On this week’s episode of the Practical Preservation podcast, we spoke with Catherine Fleming Bruce, author and activist. Catherine is the author of “The Sustainers: Being, Building and Doing Good through Activism in the Sacred Spaces of Civil Rights, Human Rights and Social Movements” which received the 2017 Historic Preservation Book Prize from the University of Mary Washington Center for Historic Preservation. Catherine advocates for the preservation of historic spaces significant to the civil rights movement, and discussed the importance of equality in preservation, and ensuring the economic benefits of preservation projects go back to the surrounding communities.
Tom Brennan, co-founder of The Green Garage and the El Moore, in Detroit, MI, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss these properties as innovative examples of sustainable working and living spaces. We covered multiple topics, including:
- Background information about Tom and his wife and co-founder Peggy, and how they came to initiate and complete these sustainable adaptive reuse projects
- How Tom’s retirement plans changed significantly after he and Peggy were inspired by a sustainability project in Monroe Michigan
- How the Green Garage embodies working sustainably in action, functioning as a coworking space while also existing as an excellent example of combined adaptive reuse and sustainability.The sustainability, however, depends on proper maintenance and repair, which can be accessed on their website.
- The rebirth of the El Moore – a true example of sustainable living – and how the current inception pays homage to its innovative 1898 roots
- Details of each of the 2 projects’ novel approaches to making sure each building was as sustainable as possible
- Information on how the Brennan’s plan on addressing the third part of sustainability – eating and playing – via the El Moore Gardens and the in-progress El Moore Seasons Market
- The ways in which each project pays deference to Detroit’s history
Tom believes that while pure preservation certainly has an important place in the landscape, projects like Green Garage and El Moore are just as essential to keep preservation vital and relevant. Read more about their story in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s feature article.
Tom also shared two pieces of advice to listeners who care about preservation, history, and sustainability: learn as much as you can from others by staying connected to a community of like-minded people, and take time to get a project right, as sustainability especially is a journey. Essentially, be practical.
As COVID restrictions lessen in the future, Tom encourages interested parties to come to the El Moore and take a tour and learn more about its fascinating history!
John O’Brien, Director of West Chester, PA’s Business Improvement District, and Jim Brown, Vice-President of Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, in Lancaster, PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss their organization’s respective responses to COVID-19. We covered multiple topics, including:
- Background information about John and Jim, and on both West Chester PA Business Improvement District (BID) and Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County (HPT)
- The heritage of West Chester – including notables, historic streetscapes, and a thriving local business community – and how the BID functions to serve downtown businesses in a way that supports the community as a whole
- The history and mission of the HPT – and how it was conceived as part of a grassroots movement to save one of Lancaster’s most historically-significant homes
- Tactics both BID and HPT have utilized in order to navigate the challenges of COVID-19 – including increased outdoor events and services and heavy use of social media to reach the public
- Tips for downtowns and the general public to support – and hopefully, help to save – local business, downtown communities, and places of historic and cultural significance
WEST CHESTER BID
Website – notably, the website will be under construction and officially relaunch early 2021
HPT OF LANCASTER COUNTY
Please consider following West Chester BID and HPT of Lancaster County on social media links listed above to keep yourself apprised of special events and updates, even in the time of COVID.
Becky LaBarre, executive director of Renfrew Museum and Park, located in Waynesboro, PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the site, as well as special Christmas events. We covered multiple topics, including:
- Becky’s background, including how growing up near Greenfield Village sparked her early interest in History and Preservation
- The history and preservation story of Renfrew, including the phenomenal woman who started it all, Emma Nicodemus
- Highlights of Renfrew Museum and Park, such as the house museum, bank barn converted to visitor’s center, extensive John Bell pottery exhibit, and 107 preserved acres culminating in a comprehensive Pennsylvania German Heritage Site
- Unique events, from hearth cooking classes to Christmas on the Farm
- Challenges and trends for house museums, including declining attendance over the past decade, as well as limitations of COVID, and distinctive approaches for addressing these such as experiential, living history events
Becky highlighted the importance of getting to historic and cultural heritage sites in person to get a truly immersive experience. Currently, Renfrew offers events such as hearth cooking classes seasonally, and Christmas on the Farm December 4, 5, and 6, 2020 (tickets may be purchased online or at the gate day of) with COVID-friendly measures in place.
However, if you prefer not to visit or attend events with others, you may visit the park and hike (for free!) or attend virtual events, typically listed on their Facebook events page, here.
