- Viewpoint:Vernacular architecture and public History
Convening the 2006 annual meeting in New York was a liberating choice for an organization that has grown up in smaller places.1 When it comes to buildings and landscapes, the Vernacular Architecture Forum has always favored richness of interpretation over prominence or extent. I admire the planners' invitation to "the largest concentration of vernacular buildings in the country" but suggest "most passionate opinions on vernacular buildings" as a more meaningful claim. We experienced these perspectives on the streets and in the auditoria. In New York, the residents talk back.
My purpose in these remarks is to continue the discourse on vernacular architecture begun at recent conferences and to sharpen the focus on its use for public history. I make them in the light cast by some especially provocative observations at the public plenary "Place Matters" at City University (CUNY) about elite "slumming," exemplified by early twentieth-century New Yorkers from more affluent neighborhoods going on safari in the Lower East Side, and about the commercial appropriation of minority culture. One 125th Street resident used the safari line on a VAF tour group the next day.
Ethnographic fieldwork and tourism have a psychological and material impact on the observed, but where else in North America has such attention had more concrete effect by raising real estate values and forcing residents to move to other districts than in New York? Residents at the plenary session spoke eloquently on the human side of gentrification and the loss of neighborhood identity. There are great benefits in recognizing, recording, and presenting our diverse, collective heritage, but we acknowledge that there are costs, sometimes to the landscapes and people involved.2
As a new generation of guidebooks promotes more "authentic" experiences, tourism can become more personally intrusive. Harlem offers some arresting examples for self-determination in the face of popular discovery. The expansive auditorium of Abyssinian Baptist Church holds all its attending members only because church elders restrict tourists, eager for Sunday morning entertainment, who would otherwise overrun the services. Several blocks away, VAF conference attendees were denied access to see Pursuit of Happiness, murals of African American progress by Vertis Hayes and others at the Harlem Hospital Nurses' Home. To the residents, this art was for their benefit, not for general public display.
On the other hand, one could construct a long history of vernacular architecture as a vehicle for public appeal and edification. The two often travel together—seduction and education. Regionally distinctive, premodern buildings were an object of tourist attention in the 1910s and '20s, when wealthy Americans cruised to picturesque settings like Bermuda and the Caribbean for local color as well as warm weather and a good drink. Part of the places' appeal was their distinctive, homegrown architecture. This process of discovery and response was reflected in a vernacular architecture revival contemporary with the first phase of tourism, when Bermuda, for example, became more Bermudian. Middle-class Bermudians began assuming a particular identity at a time when venerable accoutrements were newly recognized as appealing and marketable.3
Chris Wilson has portrayed a more improvisational and ethnically complex development of [End Page 1] the Santa Fe idiom in the same era for overtly promotional objectives.4 WPA-era, federally funded forces restored, reassembled, and constructed countless buildings throughout the country that became foci for local or regional pride and destinations for leisure travel and contemplation. A chief purpose for most of these was, and remains, public history. While this was particularly true of National Park Service museum properties, tourist facilities and community buildings with artistic revival qualities were also created with pedagogical as well as commercial intentions. The purpose was to encourage both residents and travelers to immerse themselves in the culture of the place. Establishment of the Historic American Buildings Survey aided the process by building a national archive of regional architecture. A deeper educational agenda in the United States, certainly through the middle of the twentieth century, was to cultivate appreciation for preindustrial and primarily English foundations of the nation.5 When minority cultures were featured, they tended to be early and unthreatening to the progressive theme, such as prehistoric...