The First Shaker Village in the United States

WatervleitAtlas Obscura is featuring some of the early American architecture of Watervliet, New York, the first Shaker village in the United States.  Here is a taste of the accompanying piece:

The millenarian Christian sect, fleeing persecution in England and isolating themselves from wider society in colonial America, established their village near what is now Albany, New York in 1776. Many of the buildings in the town, which stands just southwest of the Albany Airport, have been demolished, but the site still includes nine of the town’s original buildings built between the 1820s and 1920s, as well as the main Meeting House built in 1848 (which replaced the original built in 1791).

In addition to the large worship space, the Meeting House also includes a museum with many examples of Shaker products, village artifacts, and interpretive displays. Many of these artifacts have simple, uniquely Shaker designs. The sect not only farmed to meet their own needs but also created manufacturing industries, inventing or improving many products to sell very profitably to the public.

Read the entire piece here.

What Constitutes a Historical Document?

Mount VernonAHA Today, the blog of the American Historical Association, is featuring the work of several history graduate students who will be writing regular posts throughout the summer.  I am thrilled to see that one of the students chosen to write for the blog is Erin Holmes, a Ph.D candidate in early American history at the University of South Carolina.  I got to know Erin and her work a little bit during my one-month residency as a visiting scholar at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.  When I arrived Erin was in the midst of a longer six-month fellowship devoted to work on a dissertation on 18th-century plantation landscapes in Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados.

In her first post at AHA Today, Erin reminds us that the primary documents historians use to tell stories about the past do not have to be words on paper.

Here is a taste:

In 1953, L.P. Hartley wrote that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Historians and lay readers alike are familiar with the idea that the past is a different place, but often lose sight of the word “place” in that discussion. Like any other place, we can travel to the past. Most often, we do this through the written word. We read primary sources that introduce us to foreign cultures and practices that once existed in the very location (sometimes down to the exact longitude and latitude) we do today, albeit in a place—a historical context encompassing geography, culture, and more—that would be utterly alien.

“Visiting the Past and the Places in Between” is based on my belief that history is inherently place-based and that historical analysis is strengthened by comparison. We attach ourselves (to varying degrees) to the places we come from, the places we live, and the places to which we travel. Among the richest resources for historians of the early modern period seeking thick descriptions of long lost people and places are travel narratives. These accounts are fundamentally the product of comparing the familiar with the unfamiliar, and to some extent historians produce our research questions from the same cloth. Pairing travel narratives with existing (or archaeological) historic structures, as well as expanding the definition of a “historical document” to include landscapes and buildings, provides an entry point to the past that can allow us to not only answer those questions, but to push them further.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Thomas Carter

Tom Carter is Professor of Architectural History at the University of Utah. This interview is based on his new book, Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement (University of Minnesota Press, March 2015).

JF: What led you to write Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement?

TC: It began back in the 1970s. I was finishing up at Indiana University’s Folklore Institute and needed a dissertation topic. Mormon folk housing seemed a likely target—no serious study existed and it seemed like a wide open field even for a Presbyterian. At first, especially since I was living in Indiana, I thought to work on Nauvoo. The more I looked into it, however, it became apparent that nothing had been done in Utah either. I chose the Sanpete Valley to study because of its abundant number of old houses, and luckily was to get a survey job with the Utah State Historical Society as a way of funding much of the early fieldwork. After the dissertation, I realized that what I needed to do was to include the whole of the Sanpete built environment in the study, since leaving the temple out of any kind of Mormon architecture study was preposterous. It took a long time to figure it all out, but the book is both handsome and provocation; it should make folks rethink the way they have view early Mormon history and culture. At least, that is my intention, and hope.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Building Zion?

TC: The book’s central thesis is that during the years before 1890 the Saints slowly and probably unselfconsciously retooled their material world from a radical apocalyptic to a more normative republican one. Two dates are pivotal in this transformation, 1841, when the Law of Consecration and Stewardship was abandoned in favor of the “lesser” law of tithing, and 1871, when the site for the St.George Temple was shifted from the central square to a location outside town, a move followed in all subsequent temples and one which effectively created both sacred (temple) and secular (town) zones.

