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Wednesday
Oct292014

A failure of historical imagination (mine). Or, N.C. Wyeth, streetcars, bike racks, and historically-designated air.

I pride myself on having a well-developed visual-historical imagination. What do I mean by that? On the one hand, when I see an historical building or a work of art or a photograph of people from an era before our own, I can make a well-educated guess about its date, and I also have a pretty rich historical context in mind in which to place that artifact. Indeed, I often find myself shocked that other people can't do this. (That's a subject for another blog post.) That ability comes from long immersion in historical fields — I know at least a little about a whole lot of Western history, and a whole lot about some of it — and from concentrated study of art and architectural and costume history, inter alia, but also from a disposition to cultivate a visual-historical imagination.

I'm sure that orientation comes in part from my lifelong love of historical fiction. In my very earliest reading years, I read books illustrated by N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle, and when I moved on to reading books without pictures, I continued the habit of "illustrating" the premodern worlds I was reading about in my head.

The flip side of that orientation is that when I am reading about an aesthetic controversy in the past, I generally assume I can visualize the terms of the debate in my head, even if what I'm reading is not illustrated. If I'm reading a debate about clothing or architecture from a hundred or two hundred years ago, I can usually draw on enough of a mental inventory of styles to supply the necessary context.

But knowing about the styles and materials of buildings or dress in the past is a far cry from really being able to picture the complete environment of a place in the past.

A few years ago, when overhead wires for streetcars in DC was a hot topic (now possibly moot), I wrote a study of the legal issues involved in the landmarking of the L'Enfant Plan, an historic "structure" partially unbuilt and consisting in large part of air, which has met with substantial skepticism in the courts. I was especially interested in the defensibility of the terms under which the Plan's airspace is landmarked, with the protected space defined as extending vertically from ground level to the height defined by the Height of Buildings Act .

The prohibition on overhead wires in the L'Enfant City arises both from the terms under which the L'Enfant Plan is landmarked, and from late-19th-century Congressional legislation restricting overhead wires in the city of Washington. (The landmarking of the L'Enfant Plan in effect aims to preserve the late-19th and early-20th-century attempts to preserve, restore, and extend L'Enfant's vision, as much as it does L'Enfant's plan itself.)

When I thought about the overhead wires acts of the late 1880s, I always assumed that our Congressional overlords were overreacting. After all, I don't even notice the overhead wires in my neighborhood and other parts of DC where they are allowed. (The tree canopy is a much more dominant feature of the airspace on the street.) And as a Washingtonian fed up with Congressional micromanaging of our unrepresented, disenfranchised District, I'm in the habit of assuming the worst of any interference in DC's infrastructure — even if it was a hundred and twenty-five years ago. And the landmarked space above the ground on L'Enfant streets has led to such absurdities as the removal of bike racks that someone felt obscured the historic vista — the kind of idiocy that gives preservation a bad name.

And then I saw this:

Wires over New York City, 1887 (from Retronaut via io9)A post a few weeks ago on io9 gathers images of the overhead wires situation in cities from the 1880s, precisely the years just before the arrival of the electric streetcar, when Congress legislated against wires in Washington.

Moral of the story: don't assume you can visualize the past, and if you're not sure, seek more evidence.

Another example from recent controversies in DC preservation and urbanism: It's commonplace for urbanists (with whom I am generally in sympathy) to mock older Cleveland Park preservationists' attachment to the historically-designated "Park and Shop" strip mall and nearby single-storey commercial strip, with its much-maligned service lane.

The Cleveland Park historic district was created in 1986 when those blocks were threatened with redevelopment. In today's environment where redevelopment around a Metro station stands a reasonably good chance of being mixed-use, enhancing the pedestrian experience, and increasing neighborhood-serving retail, it's hard to imagine what motivated the seemingly reactionary attachment to an undistinguished low-rise urban strip mall. But if you read the documents and correspondence surrounding the effort to designate Cleveland Park, which are in the papers of the Cleveland Park Historical Society at the Historical Society of Washington, it becomes clear that neighborhood preservationists were reacting to something very specific. They were trying to avoid the kind of pedestrian-hostile megablocks that had filled Van Ness, just to the north, over the previous decade. The preservationists then and the urbanists of today had a common enemy.

In preservation and urban design, it's always worth asking what specifically people are seeing, or imagining, in the past or in the future or in their immediate environment, when they seek to preserve one thing and prevent another.

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