Historic Preservation

Posted March 23, 2022
  • Left: J. T. Bowen after J. C. Wild. Fairmount, 1838.  Lithograph.  Library Company of Philadelphia. Right: Benjamin W. Kilburn, In the New Park. Circa 1870. Stereoview. Private Collection.

Preservation Roundtable: Public History of the Built Environment | Part Two

The Weitzman Graduate Program in Historic Preservation’s Public History of the Built Environment concentration prepares students to put the study of urban and architectural history in service to publicly-oriented preservation practice. Unlike more general programs, the Weitzman School’s concentration focuses on the built environment and is informed by other aspects of historic preservation practice. 

In part two of this Preservation Roundtable, Aaron Wunsch moderates a dialogue with fellow Preservation faculty David BarnesLaura Keim, and LiLy Milroy on new ways to tell underrepresented stories, and the ways history is valued—and de-valued—in Philadelphia.  

Aaron Wunsch  
I do think one of the important feeders for public history of the built environment is the premise that designed landscapes are cultural landscapes, but that cultural landscapes are much broader, that they include all kinds of other stuff, and are often messier, and dare I say it, more interesting than designed landscapes. Although designed landscapes can certainly evolve in interesting and unpredictable ways.

Going back to something that I think all of us have already touched on in Part One, is this kind of concept of where the public fits into public history. And I know Laura, you've had to think about this a fair amount in the context of Stenton, which is a very important colonial site in a neighborhood that is predominantly Black at this point, and has no historical feelings for or connection to the Colonial Dames, who are the official stewards of that site. And partly in response to that you have worked on this Dinah project that I too, got pulled into, thanks to you. I wonder if you could talk about this question of relevance that our field can never shy away from and how you've addressed it. 

Laura Keim  
Sure. Yes, so at Stenton in particular, those of you who have visited it will remember that it is an important early 18th-century house and its outbuildings that sit inside a larger city park, a place that LiLy is also spending some time researching, and its two and a half acres that are administered by the Colonial Dames. A chain link fence with barbed wire on top protects the house, literally closing it off and looks uninviting to the public. And so, as Aaron mentioned, the neighborhood immediately around Stenton—Philadelphia is so much a city of neighborhoods—and where Stenton Park is located puts us at the juncture of two neighborhoods – Logan and Nicetown are actually our immediate neighbors. Both communities have a high percentage of residents below the poverty line and are largely African American neighborhoods.  

And so this disconnect has been a real challenge, because Stenton is run by, I think it's fair to say, a traditional elite, mostly white, female organization. For membership, one does have to prove dissent from a colonial ancestor to join this group. This sense of colonial identity continues into the present and pervades the administration of the site, and how do we connect with this very different population around this site? 

The Dinah memorial project came about because Stenton took on stewardship of a memorial to the builder of the house, James Logan, who was an important colonial official, an enslaver, whom we've learned a lot more about in recent years. And we also stewarded a plaque that had been erected in Stenton Park by the Dames and others, recognizing a woman named Dinah, who, in 1777, saved the house from intended burning by British soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. Dinah had been enslaved; she was technically freed in 1777. But, she was memorialized in 1912 as the "faithful colored caretaker." 

Putting Dinah into the context of the faithful slave narratives that are perhaps more prominent in the South, but part of the colonial revival narrative that follows on from slavery also is part of the project. And so, we decided to apply to the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage to put these two memorials in conversation with one another and re-memorialize Dinah. Through a multi-year community engagement project, we were able to bring a lot of near neighbors to the site to learn about Dinah specifically and uncover more of her life story, and also to learn more about slavery at Stenton in general. 

And I have to say the project has been transformative for me, for my own practice. I walked past the Dinah plaque for many years, not really fully thinking about what it says. It’s a document, it's this bronze plaque--and not always, other than thinking about calling Dinah a "faithful colored caretaker" as an anachronism, not totally registering the larger context in which that memorial was put in place in 1912. Dinah’s story has been told at Stenton through the whole period of its museum life, which began when the site opened to the public in 1900. So it has a long history as a museum, as well. There are so many layers of history to excavate and examine.

