Layers of history create a unique built environment which gives a feeling and sense of place to a city – or a even a skyline.
Just a few months shy of the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a 1920s apartment building in Dallas was demolished causing local controversy and national headlines. The building, at nearly 90 years old, was historical and eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, to be sure, but the controversy over its demolition was not based on either fact. Instead, the controversy arose from the building’s link to the death of JFK
Eight months prior to the assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald and his family lived in the apartment building for about six months. It was there that Oswald ordered and had delivered the gun that killed President Kennedy. And it was there that investigators believe Oswald, a twenty-three year old former marine, planned the assassination.
This is only the latest incident in which the city of Dallas has struggled with its connection to the infamous assassination. In its immediate aftermath, many wanted to sweep the tragedy under the rug. A citizen effort led by a local merchant resulted in a monument that continues to inspire controversy. Later, painted Xs mysteriously appeared on Elm Street where the president was struck by bullets, the Sixth Floor Museum in the book depository became a place of interpretation for thousands of people who visit Dallas each year, and finally, this year dozens of commemoration events will take place all over the city.
Immediately following the president’s assassination, the most prominent advocate for moving forward without memorializing the tragedy was then Dallas mayor, R.L. Thornton. He felt Washington was the appropriate location for any monuments to the slain leader. Though the “city of hate” stigma may have been undeserved, what Mayor Thornton did not realize is that place memory is powerful. Memorial or not, the City of Dallas will always be remembered as the place where the vibrant and popular 35th president was killed.
Local merchant king, Stanley Marcus, moved forward with a memorial choosing Harvard educated Phillip Johnson (ironically, the Kennedy administration had just months before rejected Johnson’s candidacy for the Fine Arts Commission after a review of his career as an American fascist and Nazi propagandist in the 1930s). Inspired by Mies Van Der Roe, Johnson designed a box of white pillars linked together and floating above the ground. Approved by Jacqueline Kennedy and funded by donations, the monument was meant to symbolize the freedom of Kennedy’s spirit. Johnson described it as “devoid of expression or moralizing” and “monumental in its empty presence.” It is “a place of quiet refuge, an enclosed place of thought and contemplation separated from the city around, but near the sky and earth.”
Reviews were not especially generous when it was finally opened to the public in 1970. The long delay, necessitated by the construction of an underground parking facility, was yet further indication of where the city’s true priorities stood. Recently, LA architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote:
The memorial by Philip Johnson, for its part, also symbolizes the city’s deep ambivalence about commemorating the assassination. A spare cenotaph, or open tomb, designed to be built in marble, it was instead cast in cheaper concrete. And its location east of the assassination site suggested an effort to tuck the history of that day away.“
While Dallas’ JFK memorial remains divisive, millions of people who visit the city each year seek out sites associated with the assassination. They come to just walk the “Grassy Knoll” at Dealey Plaza to reflect on the tragedy. They gaze into the traffic zooming along Elm Street. Up until this week, they could look from the Xs painted on the pavement marking the places where Kennedy was struck by bullet(s) to the sixth floor windows of the Texas School Book Repository where Oswald perched that fateful day. (The Xs where removed earlier this week during street repairs made in preparation for tomorrows commemorations. Mysteriously, the city does not know who painted the Xs or has maintained them over the years). And they visit the Sixth Floor Museum housed, as the name would indicate, in the space where Oswald fired on Kennedy. The museum “chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.”
Tomorrow, among other commemorations planned across the city, a new memorial to Kennedy will be unveiled in the grassy knoll area of Dealey Plaza. An austere plane of aluminum alloy the size of a large door, it bears the concluding words from the speech JFK was to deliver upon his arrival at the Trade Mart, but never did. “We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom,” he was to say, before concluding with an invocation from Scripture: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.”
By marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination with fanfare and memorials, the city of Dallas is moving forward in its efforts to make peace with the role it played in the death of one of America’s most popular political and celebrity figures.
Forty-five years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee as he stood on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Just days after King’s assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and King’s legacy was cemented. His advocacy and activism not only advanced the Civil Rights Movement in the US, but it influenced civil rights struggles world wide.
The Lorraine Motel and other buildings associated with King’s assassination were purchased in the early 80s and 90s by the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, and now house the National Civil Rights Museum.
Fortunately, the owner of the Lorraine, Walter Bailey, recognized the significance of the motel to the history of the Civil Rights Movement early on. After the assassination of King, he maintained rooms 306 and 307 (those used by King and his entourage) as a shrine to the activist’s memory, even as the motel suffered a long and steep decline. When the motel was threatened by foreclosure and demolition, he reached out for help to maintain the property as a civil rights memorial and the Save The Lorraine campaign was born. A group of concerned citizens formed the Martin Luther King Foundation (later called the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation). The Foundation raised enough funds to purchase the motel at auction on the courthouse steps, saving it from sure destruction. Using the design recommendations of a former Smithsonian Institution curator, the Foundation created the educational facility and memorial site that today is the National Civil Rights Museum.
