Nostalgic at 21

Will they be preservationists when they grow up?

Seeing around the curve of time begins for me not in the library but in the classroom, with students in my courses on the history of the North American built environment. Over and over, both women and men bring me advertisements in which a superbly attired model stands against a backdrop of triumphant preservation, images that seem to illustrate how students think about elegance, classiness, dignity, and permanence. Echoing among their comments is the sentence: It must have been wonderful to have lived back then …

The young women are not only puzzling over the distant past but also remembering their own high school proms and looking forward to their own weddings. Proms survived late-20th-century feminism unscathed and in the last decade blossomed into serious profit generators beloved by clothing retailers, florists, limousine liveries, restaurants, and hair stylists. High school girls dream of dancing in a place many will later rent for their wedding receptions and even weddings: a period building, restored to its former elegance but equipped with up-to-date bathroom and catering facilities.

I first noticed the shift in taste toward holding weddings, not just receptions, in period structures sometime in the late 1980s. The shift is not merely from holy spaces to secular ones, but from the sacred to the historic, something that suggests a developing willingness to invest the preserved past with the power to infuse all sorts of future imponderables. Young people replace the sacred not with history but with a tangible heritage they see as especially meaningful.

My studies led me to observe children and adolescents at historic sites. In one visit after another, I crossed paths with school groups and stopped to listen for a few minutes, to watch for the child or teenager who hung back to really stare at a particular artifact.

At a farm museum, for instance, a boy told me that tractors not only lacked spare tires but also had no place to carry them (he had rushed back to check), and at a restored 18th-century house an adolescent girl staring at the kitchen fireplace remarked that women would have strained their backs lifting out the giant cast-iron pots. I had never thought about farm tractor spare tires, although I did tell the girl about fireplace cranes.

What do such comments add up to? The feeling always seems to be the same, what old rural New Englanders call a crawl. When a visitor stands on the station platform of a railroad museum or on the back porch of a house owned by the county historical society, something happens—something almost indescribable, perhaps approximating a religious experience. Those given to worry about the impact on young people of dvds and virtual reality computer games too readily forget the power of real, tangible old things.

Lately I do more than listen; I conduct experiments. My late father, a professional boat builder, taught me to build and repair boats and to know the differences among rebuilding, repair, restoration, and replication. When I purchased a ship’s lifeboat built in Newfoundland in 1937, I determined I would rebuild it to its period appearance. It is still a massive, bulky, double-ended vessel, complete with davit hooks fore and aft, 12-foot-long oars, an immense rudder, and a chunky mast carrying a huge lugsail. All its contemporary safety equipment hides in lockers, and its tiny, near-silent engine rides inboard, in a well so unobtrusive that a scrap of cloth hides it. As perhaps an alternative reality, the rebuilt boat succeeds beyond anything I dreamed of during the two years I worked on it.

The boat stops conversation. People stare. Parents point it out to young children, and I see their mouths say lifeboat. Nearer at hand, they sniff its tarred rigging and reach out and touch its gunwales. If not exactly speechless, they often take a few seconds before saying much. Frequently they ask if the boat is from a museum. Or they ask its age. Never do they ask if it is safe. Somehow it shrieks safety. Its power of attraction is almost magical. In the most crowded, Saturday-afternoon-in-July marina, it is welcome to dock. Wharf hands madly shift other boats so that this thing from another era can make fast exactly opposite the restrooms and ice machine. It ties illegally to any bridge, any wharf, any private float. Watchmen and property owners alike wave and stroll down to look and talk. Coast Guard vessels approach it and crews smile, harbormasters grin, and on one occasion Pride of Baltimore fired a salute. Teenagers sometimes shout something about the arrival of the last Titanic survivors, but the old lifeboat pierces the cinema-screen reality. After all, the teenagers find themselves welcome to touch the lifeboat. Hey, do you really use those oars?

