Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Henry Ford & Historic Houses

(Should have been posted March 12, 2009)

This week, we talked a bit about houses divorced from their settings, as at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village. Ford's basic idea behind this collection of historic buildings was to assemble America's important houses and thereby teach American history visually, in one place, through the buildings. And he's got some important stuff - Edison's laboratory, Noah Webster's house, a "courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law" . . .

However, it got me thinking about what we lose when the house is seen out of context. I know I've blathered about this before and I'm not suggesting that Strawbery Banke is the be-all-end-all solution to historic house villages. However, I do feel that there is a certain level of authenticity that you only get when the historic house in question is on its original location, surrounded by an environment similar to that when it was built.

There are two important houses at Strawbery Banke
which are not on their original locations: the Goodwin Mansion and the house where Daniel Webster had his first law office in Portsmouth. Both of these houses were built elsewhere in the city and moved to the museum grounds in the early to mid-1960s.

The Goodwin Mansion, for example, was initially built about a mile away from downtown, intended to be an elegant "suburban villa" for wealthy families who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the waterfront. Therefore, its relocation to a site near the water removed a bit of the authenticity of the house's interpretation. However, the house was slated to be demolished in its original location and the preservation of the house itself outweighed concerns of interpretive authenticity in this case.

As with many things, keeping houses on their original sites can be deal with in different ways in different cases. However, I do think that the power of history can be felt more strongly when the historic house can sit in its original home, in more ways than one.

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