The museum complex is comprised of the Lorraine Motel, former Canipe’s Amusement store and rooming house, and the empty lot in between. The properties were an integral part of Dr. King’s assassination investigation. The museum became custodian of the police and evidence files associated with the manhunt, indictment and confession of the assassin of Dr. King in the late 1990s. Many of the items, including the rifle and fatal bullet, are on display at the museum.
As one might suspect, the use of the motel to memorialize King and the Civil Rights Movement has not been without controversy. Using the site where the civil rights leader was slain has been called insensitive and morbid. It has also been faulted for causing gentrification surrounding the museum, forcing the traditionally low-income African American population out of their homes – something antithetical to King’s teachings.
Despite the controversy, it is difficult to deny that the link between Martin Luther King, Jr., the Lorraine Hotel, and the Civil Rights Movement is strong. No one can forget the iconic image of King’s prostrate body on the second floor balcony surrounded by a group of people pointing toward the boarding house – an event that was followed by turmoil and a long, contentious investigation.
What do you think? Is the Lorraine Motel an appropriate site for the National Civil Rights Museum? Is it insensitive or morbid to preserve it for visitors to experience? Or is it a powerful and moving place from which to discuss the Civil Rights Movement in America and one of its most beloved leaders?
The Lorraine Motel is designated an historic site by the Tennessee Historical Commission. More than $3 million people have visited the museum since it opened in 1991.
A weekly round-up of my favorite preservation related stories from around the web and in the news.
In case you missed my gush of excitement yesterday, Scouting New York is my new favorite website. Written by film location scout, Nick Carr, the site chronicles his exploration of the city in search of the perfect place to film a scene. His quest often takes him to historic parts of the city and he’s always discovering interesting nooks and crannies (historic or not). In this post, he compares screen shots from Alfred Hitchcock’s film North by Northwest with the actual New York locations where they were filmed as they appear today. We can see what has changed and what hasn’t since 1957 and what is real and what is a set created for the film. The blend of side by side comparison and film trivia makes for a super fun read! While you are at it, don’t miss Part II!
Built in 1769, Menokin, the former home of Frances Lightfoot Lee and his wife, Rebecca Tayloe, is currently a ruin. Since 1995, the Menokin Foundation has painstakingly worked towards its rescue. Luckily, the house was well-documented by HABS in the 1940s, so the Foundation has a great source to work from. They have cataloged and organized and planned and now that have an incredibly innovative plan.
How many times have you visited an historic site only to discover mid-tour that most of what you are seeing is a recreation? Pretty disappointing, right? The Menokin Foundation agrees. Rather than reconstruct the building, they plan to build a glass and steel structure tied to the existing frame work that will mimic the original massing, form, and detail of the building. “With this glass concept, there is complete transparency regarding what’s new and what’s historic. The glass is intended to be a demonstration of the original fabric’s absence, a separate artifact in its own right.” Check out Preservation Frame of Mind’s post for more information about the plan for Menokin’s future, as well as its current state.
“Not far from Mirador, in the Petén region of northern Guatemala, lies a pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site called El Perú-Waka’. Some 1,600 years ago, El Perú-Waka’ was a powerful city with tens of thousands of residents, ideally situated for trading along the San Pedro River. Recently, it became the site of one of this year’s most exciting archaeological discoveries: the tomb of Lady K’abel, considered the greatest ruler of the Late Classic period.” – The Global Heritage Fund
Preservationists are always working hard to raise money and awareness for their projects. This week the director of the Athenaeum Foundation camped out on the historic clubhouse’s roof to raise funds for its preservation. She did so in honor of the 20th anniversary of former director, David Wilkie’s 60 day rooftop camp-out that also raised funds for one of Indianapolis’ oldest clubhouses still used for its original purpose. Other events on the rooftop, including sunrise yoga, a film screening and a concert, were also planned and open to the public. Visit Historic Indianapolis‘ website for more information on this unique fundraiser and public awareness event.
A few weeks ago, I told ya’ll about a proposal to adaptively reuse a former underground New York trolley terminal as an underground urban park in the same vein as the use of the former railroad tracks for the popular Highline project. This week, London announced the results of its own competition to create a Highline-type space. And the winner is an underground mushroom farm that will reuse abandoned tunnels under Oxford Street. You couldn’t even make this stuff up! Head over to Architizer for more details (like the planned mushroom restaurant!).
When Lorretta Lynn sang, “Well, I was born a coal miner’s daughter/In a cabin on a hill in Butcher Hollow,” this is the house she was crooning about. Deep in the hills of Johnson County, Lynn’s brother now curates the family home and offers tours from Webb’s Country Store for just $5. Recently, the Backroad Vagabond made the trek to far Eastern Kentucky to check out the holler. Read all about her adventure and the small coal mining community here.