As most marine preservationists would guess from experience, its original price was seductively low. Indeed, the derelict was almost free. But even with new material, time, and professional hired help accounted for in the ledger that no avocational preservationist keeps perfectly accurately, the rebuilt lifeboat represents only a fraction of the price of the big fiberglass boats around it. Most boaters could afford it, and many boaters could afford it easily, although they might purchase more than the boat. They might discover they have purchased an open craft so heavy that beaching becomes a most delicate operation, that shallow water lies everywhere beneath the oars, that the huge lugsail has a mind of its own. But then, too, they might discover they have purchased an astonishingly stable, sea-kindly boat that runs inlets gracefully. Where can you get a boat like that? I always say something about the back lots of decrepit boat yards. But I really want to answer them with my own question. Why do you want to know where to get an anachronism?

Preservationists need to start asking the questions that now vex historians. In 1981 I saw a local high school girl watch her senior prom dream shatter. Her boyfriend arrived in lime-green Bermuda shorts, a yellow T-shirt, and a white dinner jacket—and without a corsage. Immaculate in formal dress and heels, hair piled atop her head, clutching a tiny handbag, she sobbed next to his car, refusing to hear his view that proms were sort of foolish now, that women had changed. That evening I decided that the prom meant something so special that it might never go out of style.

Not until the late 1980s did I glimpse the why behind the special. My students demanded answers to questions they had begun formulating for themselves, and they expected them from me or from books I recommended. Why could my dad provide his family with a house, two cars, and a pool but my future wife and I will both have to work outside the home to buy those things? Maybe the economics department had better get busy, I thought, and I made a few phone calls. If cars wear out before the auto loan is paid off, if personal computers must be replaced every three years, how do we get ahead financially? That sort of question hit closer to home. After all, my college-graduation-gift electric typewriter still works 35 years later.

How could a bank teller afford to build a gorgeous house like this in 1920? That is a serious question, one germane to my courses. Why did people in the past have such nice things? That question, too, is serious. But before I can begin to answer it, I need to understand its origin not only in prom and wedding dreams and vague admiration for an old lifeboat, but also in the world view of contemporary young people comparing nice things from the past to stuff from the present. Certainly the nice things endure. People prized them when they made or purchased them, and they survive as heirlooms or the antiques created by the dissolution of estates. Only rarely does junk endure across the years. But then what?

Then what leads back toward proms and weddings and other ceremonies that are most definitely not junk. Certainly it leads back to the notion that the past is nature, solemnized and prized. The old lifeboat is not just old, it is wood, what so many bedazzled onlookers term wooden: It is not fiberglass. Wooden evokes all sorts of images, ranging from crotchety Yankee boat builders selecting perfect pasture oaks for felling long after frost, to wood-stove-toasty boat shops where hand tools make fragile shavings. Truth flits among the images. My father indeed picked out trees and indeed stood alongside millers as they ripped the trunks. But pipe dreams also attend: the natural life, the simple life, the “safe life” of one who uses dangerous power tools, even swings an adze upside down, overhead.

As a frequent visitor to marine museums—and a long-time consultant to several—I recognize a certain starry-eyed look on the face of someone watching interpreters build a wood boat using traditional techniques. I see in the look something vaguely mystical.

Preservationists create the temples of a religion not yet formed. However much preservationists lament the destruction of valuable buildings, the ones saved by organizations and individuals now acquire a peculiar and still unremarked magic. Young people find such buildings evoking a natural, pretechnological, somehow dignified time. And however garbled the evocation, it suffuses the dreams of many: The perfect prom, the perfect wedding, the perfect weekend in a bed-and-breakfast or old inn, must now be seen as some mysterious variety of religious experience. The young woman staring at the rooms of the period house in which she will be married, the young man glancing back and forth between the old lifeboat and the fiberglass yachts around it, the child hanging back to be alone on the museum house staircase, all demand the attention of every preservationist.

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