John Renne, Ph.D., AICP, professor in the department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida Atlantic University, located in Boca Raton, FL, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the ways in which urban planning, transit oriented development and historic preservation intersect. We covered multiple topics, including:
- John’s academic background and how work with his mentor, David Listoken, Ph.D., inspired study of the connections between historic preservation and transit oriented development (TOD)
- John’s current roles in TOD as a land use and transportation planner, looking at how land use and transportation systems interact with one another
- Defining aspects of TODs, being dense, walkable, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use communities centered around functional rail systems
- Connections between historic preservation and transit oriented development (TOD) – including how most TODs are in historic locations but only 1/3 of active train stations are in TODs
- Challenges and trends related to TOD, including its current correlation to gentrification and unaffordable housing prices, incentives that work against preservation when planning high-density development, as well as moving the 60-70 year trend of centering urban planning around the automobile back to being centered around people
The Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions (CUES) at FAU includes periodic free programming, such as virtual webinars on relevant TOD, planning, climate change information, and historic preservation’s relationship to these topic areas – check the linked website above to stay up-to-date.
Read John Renne and David Listoken’s Guide to Facilitate Historic Preservation through Transit-Oriented Development.
John reminds listeners that historic places tend to be more interesting, vibrant, and sustainable – something for prospective buyers as well as planners, developers, and officials to consider!
Tim Freund of Lancaster Cemetery in Lancaster, PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the history, preservation, and ongoing use of the cemetery. We covered multiple topics, including:
- How Tim’s living in close proximity to the cemetery coupled with his civic-mindedness inspired his current membership on the cemetery board
- The challenges of maintaining any cemetery – particularly historic ones with fewer families remaining to care for family plots – including limited funding and intensive landscape and monument preservation needs
- The history of the cemetery, similar to other Victorian-era cemeteries, and its origins as a church’s burial site for a dead congregant population that exceeded the capacity of the original churchyard
- Famous and notable occupants of the cemetery, including native Lancastrian Major General John F. Reynolds who was killed on the first day at the Battle of Gettysburg, and Augusta Bitner of “walking statue” notoriety
- Conservation and preservation efforts, including regular consultation with expert conservators, as well as cemetery conservation workshops
- The cemetery’s mission to be a “proactive gathering space” hosting unique events open to the public that help support the cemetery but also educate and maintain respect for this and similar spaces
Tim encourages people interested in visiting or supporting Lancaster Cemetery – or any cemetery – to consider volunteering or donating funding (here), or to visit (hours, rules, and directions can be found here). Most events are postponed this year due to COVID, but you can follow their Facebook events page to stay up-to-date on events that help support the cemetery in the future.
Anticipated events and ongoing services include a wreathe sale, conservation workshops, and genealogical research services – contact Tim to learn more!
UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES – On this 4th Tuesday of the month, our focus isn’t on a specific feature per se, but more on a combination of features; a whole architectural style, in fact. And we’re focusing on how mutable cultural values created and then reviled that style, resulting in its being the focus of nightmares in popular culture. To honor Halloween season in a preservation-minded way, instead of covering traditional hauntings, we will examine how the aforementioned phenomena collectively created our modern vision of what is “creepy.” This month’s feature is: “HAUNTED” VICTORIAN HOUSES.
Why are “haunted houses” usually Victorian in style?
Many authors (here, here, here and here, to name a few) have pondered and analyzed this question. Sarah Burns (2012) summarized it best in her article “Better for Haunts”: Victorian Houses and the Modern Imagination, querying:
“If we consider the Victorian house in its own time and place…there is nothing ominous about the mansard-roofed house…Half a century later, however, that very same style had become a signifier of terror, death, and decay. How, when, and why did the ghosts take over?” (p. 3)
The answer comes down to what Burns refers to as a “shifting context” (p. 3), where architectural changes coincide with and are influenced by cultural and social reforms. There are many reasons for these shifts.
People deem all kinds of trends – from fashion, to food, to entertaining, and even to architecture – to be out-of-date or out-of-touch after a time. Many people naturally rebel against what their parents’ generation considered en vogue. The generations after the Victorians were no exception. The fact that the height of Victorian homes’ popularity coincided with the old tradition of laying out the dead in the family parlor (prior to the advent of the funeral parlor) did not help their image and may have added to the “creepy” mystique as trends moved away from wakes at home. These small scale reasons contributed to aesthetic preferences shifting away from Victorian style.
On a greater scale, aesthetics were influenced by social reform and philosophical ideals. The Victorian era – especially the latter-half – was a time of great economic (and other) disparity. Traditional Victorian homes visually represented this disparity with ostentatious displays of wealth, frequently characterized by conspicuous consumption by the nouveau riche. Heavy ornamentation and detail indicative of most Victorian styles – inside and out- represented the wealth of a small portion of the population. Some of this ornamentation was also made possible due to the second Industrial Revolution (itself a partial cause and manifestation of wealth disparity). Mass production enabled cheaper, quicker access to materials. But this also meant the wealthy became wealthier, the middle class became wealthier, and the poor stayed poor. In fact, the increase in urbanization made for overcrowded, unhealthy living conditions for the poor (who made up the greatest number of factory workers). They were also practically chained to their factory jobs and seen as inhuman machines by their employers.