JF: Why do we need to read Building Zion​​​​?

TC: Because it’s funny? Well no, not really, though I do think it’s very readable. Everyone should read it because it’s the first systematic study of the Mormon City of Zion, and it argues for a fundamental rethinking of the whole history of the church in the years before 1890.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

TC: I probably became a historian back in 1960. I was 11 and asthmatic and it was the centennial of the Civil War. There were all these histories coming out, many very accessible to youngsters like me, and my mother got me into reading them. I was hooked on history, and also became a devoted pacifist. Who could read these stuff and not be horrified. Such stupidity.

JF: What is your next project?

TC: I am finishing a detail history of the architecture of early cattle ranching in northeastern Elko County, Nevada. This area is home to the region’s oldest ranches, and also where my family is from. It’s called Sagebrush Cities: The Cultural Landscape of …. I hope to have it done by this time next year. Now that I’m retired, it’s easier to find time to write.

JF: Sounds exciting, thanks Tom!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Newport’s Revolution House

Last summer I had the privilege of speaking at one of the events sponsored by the Newport Historical Society in honor of the 350th anniversary of religious toleration in Rhode Island.  You can read about my visit to Newport here.

While I was in Newport I met up with my former student and research assistant Katie Garland.  She was spending the summer in Newport on an internship with the Newport Historical Society.  She also blogged about religious freedom in Newport at the Spectacle of Toleration blog. Katie gave me the grand tour of historic Newport, including a visit to the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, the site of a Stamp Act riot in 1765.

I was thus pleased to hear about the new “Revolution House” project at the Newport Historical Society. Beginning this summer they will be turning the house into a museum devoted to the American Revolution in the Rhode Island seaport town.

Check out the very cool “Revolution House” website here.

Chris Cantwell on the Lost Landscapes of the American Religious Past

World Parliament of Religion, Chicago, 1893

I know very little about georeferencing and digital mapping, but I have become fascinated by the whole process through my affiliation with a new digital project we are sponsoring at Messiah College.  We call it Digital Harrisburg.  

On Tuesday I was involved in a presentation about Digital Harrisburg to about thirty Messiah faculty and staff.  I watched as my colleague David Pettegrew showed how his digital history course, working together with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) classes at Messiah, Harrisburg University, and Harrisburg Area Community College, was able to link the 1900 census record of Harrisburg to contemporary digital maps.

After attending this session, and hearing David talk about this project over the course of the semester, I was particularly interested in Chris Cantwell‘s latest post at Religion in American History: “Lost Landscapes of American Religious History.”  Cantwell teaches public history at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, but he is still finishing up an exhibit on the religious history of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century for his old employer, The Newberry Library.  The exhibit is called Faith in the City: Chicago’s Religious Diversity in the Era of the World’s Fair.

Cantwell’s work in mapping churches and religious organizations at the turn of the twentieth century has forced him to realize that “the built environment of American religion is also a history of occlusion and erasure.”

Here is a taste of his fascinating post:

But even more pervasive, and more revealing, is the ways in which today’s built environment reveals the enduring privilege of race and class upon the built environment. This is most easily seen by the fact that most of the sites of Chicago’s religious history that still exist are those that remain in the hands of their founders. Holy Family Church, for example, has remained at the intersection of Roosevelt and May Streets for nearly a hundred and fifty years. The congregation has survived several fires and a neighborhood that has turned  over repeatedly throughout the century because it has had the resources to sustain itself. Many storefront churches and evangelical rescue missions, however, are all gone.

