Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sailing Into History

South Philadelphia's favorite (and only) rusting ocean liner made the news again this week.

The S.S. United States Conservancy, the group working to save the ship from the scrapyard, hosted a screening of a documentary about the ship's history at the Independence Seaport Museum. You can watch a trailer for the film, "S.S. United States: Lady in Waiting," here.

The conservancy hopes to turn the ship into a floating museum like Battleship New Jersey or the U.S.S. Olympia, or find another use for it, as was done with the tall ship (and now restaurant) Moshulu.

They face an uphill battle.

I'll admit that I love catching a glimpse of the S.S. United States, hulking unexpectedly across from the Ikea on Columbus Boulevard.

But I'm not convinced that this massive ship -- with its gutted interior -- is worth preserving. Sure, I'd be thrilled if someone found a use for it. But do we need to preserve the physical ship to remember its speed records, or the fact that it carried a young Bill Clinton to his Rhodes Scholarship in England? I shudder to imagine the price-tag for recreating its former interior.

Inquirer reporter Inga Saffron agrees with me; she calls the conservancy group "a boatload of romantics."

(Another group, the S.S. United States Foundation, is also trying to save the ship. You can watch a trailer for a different documentary about the ship and its maker here.)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inventory of Historic Sites

This summer, I've been working with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia on a project to update and expand its inventory of African American historic sites in the city.

Starting from a list created about 10 years ago, I've expanded the Alliance's inventory to include nearly 500 sites around Philadelphia that have connections to the city's rich African American heritage. I have a few more steps to complete, and then the inventory will be ready to post on the Alliance's web site as a searchable database.

Of course, some of what I did this summer was simply to organize the information into a easy-to-use format. The original list included some 350 historic sites, and I incorporated the research done by historian Emily Cooperman for the Alliance about historic African American churches.

I then tracked down details for all the sites on building dates and architects, historic designations, and historic markers. I'll save a future post for a re-cap of some of my most-used digital resources for tracking down information about Philadelphia properties.

These days, I've been wandering the city with a camera in my bag, taking photos of inventory sites for our planned web site. Here are a couple of my recent images, both related to the historic Shiloh Baptist congregation.

The top image is Shiloh Baptist's first home at 609 S. Clifton Street, near 10th and South Streets. Now home to the Waters Memorial AME Church, the building dates to about 1840 and is a rare surviving example of a church built for an African American congregation during this period. The building is now listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Shiloh Baptist remained at this location until about 1890, when it moved a few blocks west to a bigger building at 1112-1120 Lombard Street (bottom image). According to Cooperman, the congregation's second building is similar in age to its first home, and had previously been home to an Episcopal congregation, the Church of the Ascension.

In 1945, the Shiloh Baptist congregation moved west again, purchasing the stunning church property at 2040 Christian Street. (Shiloh's former home on Lombard Street has since been altered for secular use, as you can see in the photo.)

Shiloh Baptist's current home (sorry, no photo yet) was built for the Church of the Holy Apostles congregation in 1868-1870 by the architectural firm of Fraser, Furness and Hewitt. The church is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and included in the Census of Stained Glass Windows in America. The Sunday School building is considered one of the finest examples of its kind in the U.S. If you missed the Hidden City event at Shiloh earlier this summer, check out this series of photos from the interior.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Stephen Girard: Still Making Waves

The gossip site Philebrity took a moment recently to weigh the legacy of Stephen Girard (1750-1831), a wealthy banker who among other things founded Girard College.

Philebrity's conclusion: "Over 150 Years Later, Still Kind of a Dick."

Why would a gossip site care about a long-dead Philadelphia banker? Apparently, the statue of Girard that stands behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art was recently defaced with a passionate (if misspelled) "doucbag" across the base of the statue.

This photo shows the statue in 1912, when it stood outside City Hall; you can see a photo of the graffiti here.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Forgotten History

National Geographic Traveler's Intelligent Travel blog has been running an intriguing new history-related blog series.

