George Washington’s Ax
When does restoring become destroying?
December 14, 1979
Historic preservation is a matter of some consequence in Springfield, at least as it pertains to the city's Lincoln sites. But replacing elements of a decaying period structure to keep it viable as a structure gradually leads to its disappearance as an artifact. Is a puzzlement.
When is a house not a home? When nearly half a million people trudge through it every year. That is what is happening to Lincoln's house on Eighth Street in Springfield, and it's been happening to it for more than a century, so that now the very survival of this most revered of the nation's artifacts is at stake.
Generally speaking, tourist counts are among the least reliable of statistics; only in Vietnam did government agencies exaggerate body counts more than they did until recently at most of the Lincoln sites. The count at Lincoln's house, however, is now among the most accurate. This is because the counting is done by an electric eye mounted in a corridor between the sitting and dining rooms. That counter clicked 450,204 times in 1978. The 1979 total will be less than that; traffic through the house has declined steadily since 1972, when the National Park Service took the site over from the state. Tourism's decline and the NPS's ascendancy may, or may not be connected, but whatever the cause, attendance in six years has dropped by 36 percent.
That is bad news in some senses, of course, particularly the economic; Springfield long ago learned the truth of the adage, "A tourist is worth fifty bushels of corn and is lots easier to shuck." But the slowdown in tourist traffic has been good news for Lincoln's house. Al Banton has been superintendent of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site since 1972. As such he is the house's caretaker. He spoke recently about what that means. "The building is in reasonably good condition considering its age and the stress it's had on it," he notes. "You have to remember that we're subjecting a building that was not designed for heavy traffic to some pretty stiff use. In a way, the lessening of visitation we've seen here is a blessing."
The NPS has commissioned an engineering study to learn just how badly bruised the house has become after 114 years of being trod upon. The study is not yet finished, but it seems likely that its authors will recommend some kind of structural reinforcement at a minimum, if not some curtailment of traffic through it.
It is at this point that a central contradiction in historic site management becomes manifest. By saving old buildings we make it possible for people to see them, walk through them, and, by sharing for a few moments the experience of their honored tenants, learn from them. We also run the risk of destroying them.
I was reminded of that dilemma by a nightclub comic, of all people, whose act was broadcast recently. "This is George Washington's ax," he announced, holding a distinctly modern-looking ax aloft. "Of course, 1 had to replace the handle, and then the head wore out, so I put a new one on . . . . " The question that confronts most preservationists then, is at what point does George Washington's ax cease to be George Washington's ax? Says Banton: "The question we'll have to decide is to what degree you remove original fabric to put in modern-day support? To me, it's essential that as much as possible of the original fabric must remain. 1 don't want us to end up with just one nail as the only thing left in the house that Lincoln might have seen."
But at some point in the life of historic properties there may be no other choice. James Deetz, professor of anthropology at Berkeley, spoke in Springfield in September as part of a three-day conference on Lincoln site interpretation sponsored by Sangamon State University. He argued that when one has an irreplaceable structure such as Lincoln's home, it is irresponsible to allow it to be trampled, poked, and pinched into collapse. He argued that the purposes of both history and instruction would be better served by building a historically accurate but completely phony Lincoln's home in which tourists would be able to frolic without worry about damaging priceless artifacts while the original is secured for use by future scholars.
It isn't a new idea. Al Banton has suggested it before, often. "This sounds like heresy," he says, "but I wonder if people might do better to get more out of Lincoln's home than just seeing it. I don't know if just having people pass through it and hoping somebody gets something out of the experience is worth it, when you weigh it against the damage that does to the house."
The fabled historic riches of Europe are not-so-slowly but surely being destroyed by the people who come to venerate them. The superintendent of Rome's ancient monuments noted in a recent interview that the damage done by shuffling feet, street vibrations, and air pollution is so great that all documentation of the city's art and architecture will be lost within a few decades. The same is true in Egypt, Greece, even the United States, where the NPS has had to restrict the number of visitors to fragile Indian cliff dwellings in Colorado.
The white man's record in this country is newer, and thus relatively unspoiled so far. But can we afford to wait a thousand years before worrying about saving our monuments, like the Romans? Or will they have all disappeared by then? It has been barely a century since Abraham Lincoln last strolled through his house on Eighth Street. Will those who come to Eighth Street a hundred years from now be able to do the same? Two hundred years? A thousand years?
Al Banton recalls that the Park Service is charged to "preserve for future generations unimpaired" the country's natural and historic treasures. That charge is a sort of promissory note signed by the present and collectible by future Americans, and to make good on it the NPS will inevitably be obliged someday to close Lincoln's house. How soon? Banton guesses it may be as soon as twenty years from now.
Does that seem too drastic a move? I was walking past Lincoln's house one evening not long ago, as I often do. For some reason I recalled that just a few miles to the north of that place, on the banks of the same Sangamon River that Lincoln knew as a young man, modern archaeologists have uncovered evidence of widespread Indian habitations dating as far back as the Middle Woodland period. Those camps and villages have disappeared except for a few bones, projectile points, and smears of ash and rotted wood in the soil. What, I mused, if our ancestors had inherited such a relic of that lost people? And what if they had been stupid or careless or greedy enough that it was lost so those of us in this century could learn nothing from it? What would we think of them then? What will our descendants think of us? ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.