June’s webinar featured Dr. Whitney Martinko discussing her book Historic Real Estate: Market Morality and the Politics of Preservation in the Early United States. The webinar was presented in partnership with our colleagues at the Preservation League of New York State.
If you weren’t able to attend, watch the webinar recording.
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A detailed study of early historical preservation efforts between the 1780s and the 1850s
In Historic Real Estate: Market Morality and the Politics of Preservation in the Early United States, Whitney Martinko shows how Americans in the fledgling United States pointed to evidence of the past in the world around them and debated whether, and how, to preserve historic structures as permanent features of the new nation’s landscape. From Indigenous mounds in the Ohio Valley to Independence Hall in Philadelphia; from Benjamin Franklin’s childhood home in Boston to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; from Dutch colonial manors of the Hudson Valley to Henry Clay’s Kentucky estate, early advocates of preservation strove not only to place boundaries on competitive real estate markets but also to determine what should not be for sale, how consumers should behave, and how certain types of labor should be valued.
Before historic preservation existed as we know it today, many Americans articulated eclectic and sometimes contradictory definitions of architectural preservation to work out practical strategies for defining the relationship between public good and private profit. In arguing for the preservation of houses of worship and Indigenous earthworks, for example, some invoked the “public interest” of their stewards to strengthen corporate control of these collective spaces. Meanwhile, businessmen and political partisans adopted preservation of commercial sites to create opportunities for, and limits on, individual profit in a growing marketplace of goods. And owners of old houses and ancestral estates developed methods of preservation to reconcile competing demands for the seclusion of, and access to, American homes to shape the ways that capitalism affected family economies. In these ways, individuals harnessed preservation to garner political, economic, and social profit from the performance of public service.
Ultimately, Martinko argues, by portraying the problems of the real estate market as social rather than economic, advocates of preservation affirmed a capitalist system of land development by promising to make it moral.
ABOUT DR. WHITNEY MARTINKO
Dr. Martinko is an associate professor of History at Villanova University, where she teaches about the early United States, environmental and urban history, material culture, and public history. She earned her AB in History from Harvard College and her MA and PhD in History from the University of Virginia. She co-hosts “The Professor and the Practitioner” series on the PreserveCast podcast with Nicholas Redding. You can learn more about her and her work at www.whitneymartinko.com.
MARTINKO JOINS A SMALL BUT GROWING NUMBER OF PRESERVATION SCHOLARS WHOSE RESEARCH CHALLENGES LONG-HELD BELIEFS ABOUT PRESERVATION’S EARLY PREDILECTION FOR AESTHETICISM AND NATION-BUILDING…MARTINKO’S CALLS FOR CONNECTION—FOR COMMUNICATION AND RECOGNITION OF EACH OTHER ACROSS SPACE AND TIME—PROVIDE A MUCH NEEDED PUSH TO INCORPORATE A MORE HUMANISTIC, UNIFYING, AND INTEGRATIVE APPROACH TO SOCIETY’S TREATMENT OF THE HISTORIC BUILT ENVIRONMENT.”—THE PUBLIC HISTORIAN
EXCERPT FROM THE PREFACE OF HISTORIC REAL ESTATE
One morning…, I woke up to a headline announcing the demolition of the historic core of Philadelphia, just a few miles from my home. ‘Confident Philadelphia Officials Preemptively Raze Center City to Make Room for Amazon Headquarters’ announced the Onion. The popular parody website lampooned Philadelphia’s eagerness to attract a corporate headquarters with a pictures of architectural destruction. ‘It was definitely bittersweet saying goodbye to the Liberty Bell before our controlled demolition of Independence Hall,” says the satirical version of Mayor Jim Kenney, ‘but it’s important we encourage businesses to invest in the city.’ Displaced citizens, he assured, could travel to see relics of Philadelphia’s past in a new museum thirty miles outside of its city limits.
The article’s humor arises, in part, from treating some of the nation’s most cherished historic sites as prime real estate for a new economy. Yet Philadelphians had faced this very situation two hundred years earlier when the commonwealth of Pennsylvania planned to subdivide the site of Independence Hall for private development. The resulting campaign to preserve the building and its surrounding green space featured the same critiques of urban development, capitalist greed, and corrupt public interest that appeared in the Onion two centuries later. Early nineteenth-century observers viewed Independence Hall as a bellwether of the values guiding economic development in Philadelphia and the nation at large. Their commentary shows us how U.S. residents long have shaped historic sites not simply to commemorate the past but also to define what should not be for sale during times of economic change. — from the preface of Historic Real Estate: Market Morality and the Politics of Preservation in the Early United States by Whitney Martinko