Andrew Carroll is visiting obscure historic sites in all 50 states, and then writing about his travels. Carroll is also tweeting about the project, all the while promoting an upcoming book on this same topic, Here is Where: In Search of America's Great Forgotten History. (Carroll previously founded the Legacy Project, and has published several books on war correspondence.)

Alas, Philadelphia will not get a mention in Carroll's new effort. He already visited Pennsylvania, choosing Pittsburgh's launching site of Lewis and Clark for this state's contribution. Other posts to date describe the memento-laden wall of Chicago's Tribune Tower, Charles Lindbergh's Maui grave, and the site of the Gunnison Masacre in Nevada.

I love Carroll's idea, but I do have one quibble: should a site count as "forgotten" if an individual or a group has gone to the trouble of erecting a marker?

Carroll has apparently decided that "little known" is a fine stand-in for "forgotten" when it comes to historic sites. All of the locations he has highlighted so far have text markers either large or small explaining their significance. I hope he'll get around to some posts about unmarked significant sites. And yes, I know that's a lot harder.

The importance of place is not new in public history. For obvious reasons, the field of historic preservation is especially focused on the value of place (for example, see the National Trust for Historic Preservation's This Place Matters project).

But back to Carroll's project: I wonder what he might have visited in Philly?

I have Napoleon on the brain at the moment (I just visited the Napoleon exhibit at the National Constitution Center), so I was happy to hear that Philadelphia has its own Bonaparte connection.

Napoleon's older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, lived at 260 S. 9th Street in 1815-1816. The house still stands (see photo above), but most passers-by probably ignore the state historic marker that stands out front. The building was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1961.

Like Carroll's sites, not quite forgotten, but certainly obscure.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Marking the Past

For a project I've been working on, I've been reading and thinking about state historic markers around the city. You've no doubt seen these big blue signs, telling you why a particular spot is deemed noteworthy in the state's history.

But I'm equally interested in the story behind the markers. Who proposes them? Why do applicants want a particular site noticed? And how does the act of officially marking one history overshadow other histories for the same site?

Earlier this summer, the Inquirer explained the basics of how these state historic markers come about. The story mentions one marker in the Italian Market that was pulled down immediately after being erected in 2007, ostensibly because the marker used the historic name, "9th Street" market, instead of the more recent moniker, "Italian Market."

Ignoring the disagreement over the market's name for a moment, and the reasons why someone might be so offended by this historic accuracy that he or she would pull down the sign, I'm more curious about the less violent response that has emerged less than a block away.

Visitors to the 9th Street / Italian Market can now view two markers: one erected by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and one erected by private citizens.

The private marker appeared about one year after the state marker's unveiling, defacement and replacement, and was erected less than a block away at the corner of 9th and Montrose.


In the privately funded version of the past, the market's Italian heritage is emphasized, and "honored founding families" are celebrated by name. Frank Rizzo watches over the marker, from a market mural.

Do visitors notice the difference between the two signs? Or even notice that two signs describe the same history?

Alas, I'm betting the private marker gets more attention, since it is located almost a block into the market itself, whereas the state marker is located at the northern edge of the market, at 9th and Christian (photo at top).

The private marker also may seem more "legitimate," since it reinforces current business and tourist marketing. Visitors no doubt see the private marker and assume that it will tell them all they need to know about the history of the "Italian Market."

Too bad. In the process of celebrating one group's heritage, the private marker steamrolls over some of the richness and diversity of the actual market.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Construction of History

Most of the time, we forget that history is contested ground. We know that monuments like Independence Hall or Edgar Allen Poe's house are important relics of the past, but we rarely get to see how how they became designated as such.

Who decides that a building, or an artifact, or a memory is so important that it should be preserved? How do we decide what's not worth remembering, and who gets to shape the stories of "the past" that we tell? How do those debates play out in real time, when the "history" being written is recent enough to be remembered?

As a public historian, I'm interested in the messy business of how history is shaped and influenced in the real world. What happens to the stories of the past that we historians tell the public? And how do public preconceptions (and misconceptions) color people's understanding of the stories that we tell?

I hope to use this blog to explore how history is assembled, one story at a time, in the public's consciousness and memory.