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Tag: historic preservation

Pickled history

In the United States, tomorrow will be a national holiday for the birthday(-ish) of prominent civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929. Thirty-nine years later, Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was in the city for a sanitation workers’ strike.

More than fifty years after King’s death, the Lorraine Motel still exists – sort of. The building, no longer a functioning motel, has been incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 1991 and reopened after a $27-million renovation in 2014. The district around the motel was struggling economically in 1968 when King has shot, but since then it has been aggressively gentrified. (When I visited the neighborhood in late 2014, there was even an American Apparel store a couple of blocks from the former hotel, although it appears to have since closed, along with the struggling brand’s other brick-and-mortar stores.)

The Lorraine Motel, as incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum.

The Lorraine Motel, as incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum.

Like the surrounding neighborhood, the motel is also gentrified. The balcony where King was shot has been preserved, but it is an island of a heritage structure surrounded by a new pedestrian walkway, a parking lot, and new museum buildings. Visiting the motel shortly after the $27-million renovation, I could hardly imagine what the place looked like in 1968.

The fateful balcony where King was shot, marked by a commemorate wreath.

The fateful balcony where King was shot, marked by a commemorate wreath.

A classic car parked below room 306.

A classic car parked below room 306.

The over-preservation of the Lorraine Motel gives a false impression of what the place was like when King was shot there. Its gentrification elides the very real economic problems the neighborhood was facing in 1968. It is as if the building has been pickled and sealed in a glass jar, without any of its context.

There is a certain sad irony that this has happened to the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot while in the midst of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, which was to include a march on Washington by the nation’s poor. This irony was not lost on the last resident of the Lorraine Motel, Jacqueline Smith, who was evicted in 1988 before the building was converted into a museum. Since then, she has protested the museum from across the street. “Gentrification is a violation of civil rights,” one of her signs said in 2014. Don’t spend $27 million on the museum renovation and $0 for the poor, another sign said; “Use the money as Dr. King would have wanted.”

The spirit of Gothic and Notre Dame of Paris

Notre Dame on fire. (Source: Wandrille de Préville on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Notre Dame on fire. (Source: Wandrille de Préville on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

On Monday this week, the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris caught on fire. In what appears to have been a freak accident related to restoration work going on at the time, the cathedral’s medieval wooden roof caught fire and was totally destroyed. Initial news reports indicated that the entire church would be destroyed, but the bell towers were spared and the stone vaults over the nave remain mostly intact.

With this much of the structure remaining, it is obvious that the great church can and should be rebuilt. While the structure was still smoldering, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that the people of France would rebuild the beloved cathedral.

How to go about the reconstruction is another question. It will clearly be an expensive undertaking that will entail many difficult technical and aesthetic questions. What materials and techniques should be used for the reconstruction? And what should it look like?

Some articles and editorials I have read assert that the church should be rebuilt exactly as it was before, even using the very same techniques used in the 12th and 13th centuries, such as erecting giant wooden frames in the nave for reconstructing the damaged sections of the vaults. I do not see the point of this. The High Middle Ages, when Notre Dame of Paris was built, was an era of technological innovation, with extensive use of machinery and even fossil fuels. If they could know, the master builders of Notre Dame would understand if we used steel scaffolding to rebuild their church.

In the same way, I feel that it is important that the rebuilt roof of Notre Dame should not be a slavish copy of the original. The spirit of Gothic architecture is one of creativity and inventiveness. President Macron expressed this spirit well when he declared that Notre Dame would be rebuilt more beautiful than before. Doing otherwise would be contrary to the spirit of Gothic and the High Middle Ages.

Nineteenth-century engraving of Notre Dame Cathedral by Alfred-Alexanre Delauney. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Nineteenth-century engraving of Notre Dame Cathedral by Alfred-Alexandre Delauney. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

View of Braunau am Inn and the distant Alps.

Tearing down Hitler’s house

The Austrian government announced yesterday that it plans to demolish the house in which Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889. The house stands on a street corner in Braunau am Inn, a picturesque town located just across the Inn River from Germany. After a half-decade of legal fights with the owner, during which time the house has stood empty, the government has apparently seized the property and intends to raze the structure (or possibly remodel it beyond recognition) to prevent it from becoming a pilgrimage site for Neo-Nazis.

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2006, I studied German in the village of Bogenhofen, just down the road from Braunau. Hitler’s birthplace was a familiar sight from my regular visits to Braunau for shopping or exploring. The house was not marked by any interpretive plaque, but it was easy enough to find. Even my Lonely Planet guide identified its location.

The facade of the house in which Hitler was born, Braunau am Inn, Upper Austria.

The facade of the house in which Hitler was born, Braunau am Inn, Upper Austria.

I am usually a staunch advocate of historic preservation, but I am willing to make an exception for the Austrian government’s decision to destroy Hitler’s birth house. The destruction of this one building will represent a repudiation Hitler and Nazism, and an acceptance of a peaceful and inclusive present and future. Large-scale destruction of sites associated with the Third Reich would be troubling, as it would signify an attempt to forget about a past that is still very real and very relevant. But Neither Austria nor Germany has undertaken such destruction, not since the dynamiting of certain key monuments just after World War II. There are still many built reminders of the Third Reich in both countries, from the Olympic stadium in Berlin to the Mauthausen concentration camp eighty miles east of Braunau.

When the government tears down Hitler’s birth house, I hope they leave in place the Mahnstein, a monument that stands on the sidewalk in front of the house. It is a rough brown stone taken from the quarry at Mauthausen. The side facing the street bears a simple but powerful inscription:

Für Frieden, Freiheit, und Demokratie, nie wieder Faschismus, millionen Tote mahnen.

[For peace, freedom, and democracy, never again fascism, millions of dead implore.]

Whether the house stands or is destroyed, this stone should remain as a warning of the destructive power of racial ideologies such as Hitler’s.

Monument in front of Hitler’s birthplace: “For peace, freedom, and democracy, never again fascism, millions of dead implore.”

Monument in front of Hitler’s birthplace: “For peace, freedom, and democracy, never again fascism, millions of dead implore.”

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