Aaron Wunsch  
Well, and layers that we forget and segment off and stow under different bureaucratic labels. Laura will know that the way I got first interested in the Dinah question was when I discovered that the stone slab that originally had the Dinah plaque on it, which stands not on the official Stenton site, but in the neighboring public park, had been shoveled under and brought to a landfill by the city of Philadelphia. It wasn't clear whether or not this spot marked Dinah's actual grave site. But suffice it to say, that was not a question that Parks and Recreation had even asked. The whole thing got shoveled under as part of renovations of the park. 

And I was shocked by this for a number of reasons, but one of them being that I had come to Penn after years of living in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Jefferson and his legacy are treated with a kind of unbearable reverence, a kind of oppressive sanctity for everything possibly Jeffersonian. And here you have James Logan, who is as important a figure in Philadelphia's history as Jefferson is in Virginia's, and we're saying that only this tiny area immediately around the house is part of that story, and the minute we cross this barbed wire fence that Laura referred to, we're outside of the realm of history, and into the realm of municipal bulldozers. 

And I found that, first of all, incredibly jarring, but also, maddening, and I think something that speaks eloquently to the way Philadelphia tends to segment history into a very narrow area where that's where stewardship happens and in these other places, you're free to just treat everything as if it were part of the runway of an airport. 

LiLy Milroy  
And I would actually argue that that is one of the things that's really interesting about how the built environment has evolved and has been regarded in Philadelphia. On the one hand, we have a sense that history is kind of set aside, the way Stenton has a wall around it. But, in fact, in Philadelphia, there's always been this really interesting permeability and interconnection between, say, an older historic space and the spaces of technology and innovation. And so, for example, they set aside land on the east and west banks of the Schuylkill as a park, and then immediately thereafter, built an abattoir directly across from it. And I mean, we have, I think, one of the only city parks that has not one, but two railroads running through it, and a superhighway. 

Philadelphians have always, if you will, embraced the notion of the industrial picturesque. Central Park is walled, Central Park sits away from the city of New York, from Manhattan. Fairmount Park is open and transparent, and if you stood in front of Lemon Hill 100 years ago, you looked down the river to the gasworks and an intensely industrial landscape, full of smoke, full of noise, full of smells. You could hear the poor cows on the other side of the river being driven to slaughter. 

More conventional American history wants to focus on Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, sort of neatly tied up in this colonial package. But pulling against that is this whole history of conflict and tension. Think of what happened to Penn's squares: he had this great idea of landscaped city parks. But more than 100 years went by before that vision was realized. And then the squares were improved, and then they were neglected again. And so, Aaron, when you talk about Parks and Rec not treating the Dinah Memorial properly, we have to think about a city that is now the poorest city in the country, that does not have the resources, and what oftentimes suffers when you're dealing with a lack of resources is history, and history for the public. 

Are we all reading the series "A More Perfect Union," on the history of racism at The Inquirer? It started by citing the example of the headline that was assigned to Inga Saffron's piece, after the riots that occurred after George Floyd's murder, when some unthinking editor said "buildings matter, too." And there in a nutshell, and the firestorm that that created—the articles don't then go back to talk about Saffron's article, unfortunately, at least not yet. But the sense that buildings and the built environment are what people act out in, in a public forum. So we need to think about what the public is.

Aaron Wunsch  
As someone who has taught in preservation and public history for much of my adult life, if there's one dichotomy I can't stand to hear anymore, it's, why don't you care about people instead of buildings? And when you do this work, you realize that these things are intimately intertwined. And that often, the way we think about the built environment is deeply human and deeply connected to the way we think about people. And that people who tend to scold you with that, as if they have come across a wonderful new cudgel that they can beat you with, tend to not have actually given very much thought, either to caring about people or the built environment. This has been my experience. 

