece of the park was the stone farm house used by General George Washington as his headquarters during the Continental Army's winter encampment of 1777-78. Also known as the Isaac Potts House for the original owner, the Headquarters was occupied not only General Washington, but by his wife Martha Washington, seven aides-de-camp, servants, and occasional visitors.  The house is not large, especially not considering how many people were squeezed inside it, and from contemporary reports, quarters were cramped, and tempers often ran short.

But you'd never guess it from the way the house was decorated and presented to the public in the early 20thc. The photo, right, on display in the information center near the Headquarters, shows the parlor as a genteel, white-washed room decorated in the best Colonial Revival style, complete with a spinning wheel and yarn-winder for processing homespun fibers (no mention of whom was doing all that spinning.) The original caption declares it to be a view of the "parlor and secret passage." But as the modern caption in the information center dryly notes:

"When [the house] opened as a museum, explanations of the way the house had been used as a military headquarters were fanciful. The hallway identified here as a 'Secret Passage' was, in fact, an entrance used by those arriving by carriage in the 18thc."

Based on research, archeology, and paint-sampling, the same room is interpreted today, upper and lower left, as the busy hub of the military camp. There are chairs, tables, and desks strewn with letters, pens, and books, with charts and maps pinned to the walls. The white dishes on the shelves are reproductions of what was used in the house in 1777. It's a lively room, and has the distinct feeling that the occupants have only stepped out for a moment, soon to return. To 2017 eyes, it feels authentic.

But I wonder if those young officers stationed here in 1777 would agree. Would they feel at home in this modern recreation? Or would aspects of it appear as peculiar to them as the spinning wheel now does to us in the early 20thc picture? And I wonder, too, how this same room will be presented in 2117....

Middle photo: Valley Forge NHP.
Photos upper & lower left: ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott.


Cynthia Lambert said...

The past always seems to be reinterpreted through the eyes of the present. The best way to show a historic room is by using renderings of room settings made during the period. Since there was no photography in the 18th century, one should refer to paintings and drawings for ideas about how spaces were used. I think that many historic sites are now being interpreted in a much more scholarly way than they have been previously. It's a pity that these remaining spaces aren't enjoyed by a much wider audience. It seems to me that the only sure way to know who we are is to know who we were, and how we got to this place.

Unknown said...

At least Boston's Old State House wasn't torn down. Sure, it had all sorts of commercial offices in it during the 1800s (creative reuse?), and the State Street subway stop still has an entrance on one end, but enough of it remained so that its exterior at least, looks much like what it did in the 1770s.

John Hancock's house, located beside the New State House on Beacon Hill was not so lucky. Even after Hancock's heirs offered it as a gift to the state, it was auctioned off for a couple hundred dollars and demolished in 1863. The outcry over its destruction ultimately led to the preservation of Boston's many other historic buildings.

Carla Gade said...

I wonder about the use of all those green table cloths. You see them everywhere in the historic sights in Philly. Would they really have covered tables being used as desks by military personnel?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Cynthia - Complete agree! One of the heartening results of the "Hamilton" musical is that more school kids are interested in the Revolutionary War and its history. I've heard from people at numerous sites that attendance is up, and school groups are a lot more engaged - plus all a guide has to do is say something like "Hercules Mulligan" and the kids all dissolve in giggling delight. Hamilton himself was one of the aides-de-camp who was stationed here, though there's no record of where he sat. :)

Michael Tierney - You're right, the Old State House did survive, and now it's one of the most glorious survivors in Boston (even if the Orange Line station is still rumbling through its basement. And the destruction of Hancock's house really was unforgivable....

Carla - Those green table cloths are baize, the same woven green cloth used today on pool tables. It was a popular writing surface in the 18thc - the sharp quills of the pens wrote more easily with a soft cushioning surface beneath the paper. Many desks of the time have the baize inlaid into their tops, or have soft leather instead. (Think of it as a kind of early blotter.) The "table cloths" were used to transform tables into desks, especially in military encampments.

James Rada, Jr. said...

Interesting post, especially since I visited Valley Forge a couple months ago. One thing that has caused me some concern, though, is the zealousness that property is being preserved now and the problems it causes. In the past two months, a magazine recently ran a long article about the problems that the historic preservation committee in a nearby city is causing property owners, private property in Gettysburg was purchased and donated to the national park recently taking it off the tax rolls, and the Gettysburg Park is forcing the town to change some ballfields that have been around for decades because it turns out a few feet are on unused park land. Maybe more of this sort of thing happens in my area (Gettysburg) because of the historical nature of the region, but it seems like the pendulum is swinging from the other extreme of not saving enough historical sites to saving too much. Your thoughts?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

James - I'm reluctant to comment without reading the magazine article you're referencing.

However, on the whole, I can't think of a single situation in which I've sided with private development over a historic site or building. Too much of our country's history has already been lost, and the current federal administration's complete lack of interest in preservation makes it more imperative than ever that efforts be made on the local level. As a country, our historical memory is already short enough without destroying more of our tenuous links to the past. Once it's gone, it's gone for good.

Anonymous said...

"In the years following the American Revolution, many of the place we now venerate most were simply old buildings, allowed to grow more shabby by the year."

Makes sense that this happened. Americans were busy LIVING the fruits of the Revolution. Related documents were NEW and modern. The focus was on the future. None of the buildings connected to independence, in their minds, merited "commemoration" or "preservation", because that independence was a matter of the heart and soul.

Anonymous said...

Off topic a bit - I grew up in Newburyport, Mass., an historic town on the north shore of Massachusetts. The Coast Guard was founded there. Americans first ambassador to France came from there. Newburyport was once considered as a possible capital for Massachusetts. Lots of history, dating back to the 1600's. The city has what is probably the finest collection of 18th century federalist houses in the country, plus many earlier structures. Preservationists try to protect this, but often fail. Developers have torn down quite few beautiful old house for profit. They've also bought old homes, restored the exteriors to look grander than they originally did, and virtually gutted the insides.

I once worked there with a friend who restored old homes. One that we worked on, on Boardman Street, had electricity and plumbing installed in the early 20th century, but all of the original house features were there: fireplaces, interior sliding shutters, old glass panes in the windows (some of them with names and dates scratched into them, like "Elijah 1802") a corner cupboard in the dining room - all had been kept, never modernized. We did a lot of work on this house, opening sealed fireplaces (found cranes with trammel hooks still inside), carefully stripping and varnishing floors so as not to make them look new, painting woodwork with buttermilk paint, etc.

Years later, someone bought the house and modernized the interior. Old floors sanded to look new, woodwork, doors, and interior shutters ripped out, walls removed, walls above fireplaces removed to expose the brick which was never mean to be seen, track lighting and marble counter tops installed - one big yuppie, trendy confection in place of what had been an almost intact 1800 interior. I could have cried. Even when cities and towns are successful in preserving the outside of old homes, the insides - where history was actually lived - can get taken to the trash heap.

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