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Friday, September 13, 2013

September 13, 2013: Newport Stories: To Preserve or Not to Preserve

[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!]
On the million-dollar question about Newport’s (and all) historic homes.
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. To put it bluntly, the narrator asked 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 is required to keep them open and accessible to visitors. The tour presented arguments on both sides of the question, and left 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’ 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 histories and 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.
Special public scholarship update this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

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