Yet the ways in which power and privilege manifest themselves in the presence and absence of go even deeper than the survival of buildings. It also occurs in the seemingly innocuous act of assigning geocoordinates. Data is supposed the be the great leveler. We’re all ones and zeroes to the computer. But level of precision one can get in assigning coordinates is deeply inflected by race, class, and gender. For example, Chicago Sinai Congregation’s 1890 temple no longer exists. But the fact that the neighborhood it was located in remains relatively stable means that translating its 1893 address into 2014 coordinates is relatively easy–even if that space is now luxury condos. But to try and locate the coordinates of the city’s black churches has been one of the most depressing research tasks I’ve undertaken. The intersections, streets, and alleyways that once pulsated with the rhythms of black Chicago are in many instances gone. And not just the buildings. Streets have been removed, intersections torn up, and alleys completely abandoned. Assigning these sites geocoordinates has involved a lot of estimated guesses, and in many instances I’ve been forced to simply place a church in the middle of the street because the data does not suggest which corner it was on. It’s like witnessing the traumas of the twentieth century in longitude and latitude.

What Do Our Bathrooms Tell Us About Amercian Culture?

Philip Bess teaches in the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture and is the author of Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the SacredCrisis Magazine is running an excerpt from this book in which Bess reflects on multi-bathroom homes, suburbia, Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, and Tocqueville.  Here is just a small taste:

Bigger and more luxurious bedrooms and bathrooms seem to me just one physical manifestation of that shrinkage of the public realm happening reciprocally and in tandem with America’s true growth industry, the care and tending of the autonomous self. Like the decline of the street and square as active public spaces—and the demise of the alley, the ubiquity of the driveway, the transformation of the garage door into the front door, the demise of uninterrupted curbs on residential blocks, the relocation of domestic life to yards and family rooms at the rear of the house, and the creation of complex suburban roofs apparently intended to simulate small villages—the growing number and importance of domestic bathrooms and bedroom suites indicates yet another way we materialize in our built environment our culture’s turn from the civic to the private.

This turn to the private would have dismayed but not surprised Alexis de Tocqueville. Indeed, Tocqueville recognized individualism as a peculiarly democratic proclivity. His 1840 characterization of individualism (“a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to . . . draw apart with his family and friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself”) goes far toward describing a social reality that has taken physical form in the American suburb.

First the National Cathedral…Now the Washington Monument

The National Park Service reported yesterday that the recent earthquake produced a 4-foot crack in the Washington Monumnent.  Here is a taste of an article from NBC News:

Cracking was found in the stones at the top of the Washington Monument Tuesday evening, the National Park Service reported.
The crack was located in one of the triangular faces at the top of the monument.  It runs at an angle, and measures approximately 4-feet long and an inch wide, NPS spokesperson Bill Line said.
The cracking in the Monument was discovered during a secondary inspection, conducted by a helicopter crew Tuesday evening. Engineers on Wednesday morning were working to determine the severity of the damage.
“An outside engineering team will take whatever amount of time they need,” Line said. “They are going to do a structural analysis of the crack.”
Although the grounds near the Monument reopened on Tuesday, the interior is closed to visitor until further notice.  Authorities put up a fence creating a 150-foot perimeter at the Monument’s base.
NPS is confident the Monument will reopen, but it is too early to give an estimate, Line said. He emphasized customer safety.
The National Park Service also temporarily closed the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and the Old Post Office Tower as a precaution following Tuesday’s earthquake.  The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials reopened at about 7:20 p.m.  The Old Post Office Tower opened at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

College Architecture

I know very little about architecture, but I do like to look at old academic buildings on old campuses.  That is why I am looking forward to reading and viewing Bryant Tolles Jr. new book Architecture & Academe: College Buildings in New England Before 1860. (If University Press of New England will send me a review copy we will review it here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home!).

Here is a summary of the book from a recent article in Inside Higher Ed:

Bryant F. Tolles Jr. examines the buildings and planning concepts of some of the country’s first colleges and universities, starting with Harvard and Yale Universities (sorry, William & Mary — Tolles focuses exclusively on the Northeast) and moving through Brown University; Dartmouth, Williams, and Bowdoin Colleges; the University of Vermont; and more. Tolles, professor emeritus of history and art history at the University of Delaware, traces the origins and influences of each campus’s individual style, as well as the impact it may have had on others: Harvard’s quadrangle plan, for example, was modeled on England’s universities, while Yale’s row plan set a new precedent that was followed by the first planners of many later institutions, such as the University of Vermont and Amherst, Colby, and Bates Colleges, among numerous others.