Reflections

[Slideshow] Remembering Pearl Harbor: A Personal Reflection

Posted on: December 7th, 2012 by Emily Potter 1 Comment

 


USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

As a writer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I often get to talk with local preservationists and hear about their thoughts, memories, and feelings on places they love. I enjoy telling their stories and getting to feel like a part of something bigger. Today, I have my own story to share.

Three weeks ago, I visited Pearl Harbor, one of our country’s most poignant historic places and one that we are remembering and honoring today.... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Emily Potter

Emily Potter is a copywriter at the National Trust. She enjoys writing about places of all kinds, the stories that make them special, and the people who love them enough to save them.

Putting the Puzzle Together: Reflections on Travel in Seattle

Posted on: November 21st, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 1 Comment

 


Seen on the Seattle Underground tour.

A metaphor I often use when talking about the past is that of a puzzle. Getting to know the whole picture of place means fitting together a number of disparate pieces that when snapped together give you a single picture -- a snapshot in time that is one in a series that make up the past.

I also approach visiting new cities through this lens. A few weeks ago as a prelude to my visit to Spokane for the National Preservation Conference, I went to Seattle to visit with some friends and family. What I ended up doing was not just visiting to a popular tourist destination but also getting a sense of the place itself.

I started, in a sense, with the history. On the recommendation of many people, I took the Seattle Underground tour where I gained a sense of a city that changed after a disastrous fire. Following the fire, the city was raised about 15 feet, creating subterranean passages with skylights that filtered in light from the sidewalk above. Piece 1.


Exhibit at the Chihuly Gardens and Glass Exhibition.

Pushing forward in time, I spent a few hours at Seattle Center, home of the 1962 World's Fair. I took the obligatory ride up the Space Needle where, like at any high point in a city, I gained a visual sense of the city’s geography -- water and land, ships and sky. Piece 2.

The cool thing about Seattle Center is that it is also a mecca of museums. Science. Art. Music. Pop culture. There is something here to feed all matter of interests. Luckily, for a few extra bucks, my ticket up the Space Needle also came with entry into the Chihuly Gardens and Glass exhibition next door. Now for those of you who aren't familiar with Dale Chihuly's work, it’s … phenomenal. His work with glass is indescribable -- the shapes, the colors -- and you can tell that he takes some of his inspiration from Washington state itself, from sea life to Native American baskets. Piece 3.


Seattle EMP Museum.

After a tour of the Icons of Science Fiction exhibition at the EMP Museum (designed by Frank Gehry) I stepped into even more recent history -- a narrative about the band Nirvana. Amidst their story is a broader examination of the DIY music movement. Using its extensive collection of sound samples, the exhibition talks about the role of Seattle and Washington State in the alternative music scene -- letting visitors listen to a wide array of predecessors to Nirvana, other bands that were contemporary to the band, and those that Nirvana influenced. Piece 4.

I took a walk around the neighborhood wandering through Pike Place Market, the Seattle Public Library, and Pioneer Square. The library alone intimated a city filled with creativity; the Market and Pioneer Square were fixtures of a community. Piece 5.

And finally, by staying in the suburbs I got an idea of the role Microsoft and Boeing play in the region’s economy. Seeing the planes being put together -- wing, engine, tail, body -- provided one more example about how pieces come together into a cohesive whole. Piece 6.

As I rode the train to Spokane, I thought about the city I experienced and saw each of these six pieces came together into a single snapshot. As visitors to a city, our visions of what that place is and what's important in that space depends on the connections we forge. Being able to see the magic of Chihuly next to the vibrations of Smells Like Teen Spirit while smelling the fish and eating doughnuts in the market gave me a picture of a place that I won't forget. This was my Seattle.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

The Unexpected: A Few Words on Architecture and Imagination

Posted on: October 17th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 1 Comment

 

Honeycombed, rounded edges. Craggy towers, insectile caverns, seamlessly beautiful. Straight boxed edges, clean lines, looking within from without.

Prompted, in part, by the ongoing discussions about Prentice Hospital in Chicago, I’ve been thinking about a few of my favorite buildings, trying to pinpoint exactly why I am drawn to particular structures over others.


Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.