And in a similar vein, I will express great fatigue hearing Philadelphia's status as the poorest big city used as an excuse for not thinking about history, as if we can't afford to do it. Because the next step in that logic is, we must therefore give developers every single prerogative they've ever asked for and then some. We simply can't afford such niceties as thinking about our past. And you'll see that reflected also in an op-ed that came out a couple days ago by Ken Finkel about the future of the Philadelphia History Museum's collections—a Public History Museum of the City of Philadelphia that's essentially being deaccessioned to Drexel University. Now, that may be the best of various, undesirable, from my perspective, courses of action at this point. But it needs to be done very carefully, in part because this museum was set up with Philadelphia public history at its center. And now we're about to turn it over just to get it off the books to a private or quasi private institution.

LiLy Milroy  
I think that that problem you described about, you know, give it over to the developers, has happened throughout Philadelphia's history. This is nothing new. They just happened to build better buildings 100 years ago, 150 years ago.

Aaron Wunsch  
They did, but the developer-as-savior complex is, as you're suggesting LiLy, deeply embedded in the city's DNA. And if you read Sam Bass Warner's book The Private City, it's ultimately about a vision of privatism that tends to reign in Philadelphia in ways that it hasn't as much in other cities. I know I'm stepping into dangerous territory by suggesting an exceptionalist narrative for Philadelphia, but damn it, there's something to it. 

One last thing I'd like to point out, because it's come up at several different points, is that venues like Stenton and the Lazaretto, and also The Woodlands, where I was on the board for a long time, are really part of the orbit of this concentration. We have direct ties to them. And they are the subject of things like term papers and theses and any number of other projects that are made possible by the closeness of our faculty to those sites. Again, I would say Stenton, The Woodlands, the Lazaretto, Eastern State Penitentiary, these are all part of the kind of network that come with this concentration, and I think are really important sites to think about, in part because, as Laura suggests, there are new directions to take all of them. Bartram's Garden is another one of these, where we have had multiple student projects. And to date, they have not really addressed things like the Native American presence on that site or in southeastern Pennsylvania. And yet the Bartrams, both William, the son of John, and John himself, are at the forefront of Native American thinking and negotiations and conflict in the 18th and early 19th century. John Bartram's father is killed by a Native American and John Bartram himself is virulently anti-Indian through much of his life. I don't think any of that's even really part of the interpretation of Bartram's Garden at this point. So as we think about interpretation as part of what we do, there, there's work ahead. 

LiLy Milroy  
Well, I think we want to say that the entire city of Philadelphia is our laboratory, but the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, also is a motherlode. And David actually is working with HSP, which has a collection of 21 million objects and counting. And has, for example, the repository for the Logan papers, or the Chew family papers that have extensive records that genealogists who are working on Black history are actually being able to create family trees and work out family trees of enslaved people on the two plantations at this point. But, David, you're teaching at HSP this term, aren't you?

David Barnes  
Yeah, I'm teaching a research seminar that's in sort of collaboration with HSP. 

Aaron Wunsch  
One of the exciting things about work like what you're describing, LiLy, is the way it ramifies. So that although people outside Philadelphia may not know it, you know, Richard Allen, the leading founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church, was born enslaved on one of Benjamin Chew's properties, we think one in Delaware, something that Laura and I have looked at a bit. And that story is fascinating, because it's not just obviously the story of enslavement or people who belonged to the Chew family. It's the story of one of the most important African American institutions in the United States originating out of the experience of Richard Allen, who becomes a preacher and then an institution builder. And in Germantown, we have, among other things, one of these church buildings that spins out of the original Mother Bethel Church, in Center City, but those spin out all over the country. So what goes from the story of enslavement becomes the story of an African American institution building on a massive scale.

Laura Keim  
Well, Aaron, when you mentioned Allen–Allen's Lane is in Northwest Philadelphia, near a property that was called Mount Airy, there's a neighborhood now named for it. I’m blanking on his first name--

David Barnes
I think it was William.

Laura Keim  
Yes, William Allen owned Mt. Airy the property as well as Richard Allen. And so Allen's Lane was named for him and the property. And I'm not quite sure what the process was for this, but I just saw that the street is being re-memorialized for Richard Allen. And this idea that you can take the same name, and you can see both histories in it, I think that’s a really wonderful metaphor for this idea of a holistic way of looking at history. You know, it doesn't have to be one or the other, white or Black necessarily, that history and the totality of the environment represents everybody in some way or another.