Category Archives: cultural heritage

Urgent Issues in American Heritage Conservation

Climate Change

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The remains of the Balinese Room, Galveston, Texas (balineseroom.net)

Cultural resources across the United States are already experiencing the decimating effects of human-influenced climate change.  The resulting rising sea levels, increasing intensity of rainfall, hurricanes and wildfires have become a threat to our built environment, growing in power and frequency each year.  Here are some examples of how climate change has affected historic places:

  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, has been inundated by flooding by the neighboring Fox River numerous times in the last 20 years, causing thousands of dollars in water damage that the buildings’ stilt-like columns were designed to prevent.  A technical advisory review panel found that the most promising choice to mitigate future flooding was to integrate a permanent hydraulic system into the building’s foundation that can be mechanically lifted as the Fox River rises.  Preservationists have cried foul over this plan, as well as others to move the house to higher ground, as a compromise of integrity.
  • The 1920 Balinese Room, a Galveston, Texas nightclub designed by the Chicago-based architectural firm Rapp and Rapp, hosted entertainers like the Marx Brothers and Frank Sinatra.  Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, the Balinese Room was completely destroyed as Hurricane Ike barreled through Galveston Bay on September 12, 2008.  Only a few wooden dock posts remain.
  • Before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, the tourist economy boomed in Old San Juan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, adding encouragement to the frequently repeated argument that historic preservation makes economic sense.  While the 16th and 17th century buildings in Old San Juan sustained minimal damage, nearly 60 percent of the island is still without power, and thousands of Puerto Ricans struggle daily with housing and economic uncertainty.  Justifying the funds and assistance to replace windows and streetlights in a historic district is nearly impossible when the island faces an unknown future.

While heritage conservation cannot control an Act of God, we need to put a complete stop to asking the question: “is climate change relevant to preservation?” and instead head towards a prompt sense of urgency for present and future cultural resources to plan and implement hazard mitigation at the local, state and national levels.  This conversation must happen in tandem with advocacy, landmarks listing and rehabilitation, as every dollar invested in pre-disaster mitigation prevents four dollars in average losses.

Monuments

General Robert E. Lee Memorial, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2015.  The statue of Lee was removed in 2017.

In August 2017, a 1924 statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia was used as a symbolic rallying point for a “Unite The Right” event, drawing hundreds of white nationalists, including Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute and known white supremacist, and David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

The City of Charlottesville had voted in February to remove the statue, following suit with other American cities like New Orleans, rejecting the early 20th century narrative of Confederate monuments as innocuous representations of a noble, old cause and embracing their frightening reality as objects constructed to manipulate the historical interpretation of the Civil War to stave off the impending threat of equal rights for people of color.  Two distinct surges in construction of Confederate monuments occurred in America, one during the nineteen teens and twenties, and another during the nineteen fifties and sixties.  These surges correspond to the enactment of Jim Crow laws and later, the Civil Rights Movement.

There is a broad range of solutions suggested for Confederate monuments.  Those who are passionate about retaining the statues in situ without additional context often cite personal or familial connections to the Confederacy.  Many preservationists consider these monuments from a static historical viewpoint, for their artistic quality, connection with a significant craftsperson or designer, or material composition.  Others advocate for removing Confederate monuments from the public sphere, and placing them in the private hands of the organizations that erected them, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  Monuments could perhaps be properly contextualized in museums.  Others believe the best way to equitably address Confederate monuments is to destroy them, yet even those that may denounce white supremacy may object to the removal of Confederate monuments, likening it to European attempts to erase Soviet-era history by destroying them.

As terrorists of all types continue to radicalize American symbols to deadly effect, the public looks to historic preservation for guidance as the proclaimed stewards of built heritage and saving places.  From the nation’s governmental bodies to non-profits to educational institutions, historic preservation’s overall dialogue lacks conviction, and brings about the old adage that we “cannot and should not erase our history.”  Historic preservation has remained largely silent in the public sphere, adding to the idea that the field is archaic and bends to the whim of the old and the privileged.  Our weak stance on this issue is antithetical to the core values of the original movement as one that responds to social issues via addressing how they relate to the built environment.  In all of the ways historic preservation takes irrational stances on architectural significance over community health or property rights, it is unable to take a strong stance on the removal of Confederate monuments.  We have an opportunity to directly influence the course of a vital and timely national topic that we are not taking.

Historic Tax Credits

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The Westin Book-Cadillac Hotel, Detroit, Michigan.  The hotel was renovated in 2008 using the Federal Historic Tax Credit.

