Historic Preservation

News presents briefs about current and forthcoming programs, events, exhibits and activities of historical and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

In the United States, more than in Europe, historic sites and structures are nearly always in danger of destruction. As land becomes increasingly valuable in America those who have an eye only on money and who are almost completely devoid of culture move in, obliter­ate the site or structure, and “develop” the area – for a huge profit to themselves. Had Independence Square in Philadelphia fallen into private hands after the seat of Pennsylvania’s government was removed from Philadelphia in 1804, Independence Hall would most certainly not be standing today. The historic Square would be filled with office buildings or other commercial structures, except for the fact that the city of Philadelphia purchased the property in 1816.

The message on the President’s Page of the October 1969 issue of Pennsylvania History was entitled “Do We Have a ‘Concern’?” In that message, I pointed to the need for positive action to protect important manuscript collections, historic sites, and historic structures.

In Pennsylvania there has been much historic preservation activity. Important manuscript collections have been gathered from attics and from the storerooms of business establishments and have been preserved by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Archives of the Moravian Church, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and other organizations. Through the efforts of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and its predecessor thirty-five historic sites and structures have been preserved and made readily available to the public. These include the birthplace of Daniel Boone in Eastern Pennsylvania and Bushy Run Battlefield in Western Pennsyl­vania, where Indian assault was turned back in 1763.

A group of community-minded citizens in Bethlehem in the 1960’s preserved the historic Moravian buildings in that city. Another community-minded group, in York, almost simultaneously rescued two neighboring buildings on the main street of their city, the Golden Plough Tavern built in 1741 in medieval Germanic half-timber architecture, and the General Horatio Gates House, built in 1751 and occupied by the General at the time York was Capital of the United States. It was in the Gates House that the Conway Cabal of 1778 to remove George Washington from the position of Commander bf the Revolutionary Army was thwarted by Lafayette.

Some other municipalities in Pennsylvania fared not nearly as well as Bethlehem and York. We labored diligently to place a beautiful 1818 Georgian structure on the National Register of Historic Places, and succeeded. Even though the historic building was publicly owned a small group of men in local authority determined to destroy the structure. Their reasons have not been made public and might not stand up under close investigation. The fate of that landmark is hanging in the balance.

Another discouraging instance is the case of the stone house and the adjacent stone springhouse of the founder of a Pennsylvania borough. The two structures, beside a large, beautiful spring, were on property belonging to the School District and were within sight of the senior high school, a junior high school, the hospital, an old toll­house, and a log house belonging to one of the earliest settlers. The setting was gorgeous and needed not a bit of grading or landscaping. The house, spring and springhouse completed an interesting civic center. However, a school official deliberately destroyed the two structures and let the municipality extend a street to within fifty feet of where the two structures had stood. An official of the municipality wanted the land for a street and agreed to pave it to the location of an additional junior high school that was to be built a few hundred yards distant. The school official, perhaps more interested in operating a fleet of school buses and in erecting box-like school buildings than in educating, and certainly having a grossly deficient interest in history, sacrificed the community’s most historic site and structure – a devastating act.

The speed with which we are developing our capacity to destroy is much greater than the rate at which we are improving our power to discriminate between the worthy and the shoddy. Across the land there are hundreds of equestrian statues. Men in bronze on horseback wave their hand or their sword or stare forward with a resolute look. In the future will we make statues of men on a bulldozer obliterating historic sites and structures, or statues of men who gave them the order to destroy?

 

Editor’s Note: This material on historic preservation is taken from pp. 546 and 547 of Homer T. Rosenberger’s book, Adventures and Philosophy of a Pennsylvania Dutchman, 1971.