“Keeping time: the history and theory of preservation in America” is a book that I had my eye on for years. When I finally found a copy i was still interested enough to put it at that head of my ‘to read’ pile. It is not a book that I expect most people rush to read even though I found it to be well written, interesting and informative. Unless you have a “thing” for old buildings you are not likely to spend your time reading it. I do have a “thing” for old buildings, old by American standards that is. I grew up in a house 100 years older than I am*. My father grew up in National Register of Historic Places’ largest neighborhood, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine. I come by it honestly.
William Murtach, the author was the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places. He starts the book in the most useful way I can imagine, defining terms. Preservation, restoration, reconstruction, and rehabilitation are all technical terms. Anyone discussing the preservation of our historic environment should know these terms. They are not interchangeable. By explaining these terms Murtach taught me why when I visited Benjamin Franklin’s home in Philadelphia all I saw was a metal frame outline of the building. I learned how Faneuil Hall in Boston can be both a historic site and a modern money making concern.
The book takes us through the history of America’s preservation efforts. We start by looking at the earliest patriotic efforts to reconstruct Independence Hall and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association’s efforts to save Washington’s home. Murtagh covers the history of house museums, outdoor museums, and historic districts. There were several topics discussed I did not expect to see. Landscape preservation and the difficulty inherent in maintaining an unchanged collection of living things. Urban sprawl and the consolidation of small farms present a unique set of problems for rural preservation. Murtagh explains what rescue archeology is but if you want a real world example look at the book “Bones in the Basement”.
The book’s epilogue attempts to look into the future by looking at what other nations are doing. There are also several valuable appendices, selected federal legislation dealing with preservation, the National Register’s evaluation criteria, and the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitation. This book a treasure of information on the preservation of man made environments.
* Judging by a date found on a door hinge.