History, historic places and art are often intertwined. Yesterday, the Mississippi Museum of Art explored this concept by offering a tour of the places Mississippi artist, William Hollingsworth, painted in the 1930-1940s in and around Jackson, Mississippi. How cool is that?! I can imagine this concept being used for so many other artists in communities worldwide! It could even make a great fundraiser. Thank you Preservation in Mississippi for spreading the word about this creative tour!
Ruin porn is an artistic movement characterized by photographs of the blight, decay, and abandonment of structures in post-industrial cities, most notably Detroit. It is a trend that seems ubiquitous and is only growing. It was named Trend of the Year in 2011 by Architzer, the web’s fastest growing database of architecture. Type “ruin porn” into any search engine (even Pinterest!) and millions of results pop up within seconds. It can be found in museums and galleries, in newspapers, and on TV news. So what is with the provocative name? Why are so many people into this trend? Is it good or is it bad?
por·nog·ra·phy 3: the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction < the pornography of violence>
Ruin porn elicits an emotional reaction from the viewer – as does the word pornography. Both the term and the movement are tinged with sensationalism. They are both considered a guilty pleasure. There is also a sense that these photographs are being taken by outsiders and that the photographs are exploitative. People who don’t have to deal with the effects of the urban decay they photograph swoop into an economically depressed area, get their images, leave, and then show everyone what they saw for their own personal gain.
The word pornography is attention grabbing. It gets press. The Germans have a word for a love of ruins and abandoned places. They call it ruinenlust. Doesn’t roll off the tongue quite the same, does it? I really can’t see ruinenlust grabbing headlines the way Ruin Porn has.
What is the appeal of ruins and decay?
Germans love it. Americans love. The Romantics of the early 19th century were fascinated by decay and ruins. Painters of the Renaissance obsessed over Grecian ruins… But why?
Done right, the images are beautiful, provocative, and nostalgic. They stir the emotions. They draw you in and peak your curiosity. They beg the questions, “where, why, how?” (Don’t believe me? Check out abandonedamerica.us).
Psychologically, ruin porn images are appealing because they are startling. According to Tim Edensor, a professor of geography at Manchester Metropolitan University, they “offer an escape from excessive order.” It takes your brain more effort to sort out what its seeing, and it enjoys the challenge.
Though I’m not a huge fan of the term “ruin porn” because of its sensationalism and its silent accusation of wrong-doing, I am a fan of the genre. I find the images arresting. They elicit an emotional response from me – one of nostalgia and wistfulness. As a preservationist, it troubles me to see an historical structure crumbling due to neglect. At the same time these images offer a unique look at historical spaces. The deconstructive narrative of the images is as informative as it is beautiful. Flaking paint layers, crumbling plaster, exposed structural elements – all reveal something about the space and how it has been used. The debris remaining in a space also offers clues about how it was used and who used it. Ruin porn offers an uncurated link to the past.
Harmful or Helpful?
Ruin porn is more than an artistic movement. It is a comment on society. Post-industrial cities are falling to ruin because of a changed economic climate that has given birth to the “rust belt.” Ruin porn highlights how this economic change has effected the built environment. Its critics claim ruin porn is condescending to the residents of the rust belt. Ruin porn ignores them altogether – there is rarely a human element in a ruin porn image. Therefore, ruin porn is not an accurate portrayal of the cities in which they live. Citizens have pushed back with ant-ruin porn rhetoric and and projects that actively combat these misconceptions, like Can’t Forget the Motor City, a collaborative photo-project showcasing the vibrant culture of Detroit. These cities have more to offer than urban decay.
Proponents of ruin porn believe in its possibility. According to Richey Piiparinen of Rust Wire, ruin porn “outed” ruin. It pulled back the sheets and exposed the blight caused by a failed system. “… By outing and framing it—not to mention capturing the inherent beauty in broken things—Ruin Porn exposed the failure and decay, thus clearing the secrecy, the shame, and leaving perceptual room to see less emptiness and more space.” By raising awareness, ruin porn has the potential to change the way America responds to the economic failure of its cities.
Ruin porn has attracted tourists to cities – both foreign and American. It has brought artists and professionals in search of urban decay. Edwin Gardner calls this “intellectual disaster tourism.” In a poll last month, the Huffington Post asked, “does photographing urban decay actually aid the communities at stake?” I think the simple answer is yes. Tourists spend money in the communities they visit – on food, accommodations, transportation and maybe even souvenirs.
I agree that ruin porn has exposed decay and blight. I believe the awareness it has raised can save important historical structures. I also believe that ruin porn documents structures that might otherwise have escaped notice; ruin porn photographs have the possibility of being useful to future research. For those reasons and more, I am a fan of ruin porn.
What do you think? Is ruin porn friend or foe?