  1. Creativity. I love skylines of distinction, where buildings can be so in sync with the urban rhythm, yet unique and versatile. The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The Seagram Building in New York City. The Disney Concert Hall in LA. The Guaranty Building in Buffalo, NY. Each of these buildings, some with longer histories than others, tells a story through their fluid lines, curves, facades, and stained glass.
  2. Imprints of lives long gone. Classical colonial plantations and vernacular architecture tells us of how people lived. Upstairs, downstairs, private and public. Stories of class struggle and enslavement. Narratives of freedom and revolution. As a historian, one of my favorite things to do is to “read” a building. What can we learn about the lives that inhabited this space? How did they live? What are the invisible boundaries that separated one group from another? What can we see and understand about the human experience at Monticello, Robie House, The Tenement Museum, slave cabins, sod houses, and igloos?
  3. Imagination. Buildings can invoke far-off lands or spark narratives of non-existing worlds on imagined planets -- where we could be in the future, far from the cookie-cutter and the monotonous. I see this vision in Prentice Hospital, or the contrast between the brutalist War Memorial Center section and newer sleek Santiago Calatrava design of the Milwaukee Art Museum. And, for a quick glimpse beyond our borders, I see it in the Taj Mahal and the ever awe-inducing Sagrada Familia. All of these buildings inspire -- both in their grandiosity and their expression.


The Santiago Calatrava-designed section of the Milwaukee Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

These buildings don’t have to be beautiful. What sets them apart is that they have their own vocabulary, their own sense of being, and their own narratives. More importantly, they are a spark for looking beyond -- outside boxes -- to encourage new heights, adventures, and innovations. And there is something galvanizing about seeing the magical and lofty in a human-made structure. They are settings for old histories and new stories. They are more than the expected.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

Crossing the Rappahannock: A Pilgrimage to Freedom

Posted on: October 15th, 2012 by Rob Nieweg

 


Crossing the Rappahannock, September 2012.

It is a privilege to witness grassroots preservation in action, discovering nearly forgotten historic places and raising public awareness of almost-lost chapters of our shared heritage. On Saturday, September 22, 2012, I joined some 300 people along the banks of the Rappahannock River near Remington, Virginia, to commemorate the extraordinary courage of the enslaved women, children, and men who freed themselves from bondage during the Civil War.

The public event was hosted by the new African American Heritage Alliance and co-sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Between 1861 and 1865, more than 500,000 enslaved people liberated themselves and, thereby, influenced the wartime public debate about slavery and hastened the formal Emancipation Proclamation.

They did not wait to be freed; instead, these self-emancipators risked their lives to liberate themselves. Unfortunately, little has been written about the Civil War-era freedom seekers, and most Americans are unaware of this part of our heritage. And, too little has been done to preserve and interpret historic places associated with emancipation. That is beginning to change, and the National Trust is doing its part.

Preservation magazine’s May-June 2011 issue covered Fort Monroe and other historic places that are beginning to be recognized for their associations with the end of slavery. In May 2011 the National Trust convened 75 experts at President Lincoln’s Cottage to discuss ways in which emancipation sites can be interpreted to tell the unvarnished truths of this chapter of American history.


Crossing the Rappahannock, August 1862.

Cow’s Ford near Tin Pot Run on Virginia’s Rappahannock River is one of those historic places along the road to freedom whose meaning for American heritage merits our attention. One hundred and fifty years ago, on August 19, 1862, a group of five fugitive slaves was photographed crossing the river and entering Union Army lines in Culpeper County, where they would have found freedom and relative safety.

The 1862 photograph is a rare and evocative record of enslaved people escaping to freedom -- one of many millions of acts of resistance against the injustices of slavery. As historian John Hennessey has written:

“The men, women, and children who crossed the river -- people whose names were not recorded, whose lives have rarely been honored -- helped force a wayward nation onto a path that permitted greatness. It was the slaves themselves who by simple acts helped unleash a heroic struggle for liberty and equality that has overspread the world, enriched the life of every single American, and continues still.”

The 1862 image is well-known to Civil War scholars. Until very recently, however, no one realized that the historic photograph had been taken at Cow’s Ford or, importantly, that the riverside landscape of the historic ford itself survives today unchanged since the war.

The public commemoration on September 22 -- the first ever on this hallowed ground -- was organized by Howard Lambert and Zann Nelson, co-founders of the African American Heritage Alliance, and was convened on the original historic site with the gracious permission of the private property owner. After remarks by historians Clark Hall, John Hennessy, and Dianne Swann-Wright, and with the strains of traditional gospel hymns echoing across the Rappahannock, a group of people entered the river to retrace the footsteps of the fugitive slaves.

It was an honor for me to participate in the river walk. Next year, the African American Heritage Alliance hopes to repeat and expand the Rappahannock River celebration on August 17, 2013 (tentative). In the meantime, I encourage you to visit Arlington National Cemetery where almost 4,000 self-emancipators lie buried. (More than four million people visit Arlington Cemetery each year. How many know about the Cemetery’s connection to the Civil War-era freedom movement?)