Social reforms, including the arts and crafts movement and the labor movement, gained ground in government but also influenced architectural design. Many reformers (arts and crafts movement) saw industrialization as an undesirable replacement for craftsmanship as well as a social problem, and advocated craftsman style in architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Home interiors were not immune to the changes, as the sanitary or hygiene reform movement also impacted design, especially in the bathroom; wood and heavy fabrics were seen not only as outdated but also unsanitary. These architectural style changes became an expression of political, economic, and social values in addition to quality materials and workmanship. Architecturally, craftsman styles flourished through the 1920s. By the 1930s and 1940s, modernism and colonial revival styles took hold, continuing to move away from Victorian style.
For all of the above reasons, Victorian homes fell out of favor, and people moved away from the old neighborhoods, leaving Victorian homes to be broken into apartments, turned into boarding houses, or derelict looming figures thanks to demolition by neglect, their once grand neighborhoods dilapidated and run-down. This likely furthered the view that these homes were “haunted” or “creepy.” This status was perfect creative fodder for authors and artists, who subsequently demonized these types of homes. As entertainment technology evolved, movies and TV shows followed suit (e.g., The Addams Family, The Munsters, and Psycho) further solidifying a negative view of these homes in the popular imagination.
The conglomeration of influences cemented Victorian homes as the style of haunted house for generations to come. The issue is that by doing this, in some cases, it has damaged the reputation of these houses leading to improper care for them, or even destruction of them. Luckily, enough of the population cares for these homes to have saved many of them, and we can see examples of Victorian architecture in nearly every town and city in the United States today.
Letting Victorian homes wither away or even demolishing them due to misplaced fear is much scarier than actually saving and preserving these historic treasures. Anything that is dilapidated and not maintained will look creepy!
Examples of “haunted” Victorian architecture:
Gothic Revival architectural style seen in the caretaker’s home at Woodward Hill Cemetery (burial site of President James Buchanan) in Lancaster, PA. The gravestones seen in the foreground add to the foreboding ambience. Build date unknown.
Photo above courtesy of Laura Kise.
Another Gothic Revival building at Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, PA. Build date unknown.
Photo above courtesy of Laura Kise.
View of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Primarily identified with Queen Anne architectural style, this now-infamous home that began as a simple farmhouse was renovated and added onto by Sarah Winchester (widow of William Winchester) from 1886 to 1922 in an effort to protect herself from vengeful spirits. Purported to actually be haunted, the architectural design elements as well as Sarah’s purposeful twists, turns, and “booby-traps” make for a creepy home inside and out, despite its obvious beauty.
The image above was taken by Liz Jandoli, for Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), date unknown. Image source: Library of Congress.
The Biltmore Estate – home to the Vanderbilts and America’s largest home – in Asheville, North Carolina, is constructed in the Châteauesque architectural style, and was built between 1889-1895. This home is also rumored to be actually haunted, but anyone might feel intimidated by this imposing, gorgeous structure.
The image above was taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston for the Library of Congress, in 1938. Image source: Library of Congress.
Victorian Architecture Today
Where to see it.
- Scavenger hunt – Hit the pavement in most towns and see how many Victorian houses you can find; despite the negative connotations over the years, we are lucky to have many fine examples of Victorian homes throughout the United States.
- (Virtual) museum and other tours – Check out historical house museums – if you’re lucky enough to find an open museum right now following CDC guidelines, visit in-person. Otherwise, see if their website has a virtual tour. Biltmore Estate can be toured virtually at the bottom of this page. You can virtually visit the Winchester Mystery House here. You may also choose to visit a purportedly haunted house (assuming you feel safe during this time of COVID) and given the time of year, there are many options as we get closer to Halloween.
- Photo gallery – View Victorian architecture images on flickr or explore sites like Library of Congress.
Get (or protect) your own.
- Real estate – There are many ways to find your own Victorian, and by doing so, you can help save these treasures and contribute to a more positive view of these historic structures. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has archives of real estate agents who specialize in historic properties, here. They also include listings of properties for sale, here. You can also peruse independent sites such as Circa Houses and Cheap Old Houses.
- Protecting, preserving, and maintaining – Not maintaining your historical home will guarantee that it looks creepy, so maintain your home so you don’t contribute to the negative mystique! Visit the many resources on our website (or contact us for help), and view our Fall Maintenance post, here. Visit The National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as The National Park Service for more information on protecting and preserving your historic home.
For further resources and reading:
- You can read Sarah Burns’ thorough analysis of the “haunted” mystique of Victorian homes – and JSTOR is currently offering free access if you create a login – here.
Stay tuned each month for a new installment in this UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES! See last month’s post on Butler’s Pantries.