With decades of bipartisan support since its inception in 1976, the Federal Historic Tax Credit is the most powerful tool available to encourage saving historic buildings.  Once an income producing building is certified as a historic structure by the National Park Service, the owner may apply for a 20% credit on their income tax.  A 10% tax credit is available for the rehabilitation of non-historic buildings constructed prior to 1936.  These federal credits can be used in tandem with state historic tax credits, creating enormous financial incentives that stimulate private investment, particularly in older cities, small towns and neighborhoods where disinvestment has occurred.

Underutilized schools, churches, factories and theaters have been transformed into apartments, offices, retail stores and hotels.  In 2016, 57% of completed projects using the HTC included housing, with a third of those units made affordable.  Here are some examples of rehabilitation projects that have taken advantage of historic tax credits:

  • The former Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul, Minnesota ceased brewing operations in the early 2000s.  With generous use of the federal historic tax credit, it now houses 247 lofts, all with household income limits.
  • Long a fixture of the decline of Detroit’s downtown, the Book-Cadillac Hotel underwent a renovation in 2008 using tax credits, creating a halo effect on the surrounding area.
  • The Trump Organization received a $40 million tax credit towards the rehabilitation of the 1899 Old Post Office and Clock Tower in Washington D.C., adaptively re-using the former office building into a hotel.
  • New Orleans has one of the highest number of completed rehabilitation projects using tax credits in the country, with over 560 projects completed in the last two decades.

With two versions of tax reform in the works, the House version eliminates the historic tax credit completely, and the Senate Finance Committee version retains the 20% tax credit, but eliminates the 10% tax credit.  Eliminating or diminishing these financial incentives will make renovating historic buildings across the country financially unjustifiable, leading to increased numbers of underutilized and vacant buildings, as well as teardowns.  As important as developing a cultural or social case for saving historic buildings is, terminating these incentives jeopardizes the ability for old buildings to net a benefit for developers and owners.

Postmodernism

The postmodern James R. Thompson Center, Chicago, Illinois.

Threatened postmodern architecture is national news.  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art plans to demolish a 1986 postmodern addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer.  A dramatic alteration to the granite archway of Philip Johnson’s 1984 AT&T Building in Manhattan has been proposed by Snohetta, threatening its integrity.  Helmut Jahn’s 1985 James R. Thompson Center in Chicago is the victim of decades worth of willful neglect at the hand of the State of Illinois.  Applying traditional eligibility status to these buildings can be tricky as they hover near the 30-year mark; too old to be considered serviceable but too young to be historic.  Preservationists have fought hard and uphill time and time again to convince the public of the value of everything from Mount Vernon to the French Quarter to Prentice Hospital, yet the threat to postmodern architecture seems to have come on faster than threats to any other architectural style in American history.

The relative newness of postmodernism, coupled with its reputation as ugly and loathsome makes it difficult for some to recognize its place within the fluidity of history.  Yet ‘ugly’ is too subjective of an adjective to use in the case of postmodern buildings, as it is just as rational to believe that the molded cornices and mansard roofs of Second Empire are ugly, as they once were considered to be.

At the forefront of advocacy for postmodern architecture are a robust group who are building the case for saving these buildings by pulling from the cultural value of the buildings, and their connections to core events in the history of the historic preservation movement.  While these arguments aren’t perfect, they are worlds away from past demands that buildings are important because professionals in architecture say they are.  Advocates for retaining the integrity of the AT&T Building have used a combination of traditional protest, yielding signs that proclaim, “Hands off my Johnson” and social media exposure, inspired by the advocacy to save Pennsylvania Station in the 1960s.  At the heart of the effort to save the Thompson Center is the original objective of Helmut Jahn’s design to express the need for governmental transparency through architecture, and how the treatment of the building over time is in direct contradiction with the buildings’ intention.

Not engaging in or supporting these advocacy efforts presents the message to the public that historic preservation and heritage conservation feels that no buildings are worth saving that haven’t already been researched, advocated for or listed as landmarks.  Without critically considering future historic buildings, historic preservation will die.  Lead primarily by young people, the charge to save postmodern architectural heritage is the future of the field in body and spirit.

