Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Newport Stories: To Preserve or Not to Preserve, or, On the Million-Dollar Question about Newport’s (and All) Historic Homes

[Here is the fifth and final installment of a series of posts by Benjamin Railton that originally appeared on his blog AmericanStudies.]

Like so many evocative American places, the Newport, Rhode Island mansion The Breakers contains and connects to numerous histories, stories, and themes worth sharing. So in this series, I’ll highlight and analyze five such topics. As always, your thoughts will be very welcome too!

The Breakers.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality, depth, and breadth of the self-guided audio tour at The Breakers—that tour, to be clear, provided starting points for all five of this week’s blog topics—but was particularly taken aback, in a good way, by a provocative question raised right at the tour’s outset. The narrator asks directly whether preserving mansions like The Breakers is a worthwhile pursuit for an organization such as the Preservation Society of Newport County—whether such mansions are architecturally or artistically worth preserving, whether they are historically or culturally worth remembering, whether, in short, these kinds of homes merit the obvious expense and effort that are required to keep them open and accessible to visitors. The tour presents arguments on both sides of the question, and leaves it up to the listener to decide as he or she continues with his or her visit.

Of course my first instinct, as an AmericanStudier, as a public scholar, as a person deeply interested in the past, was to respond that of course we should preserve such historic sites. But if we take a step back and consider what the question would mean in a contemporary context, things get a bit more complicated. Can we imagine a future organization spending millions of dollars to preserve Donald Trump’s many homes? Oprah Winfrey’s Lake Como getaway? Bill Gates’s estate? Certainly I can imagine tourists a hundred years hence being interested in visiting those places—well, hopefully not the Donald’s homes; but yeah, probably them too—but is that a sufficient argument for them to be preserved? Or does there indeed have to be something architecturally or artistically significant, or something historically or culturally resonant (beyond their owners’ obvious prominence), to merit the preservation of a private home? And do these “white elephants” (as Henry James famously called them) make the cut?

The question thus isn’t quite as simple as I had first imagined. But my own answer would, I believe, be to point precisely to the topics covered in this week’s blog posts. A site like The Breakers is the repository of so many compelling and vital American histories and stories, so many moments and identities that can help us understand and analyze who we’ve been and who we are. Of course there would be ways to remember and tell those stories without preserving the house, but I do believe that historic sites provide a particularly effective grounding for them, a starting point from which visitors (like this AmericanStudier) can continue their investigations into those themes. I know that my own ideas about America were expanded and amplified by my visit to Newport and The Breakers, as they have been by all my AmericanStudies trips. So while I know it’s not entirely practical, I vote for preserving anything and everything that can help with such ongoing and inspiring AmericanStudying.

P.S. What do you think?


hcr said...

This was the post on your blog that grabbed me most, Ben. It's such a crucial question. What is "valuable." How is precious money best spent? What is the audience for history? What should it be? Sorry to sound all philosophical, but these questions are central to every aspect of historical inquiry, and the question of preservation of Newport brings them all into stark relief.

Thanks for this series!

AmericanStudier said...

Thanks Heather! I agree that the questions are key, but now I have a question for you (just done with teaching, what can I say): what's your take? Should we preserve homes like these?


Morgan Hubbard said...

Loved this post. It's a fantastic question—and invoking the Donald throws our obsession with the Newport mansions into stark relief.

hcr said...

Honestly, Ben, I don't really have an answer. If we knew that the money that currently goes to the mansions would be used for other preservation, I guess I would say no. Preserve one or two, and ditch the rest in favor of less prominent sites that are so underfunded they're collapsing. But my guess is that the money that goes to these would not flow to other sites if they failed. So maybe it's worth keeping them-- any history-- that we can.

There is of course, the question of what preservation means for historical memory. Does the site privilege the memory? And if we lose it, do we lose that memory? I tend to think yes, but I think of it in terms of Indian history more than of the Newport society.

Do you have any new thoughts on this?