SHARE WITH US!
DO YOU OWN A VICTORIAN HOME? DOES IT HAVE A REPUTATION FOR BEING CREEPY OR HAUNTED? OR, IS THERE A VICTORIAN HOME THAT YOU DON’T OWN BUT LOVE?
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Bruce Bomberger, Ph.D., archivist and librarian at the Lebanon County Historical Society in Lebanon (Lebanon County), PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the Lebanon County Historical Society’s resources and services. We covered multiple topics, including:
- Bruce’s varied background in many areas of history, from archaeology to former curator of Landis Valley Museum
- The history of LCHS and historical societies in general – including their roots as fraternal organizations – and their varied roles in preservation of artifacts and buildings
- Unique aspects of the building itself and its relevance to Lebanon County history – from it’s origins as a private home, to holding some of the county’s earliest court cases, to functioning as the lodge for the local Loyal Order of Moose
- Special associations, including the society-owned Union Canal Tunnel, the oldest existing transportation tunnel in the United States
- Services and events open to the community, including Sunday lecture series (currently on-hold due to COVID), tours, and genealogical and archival research
- Challenges for LCHS and historical societies in general, including finite financial resources to sustain them, and limited space, as well as the ways which these issues are addressed
Contact Information – can be found at the bottom of this page
The society is open on a limited basis by appointment due to COVID (MASKS REQUIRED), for services such as genealogical and archival research, and tours – please email or call at the link listed above to schedule appointments in advance.
Consider supporting the society (or other historical societies) via donation, membership, ordering genealogical research services (which can be requested remotely), or taking a tour.
If you cannot visit the society, consider visiting the Union Canal Tunnel via either the South or North Park, and view the exterior of the reconstructed Krall Barn, a rare Pennsylvania German log barn originally from Schaefferstown (Lebanon County), PA. You can also read more about Lebanon History via Bruce’s recent interview with Lebtown, here.
Chris Vera, president of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society in Columbia (Lancaster County), PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss Columbia history, legends, and lore. We covered multiple topics, including:
- Chris’s background as a child growing up in Columbia, whose passion for local history developed from working for elderly neighbors – people who preserved local heritage through storytelling
- The Columbia Historic Preservation Society’s role as a center for local Columbia history
- The Society’s own preservation and adaptive reuse story: transforming and reinventing itself from a circa mid-19th Century Lutheran Church to a historical society, and its brush with destruction due to a case of severe mold contamination, and one former staff member’s desire to tear it down rather than save it
- Unique aspects of Columbia history – its nearly becoming the capital of the United States, rich African-American and underground railroad history, the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge Burning, and its historical role as a beacon of industry and railroads
- Local legends and lore – from cryptids like the Albatwitch (or “apple snitch”), to ghosts said to haunt the buildings and local trails and hills, and the many events celebrating these folk tales
- Trends and challenges in history and preservation – funding being the number one challenge, followed by garnering interest in and support for these areas
Contact Information – General contact info located at the bottom of this page
Chris encourages supporting local Columbia heritage by visiting the nearby natural and trail areas (start here), as well as learning more about the history of the region from the Columbia Historic Preservation Society and other interesting historical sites to visit. You can also discover more museums, activities, and yearly events, here.
There are several opportunities to explore the legends, lore, and supernatural side of Columbia, including the 7th annual Albatwitch Festival on Saturday, October 17th, 2020 – including Albatwitch and Haunted trolley tours – as well as a “Fright Night at the Museum” Saturday, October 31st, 2020
Bill Callahan, the Western, PA Community Preservation Coordinator for the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO is a bureau within the PA Historical and Museum Commission) in Pittsburgh, PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the state organization’s myriad services. We covered multiple topics, including:
- Bill’s background, including how exposure to the negative impacts of the agricultural economy’s crash in the Midwest led to cooperative initiation of a main street program in his Illinois community – a position he credits with his interest in preservation, and the catalyst for his subsequent manifold experiences in historic preservation positions
- His current position, which involves administration of several programs, including providing technical assistance regarding historic preservation to anyone who asks for it
- The only way to protect historic resources, and the 2 methods by which a municipality can go about it
- Grassroots tips, such as networking within local government and other community organizations, and the necessity of understanding one’s local planning processes
- A little known resource for private homeowners
- The overlap of natural resource conservation and historic preservation
- Positive trends such as increased awareness of the need for preservation
For community grassroots involvement, Bill also recommends interested citizens visit this general site in addition to consulting directly with him (or other regional community preservation coordinators). This site includes community preservation forms and guidelines as well. And Bill emphasizes the importance of citizen involvement with local planning and economic development offices.
Bill also encourages people to remember that sense of place is important to everyone – including saving buildings that make a place unique and hold memories – and this can be emphasized when working with others to prioritize local preservation.