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Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee Sculpture and our Heritage of Hate

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Newspaper clipping from The Daily Progress, May 21st, 1924 (University of Virginia Library)

Once upon a time, American monuments felt innocuous.  They sat quietly in parks and squares, repositories for bird droppings and cans of cheap beer.  Their stone bases worn from the sandblasting of cheapjack graffiti and chipped from years of nicks from riding lawnmowers.  Noses of erstwhile political figures were playfully burnished.  That time of unknowledgeable innocence is gone.

Like ideas and people, monuments too, can be radicalized.  It is expected that the meaning behind symbols changes with the times, yet it is easy to forget when our lives have been lived among them, whether in blissful ignorance or somber reverence.  Many Americans view monuments as parts of history we should not and can not change, particularly in terms of altering or removing statues and memorials to fallen Confederate soldiers, battles, or military generals and political leaders.  Monuments of architectural significance have been venerated locally and nationally, as well as celebrated culturally, yet it took a series of catastrophic tragedies to put into focus that their context was always incorrect.

The General Robert Edward Lee Statue is located in Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park), bounded by Market Street, Jefferson Street, 1st Street and 2nd Street, in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The statue is one of four works commissioned from members of the National Sculpture Society by philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire, located on parks McIntire gave to the City of Charlottesville during the years 1919 to 1924.  According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the monument, McIntire “wished to make a place worthy of the likeness of the most distinguished Confederate general.”

The monument, cast in bronze, was conceived by American sculptor Henry Shrady and executed by Leo Lentelli after Shrady’s death.  It depicts Lee astride on his horse Traveller.  The National Register of Historic Places nomination, written in 1996, depicts the statue as such:

“Lentelli has made a large and important Traveller.  The horse is depicted at a brisk walk with his proper left front leg extended forward and his proper right hind leg elevated.  His regal tail is arched out behind his body to show his impatience while Lee reins him in.  Lee has Traveller well in hand, but the horses neck is overbent and his mouth is open as he pulls against the bit.”

A small number of living confederate veterans as well as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy were present for the May 21st, 1924 unveiling of the statue.  Three-year-old Mary Walker Lee, the great-granddaughter of General Lee, pulled the Confederate flag draped over the sculpture away, triggering cheers from the crowd.  The National Register nomination continues:

“Thus, the Robert Edward Lee sculpture remains undisturbed in its original location.  Sentiment in Charlottesville will undoubtedly keep it there, for the monument is a unique memorial to the most eminent Confederate hero of all and an outstanding example of the figurative outdoor sculpture of the late City Beautiful movement.”

The Robert E. Lee sculpture was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 after its addition to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1996.  The narrative presented in the National Register nomination gives scant information on Lee, but it does tilt towards the idea that the Confederate cause was a noble one.

Most historical descriptions of Confederate monuments in official documents, like a National Register nomination, present their significance in neutral terms, as art works by significant sculptors or components of a landscape or planning movement, having no interaction with the cultural context the monument was constructed in or the cultural context that existed when the monument was written.  Narratives keep in line with the established period of significance of a historic resource, but this timeline will never be finite.  Context changes over time as cultural changes occur, and as we learn.

That noble cause in 1861, at the succession of the Confederacy from the rest of the United States, included the unlawful abolition of slavery and the prohibition of voting rights for anyone born outside of the Confederacy.  How do these provisions, taken directly from the Confederate Constitution, relate to a contemporary perspective to keep Confederate culture intact?  How do organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or the Friends of Charlottesville Monuments, who are at the center of a court case fighting against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue with the City of Charlottesville, balance a culture with a core of oppression against the realities of a future of inclusion?

The majority of monuments to the Confederate cause were not erected during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but well after, into the 20th century, when even the oldest, healthiest Confederate veterans were rare.  Two distinct surges in construction of Confederate monuments occurred, one during the nineteen teens and twenties, and another during the nineteen fifties and sixties.  These surges correspond to the enactment of Jim Crow laws and later, the Civil Rights Movement.

In an attempt to stave off the impending threat of equal rights, work was done to control the historical interpretation of the Civil War and present it as a noble cause and to push the Confederacy as a cultural concept while presenting Confederate icons as an honorable ideal.

Out of these eras of recognition of the bravery of the Southern cause came monuments to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others as celebrations of valor and faith.  Confederate generals were exalted as intellectuals and sages, depicted nobly atop their horses and at parade rest, cast in bronze beside compassionate angels.  These monuments were placed in town squares and city parks, and presented as objects of remembrance towards a cause that was lost, but also noble.  Those that nostalgized the old days of Dixie now had the iconography to remind them that while the Civil War, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights had politically stifled their ideas of a single race state, it could never be culturally stifled.  Black people were not so subtly reminded that they had their place.

