December 13th, 2004

Moving historic buildings

The December issue of the Smithsonian magazine has an article about the underground railroad, in which it tells about an old tobacco barn that had once been a slave jail. There is a 1998 photo of it on its original site, in a Kentucky alfalfa pasture. It has since been dismantled and put back together in a museum in Cincinnati. The photo caption says it now "forms the centerpiece of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center."

I don't like it when old, historic buildings get moved to different sites. I like them to be right where they are even if it means they aren't restored to perfection and even if it means I can't get up close to them to see them for myself.

The link to the place is so important, and that is usually lost when the building moves. Left on its original site, you think about how the sequence of events that led from the slave owners to the current owners of the property. You get a sense for the sights that the imprisoned slaves saw, and about the physical distance between them and freedom, and you can share in that to some tiny degree that you can't when it's inside a museum or theme park.

The earliest home in Monroe, MI -- a French-style log cabin, has been moved from its original site downtown to a place out in the country. There are still bullet holes in the walls from the Battle of the River Raisin, but the connection to that battle, and the relationship between the old Frenchtown and Detroit and Lake Erie is all taken away.

When the buildings are moved, it's as if they are sterilized, sanitized, and removed from the history. By tearing them away from their original sites, they detach us from participation in our own history.

There are exceptions. In October I did a bike ride to the Forks of the Wabash at Huntington, IN. The Richardville house has been moved from its original site, but it was only moved a stone's throw away to get out of the way of Hwy 24. One can still get a feel for the relationship of the place to the Wabash River and the portage/canal between it and the Maumee at Fort Wayne.

But on the same site is another house -- an especially fine log cabin that was built by a German immigrant who worked for Chief Richardville before buying land from him for himself. This one was moved a few miles from its original site. Some people still living remember it on its original site. The owner didn't realize its historic value until he started to tear it down and then found out it was actually an old log house. Because of its connection with the Richardville story, it's not quite such a terrible thing that it has been moved. But there is a loss in moving it, just the same.

When we visited County Clare in Ireland, we visited some old ruins that were on private property. It was considered OK for tourists to pull up into someone's farmyard and go look at them, so long as they closed gates behind themselves, etc. That attitude is probably changing as more tourists go to that part of the country. But it's a shame that we can't find ways for old historic structures to stay where they are and do it in such a way that we can learn from the history while the owners' enjoyment of their private property is also maintained.

(cross-posted to my own journal)