Preservation Round-Up: Six Feet Under Edition

Posted on: May 12th, 2011 by David Garber 2 Comments

Thursday afternoon. You know the feeling. Kind of has that end of the week air, yet there’s another few hours of slightly-less-ergonomic-than-advertised desk chair-sitting before Friday even begins to glimmer into existence. Weather outside is perfect, and you’ve managed the post-lunch shoe removal beneath your desk to simulate some other (probably more beachy) moment than the one you’re living now. Don’t get me wrong – nothing is abnormally off. Keyboard clicks have officially replaced morning office chatter, sun is streaming through the mini-blinds, and you're already hungry again after your noon fast break to the latest trendy food truck.

Now if you’re me, this is also the moment you begin to pull together the bi-weekly Preservation Round-Up, discover that all of your open tabs have something to do with death, and stare at your empty mug with those "Really, coffee, you're empty just when I need you most?" eyes and proceed to copy and paste links with tip-toe hesitation. Why? Because here at the National Trust, we try to add a sprig of optimism to our communications, and a news round-up completely relating to the grave might typically be described as less than life-affirming.

(Dramatic Pause)

Good afternoon from the online editing room!

The Amityville Horror house today. (Photo: Flickr user JOE MARINARO)

First up is a great slideshow of “murder houses” put together by This Old House (and tweeted out by them as “Murder is bad. Very bad. But, Murder Houses are kind of awesome”). As you can see from their list – which includes such wonderfully quaint-sounding places as “The Villisca Axe Murder House” and the “Hex Murder House” – some of the houses have used their horrific back stories as a way to preserve and maintain the homes (in case you’re interested, an overnight at the Axe Murder House will put you back a cold $400). Others, like the “Amityville Horror House,” where only a year after the grizzly 1970s murders, subsequent owners “reported everything from [the murderer’s] dark shadows and voices, to black slime oozing through keyholes and swarms of flies,” have now returned to residential use by owners “by owners who don't care for thrill-seeking visitors.”

To everyone scrambling through their local library’s microfiche for a murder story to add a few tourist dollars to their own pocket, never fear. The ghosts of literary giants work just as well. The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Landmarks Haunted by Debt Consult the Spirit World for Help: Ghost Tours Scare Up Cash to Keep Homes of Literary Lions Wharton and Twain Alive,” which is, naturally, about exactly what the title says.

The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Conn., where Samuel Clemens lived when he wrote "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn," was mired in debt and on the verge of closing three years ago. These days, the house plays host to "Graveyard Shift" tours that combine ghostly stories with historical and literary lore. Price: $18.

"The ghost tours have been a cash cow," says Jeffrey Nichols, the executive director, who says his Twain museum currently breaks even, though it still owes $5 million. "I don't think we are being abusive to [Mark Twain's] legacy at all - so many people come and they get interested in Twain," says Mr. Nichols. "We can't keep operating the way we used to. It won't work."

Scene from inside Bennett Park in Detroit. (Photo: Flickr user doctor_gogol)

There are people ghosts. And then there are ballpark ghosts. Detroit, Michigan is beginning to think more seriously about the latter, but for the same tourism and nostalgia-inspired reasons as the places mentioned above. In the DBusiness magazine article titled “A New ‘Field of Dreams’ for Detroit,” author Jeff Samoray opines about the possibility of rebuilding Bennett Park, the motor city’s first baseball stadium.

In Detroit, what’s old is often considered disposable — it’s the flashy new vehicle that counts, not last year’s model. We all know about the landmarks and historic structures the city has razed or left standing in ruin.

But within this context, Detroit has an extraordinary opportunity to resurrect a piece of its past at a historically significant site. If done right, the project could stand as a progressive model for urban revitalization. It would be an unprecedented example of historic reconstruction never before attempted by a major American city.

No field of dreams would be complete without a little help from one of nature’s most underappreciated gardeners: worms. Yes, those ironically-unearthly squirming spindles of subterranea you find slithering across the sidewalk after a good rain. Masters of decomposition, worms are often associated with death – but in the good, “bringing new life as a result” kind of way. Why is this news? Well, landscapers at our under-restoration Villa Finale historic site in San Antonio’s King William neighborhood have built a special worm composting bin as part of their plan to keep the historic mansion’s grounds alive and healthy.

Now in this next case, worms might not be the answer – but what about a little McDreamy-style defibrillation? Across the country in San Francisco (this is the part where if this round-up were animated you’d see a giant dashed lined trailing a jet-liner across a pastel-colored U.S. map) preservationists are reacting to the city's changing historic preservation policies, and are coming to the same conclusion as Nichols. As in, new means of preservation might be needed for the movement to stay alive.

Fearing that new laws will only increase the number of loopholes that demolition-minded developers jump through to get their projects built, San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Bruce Blog notes that “The problem in San Francisco is not too much historic preservation, it's that we allow too much to get lost.”

But who needs a defibrillator when you’ve got a company like Living Social looking for “a unique building in a hip neighborhood” in which to move their headquarters? The Groupon-esque social-tech company decided against a glass box and instead snagged 918 F Street NW, an 1890 brownstone office building in the heart of Washington, DC’s quite vibrant Penn Quarter neighborhood – an area that just fifteen years ago was given up for dead (zing!).

David Garber is a member of the Digital and New Media team at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He prefers the Econo Lodge to places like the Axe Murder House, but affirms horrific murder ghost tourism as a means of building preservation.

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2 Responses

  1. Daniel

    May 13, 2011

    Haha, I totally want to write my dissertation on “murder ghost tourism” and its implications for popularizing preservation ethics.

  2. Etta

    May 13, 2011

    I wrote my Thesis on filming in historic houses and preservation ethics, Plus look at places like the Lizzy Borden House… Murder is their bread at butter 100+ years later. Murder Sells.