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 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, has always been one of 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 being a city which 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 stud^y 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 completely phony Lincoln's home (in which tourists would be able to walk through, touch and sit 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?
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 collectable 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 pas! 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, which is all that remains to tell us about these vanished people. 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? ■