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Resolving the Past : The fight for historic preservation is over more than buildings

July 14, 1996|George E. Thomas | George E. Thomas, a preservation consultant, teaches historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA — Two current preservation stories are instructive about the encroachment of the needs of the present upon the historic sites of the past and the means by which we preserve and frame the artifacts that represent history's complex issues. Near the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, and at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, questions are being raised about the proper approach to the preservation of memorial sites that still tear at society.

In Poland, a developer proposed to build a supermarket almost within sight of the fences that enclose one of World War II's most notorious death camps. At Arlington, Va., a defense-funding bill would make it possible to enlarge the Arlington National Cemetery at the expense of a grove of trees that is part of the original setting of the Robert E. Lee mansion, the historic core of the property. Each story raises the central preservation issue: What does the present owe to the past and the future? And by what means do we determine an appropriate solution to emotionally charged issues?

In the case of Auschwitz, the story seems simple enough. A developer proposed to adapt an existing structure to house a modern European supermarket, which, like most modern American markets, would sell beer as well as groceries. However, because we live in a time when some deny the Nazis' attempt to destroy the Jewish people, while others seek to blame the entire German people for genocide, the questions of how to preserve Auschwitz remain stridently political and intensely emotional half a century after it was closed. The case of the supermarket by the death camp quickly escalated, with Jews attacking Poles as insensitive and Poles attacking foreigners as intruders on their national sovereignty.

Ignoring the reality that a souvenir stand and parking lots already affected the site, an e-mail and fax firestorm of controversy arose over the proposal. What the developer described as a "supermarket, the income from which would support a local charity," and an asset to the community, was semantically recharacterized by the opposition as a "shopping mall with stores, a beer garden and amusement arcade." In short, something that belonged on an American highway far from any historical sites.

Was the real problem urban encroachment and commercialism of the site of so great a horror, or was it that the proposed construction would serve the neighborhood instead of tourists? After all, most of the world's great memorial sites, from Canterbury Cathedral to Gettysburg's hallowed ground, have been served by shops and accommodations for pilgrims.

After protests and calls from planning and cultural agencies, the developer has compromised with a "pharmacy, a medical center, a kindergarten, a book store, an information center, a small food store and a coffee shop in two existing buildings to cater for visitors." What was a supermarket has become a shopping complex.

Despite having no obvious religious, or economic components, the Arlington cemetery case is, if anything, less logical. In 1864, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Potomac River estate was confiscated and turned into a U.S. military base, with a portion adapted as a cemetery. It was a clear case of to victor go the spoils--and there was clearly the potential for future conflict in the transformation of the site into a memorial to Union dead. Today, the bulk of Arlington's 1,100 acres is devoted to the burial of a quarter-million veterans--from the Unknown Soldiers to President John F. Kennedy.

Ironically, 60 years after the confiscation, the War Department began restoring Arlington House in honor of Lee--who, after all, had been a West Point graduate and one of their own. As a result, a small portion of the once vast plantation retains Lee's historic home, now operated by the National Park Service, with the intention of telling the story of the property from the Lee family back to its ownership by the Custis family and Gen. George Washington. (This isn't the only Washington-related site facing a crisis. Wal-Mart just abandoned building a proposed superstore on land that was part of Washington's boyhood home, near Fredericksburg, Va.--if funds can be raised to cover the company's costs to date.)

In the case of Arlington, its joint preservation as cemetery and historic house was a remarkable and forward-looking accommodation that began the healing of the rent fabric of American society. So far, so good.

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