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  • Historic Real Estate: Market Morality and the Politics of Preservation in the Early United States by Whitney Martinko
  • Scott E. Casper (bio)

Preservation, Real estate, Historic architecture

Historic Real Estate: Market Morality and the Politics of Preservation in the Early United States. By Whitney Martinko. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020. Pp. 328. Cloth, $39.95.)

The origins of American historic preservation have traditionally been told as the story of voluntary organizations like the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (MVLA), established in the mid-nineteenth century to [End Page 325] save houses and other sites associated with America's founding period. Such organizations and those who chronicled their histories represented their crusades as heroic responses to the twin dangers of present-minded forgetfulness and economic speculation. More recently historians have interrogated the cultural and social dimensions of those efforts, linking them to partisan politics and contests over the meaning of democracy. Whitney Martinko extends this revisionist narrative, beginning more than a half-century before the MVLA to situate early preservation and its verbal and visual rhetoric within contemporary debates over the morality of capitalism and the emergent real-estate market. Far from operating outside the marketplace, Martinko argues, the new nation's preservationists were fully implicated in its ascendance. They characterized their endeavors as the proper synthesis of republican and capitalist values, "public good and private profit" (4), a "market morality" that served to cloak or justify their own economic and cultural power to shape the built landscape.

Martinko's narrative opens distant from the usual sites of America's preservation history: near the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers, where in the late 1780s the Ohio Company repackaged Indigenous earthworks "to invest their urban plans with material centerpieces to make a deliberately confident statement of U.S. sovereignty and urban growth" (16). In the company's telling, these complex architectural features represented both America's ancient history and present-day Indigenous people's abandonment of their forebears' towns, which civic-minded republicans could revive as the core of a new urban capital (even as they profited from federal support and rising prices for real estate near the newly created public squares). In established cities such as Philadelphia, Newport, Boston, and Charleston, debates about whether and how to preserve old buildings became microcosms of larger relationships among municipal corporations, the states that chartered them, and urban citizens. By 1835, "proponents of architectural preservation" had created a "coherent ethic [that] . . . characterized corporately held structures as tangible links to the previous generations who had built and used them and touted preservation as a means of establishing principles of property management that would promote the public good in a commercial economy" (69–70).

Commercial proprietors borrowed that rhetoric to associate their own operations with the public good. Documentary views of historic buildings became moneymakers for visual entrepreneurs such as engravers and [End Page 326] printers, while businesspeople with establishments in old buildings advertised their historic associations. Beginning in the 1820s, a new vocabulary of sacredness came to pervade preservationist arguments: as "thresholds to the past," historic architecture allowed contemporary Americans to commune with previous inhabitants of the spaces (110). This argument could be deployed as a critique of market culture for political ends, including by southerners who used it to "consolidate pro-slavery political power in both a regional idiom and a new national regime" (128). Preserving domestic spaces raised different questions, of gender and inheritance. Voluntary associations that sought (often unsuccessfully) to purchase historic houses for preservation also represented predominantly masculine efforts to reassert control over domestic space, at a time when women were seen as the arbiters of domestic morality and gained more commercial power. At the same time, preservation met the real-estate market directly in debates over "rural improvement," as "an increasing number of U.S. residents saw landed inheritance as an opportunity to generate the cast and mobility needed to navigate new conditions of industrializing economies, not as a means to continue their family's land use for another generation" (164). Drawing on the principles of Andrew Jackson Downing and Andrew Jackson Davis, "improvers" aimed not to preserve intact what had been, but instead to restore...


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