When you visit Section 27, one of the oldest parts of Arlington National Cemetery, you’ll note that there is a regrettable lack of public interpretation offered by the cemetery, generally, and virtually nothing said to explain why thousands of civilian women, men, and children -- freedmen and contrabands -- rest there. Someday, perhaps, Arlington National Cemetery will recognize the sacrifices and struggles of the Civil War-era freedom seekers buried in Section 27.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Rob Nieweg

Rob Nieweg

Rob Nieweg is a Field Director & Attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He leads the National Trust’s Washington Field Office, which works to save historic resources in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. He has worked as a preservation advocate since 1989.

 


Alcatraz's main cellblock at night.

I admit, I hesitated before boarding the ferry to spend the night in a prison cell on “the Rock.” Over the summer, the volunteers restoring the Gardens of Alcatraz (partially funded, incidentally, by a National Trust grant) were offered the chance to sleep over on the island as a “thank you” for their hard work. Being the “history guy” and all, I was invited as the guest of a gardener friend.

It didn’t exactly sound like a relaxing Saturday night. But when another friend looked me squarely in the eye and said, “You can’t not do this,” I decided to hop on the boat.

Alcatraz is a four-acre sandstone island, jutting 130 feet out of San Francisco Bay. First fortified by the military to defend California’s gold rush riches, it became the nation’s most feared and secretive federal penitentiary from 1934 until it closed in 1963. With no media permitted, it was a place of great fascination to the American public. And with approximately 1.5 million visitors each year to the island, now managed by the National Park Service, it still is.


National Park Service staff lead a night tour.

At Alcatraz, the human imagination is forced into gear as soon as one steps off the boat. Its architecture and design was devoted to maximize the government’s control over some of the most dangerous felons. The visitor must ask: how would I fare if confined to the narrow walls, iron bars, extensive fencing, and 24/7 surveillance with hundreds of other inmates who have done things far outside of acceptable moral standards?

And, as you might imagine, Alcatraz after dark provides even more fodder for the mind. On the night tour offered to the public that evening, we heard stories of attempted escapes, notorious prison personalities, and the monotony of daily life behind bars. You know, kind of like the ghost stories at summer camp -- except real.

After the public left on the last ferry, we overnight guests were free to choose our accommodations. I inspected, but opted against, the solitary confinement cells in the D block. Instead, I chose to sleep in the cell of Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”


Then and now (r. to l.): a historic photo of Stroud in his cell, and the cell as it looks today (with the addition of Brian's sleeping bag).

Stroud kept birds while in the pen in Leavenworth, but he was prohibited from keeping them after he was transferred to the Rock. Because of his “unpredictable and violent outbursts,” Stroud spent six years in solitary, and the remaining eleven of his life isolated in the hospital wing cell where I stayed. Despite his antisocial behavior, he published two landmark books on bird illness while in jail.

I rolled out my sleeping bag on the cold, concrete floor and stared at an old picture of Stroud during his incarceration in the same room. That's when history started coming alive. Unsuspecting heritage travelers, take note: August on the San Francisco Bay is brutally cold. That night, while the rest of the country sweltered under heat, Alcatraz had whipping winds driving a dense fog. Old, creaky pipes rattled incessantly. The wind tunneled through the corridors that seemed to be almost deliberately designed to accentuate its howls.

When the lights shut off, Alcatraz’s isolation was fully apparent. I glimpsed the deep loneliness the prisoners must have felt. There was no way out. The waters are not only frigid and constantly turbulent, but guards also convinced prisoners that sharks circled the island. (They don’t, but it helped thwart any notion that escape was possible.)


Camping out in Alcatraz's operating room.

At 5:30 a.m., proud to have made it through the night, I woke up my friend who chose to sleep in the prison’s operating room. Yes, the operating room -- in which the main object is a lone surgical table. We put on warm layers and went to take photographs and watch the dawn break. At the top of the island’s lighthouse we gazed upon the sensitively-installed 1,300 solar panels recently installed on the cell house roof.


A view of the solar panels (minus the sun) atop the main cellblock.

After returning home the next day I read about the lesser-known inmates of Alcatraz, the stories that challenge its infamous reputation. There were those who are redeemable in history’s eyes: a conscientious objector to the First World War, and a group of Hopi Indians who refused to send their children to government boarding schools. Other inmates defied the violent stereotypes; they tended gardens and even babysat the children of guards.

So, even though I left knowing that the conventional image of Alcatraz is sensationalized, I was still quite glad to have an escape.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Brian Turner

Brian Turner

Brian Turner is an attorney in the National Trust's San Francisco Field Office. He is an enthusiastic advocate for the protection of the nation's cultural and natural heritage.