Although a public park, the landscape surrounding the Lee sculpture retained a reputation as segregated for decades, consistent with Paul Goodloe McIntire’s terms of deed for other racially segregated parks he donated to Charlottesville.  Along with their support for the Lee statue, the United Daughters of the Confederacy campaigned to build a monument to the myth of the nurturing, benevolent Southern mammy.  The monument was authorized by the U.S. Senate in 1923 but died in Congress after months of protests, including the women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, the main Union veteran’s organization, which called it a “sickly sentimental proposition.”

Confederate monuments were never innocent, never static and never simply material objects.  They were always symbols of intimidation, manipulated as cultural heritage and works of art, and silently used to perpetuate the myth that 20th and 21st century Confederalism is cultural and familial, and not innately discriminatory.  They are propaganda, not cultural heritage, and they have served, for decades, to provide something to hide behind that has more decorum than a white robe.

 

Malcolm Little, ‘X’-busboy

“I became a busboy at the Parker House in Boston.  I wore a starched white jacket out in the dining room, where the waiters would put the customers’ dirty plates on silver on big aluminum trays which I would take back to the kitchen’s dishwashers.”

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In the summer of 1940, fifteen year old Malcolm Little boarded a Greyhound bus in Lansing bound for Boston.  Born in Omaha, Malcolm had spent most of his life in foster homes in Mason, Michigan until his half sister Ella invited him to spend a summer with her.  This was Malcolm’s first trip out of the Midwest.  From the back of the bus, Malcolm watched “white man’s America rolling past for what felt like a month.” What would meet him in Boston would profoundly change the course of his life.

Malcolm had never been impressed with anyone like he was impressed with Ella.  Ella was “the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life,” an attitude unheard of in segregated Lansing.  Jet black and outspoken, Ella lived in Roxbury, a community Malcolm X would later describe as practically effervescing with black culture.  “I didn’t know the world contained as many Negroes as I saw thronging downtown Roxbury at night” Malcolm recounted in his 1965 autobiography.  “Neon lights, nightclubs, pool halls, bars, the cars they drove!  Restaurants made the streets smell rich, greasy, down-home black cooking!  Jukeboxes blared Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Cootie Williams, and dozens of others.  The biggest bands, like these, played at the Roseland State Ballroom on Massachusetts Avenue-one night for Negroes, the next night for whites.”  In central Michigan, Malcolm had only known life as a black person in white spaces, following the cultural framework that unofficially mirrored the Jim Crow laws of the South.  For the first time, in Roxbury, Malcolm was a black person in a completely black space.  Roxbury showed Malcolm Little an African American experience that was intelligent, creative, outwardly successful and unafraid, everything that his small community in Mason was not.

Returning to Mason at the end of the summer, Malcolm felt restless.  This change was palatable to his classmates as well as his foster parents.  Those that knew Malcolm continued to ask him what was wrong, but Malcolm was either unable to articulate how Roxbury made him feel, or afraid that being honest about his feelings would be damaging to the relationships in his life, especially with the small group of white people he had grown up with, and trusted.  Always a top student, a major tipping point occurred when Malcolm’s English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, asked Malcolm, one of the top students in the school, if he was thinking about a career.  “Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.”

Mr. Ostrowski saw in Malcolm the kind of future white people saw for black people in 1940, the kind of future where race dictated expectations.  Malcolm needed to be realistic.  He suggested Malcolm plan on carpentry.  This was a poor appraisal of Malcolm’s future, and one that Malcolm Little was intent on proving wrong.

Malcolm expressed to Ella in a letter that he wanted to come to Boston and live with her.  Ella arranged for official custody, and Malcolm headed to Boston.

Once she enrolled him in a private boys school downtown, Ella encouraged Malcolm to postpone getting a job until he got a feel for his new home, so he observed the comings and goings of Roxbury, but soon branched out and began to explore the entire city of Boston.  Malcolm gawked at the historic buildings, with plaques and markers and statues for famous events and famous men.  Malcolm wrote at length to his family in Lansing about the cobblestone streets and the department stores.  In Boston Common, he was astonished to see a statue of a black man, Crispus Attucks, the first to fall in the Boston Massacre.

In the fall of 1941, Malcolm found himself a job at one of Boston’s most storied institutions, the Parker House.  Established in 1855, the Parker House Restaurant claimed to be the first to serve Boston Cream Pie, Parker House Rolls, and scrod, and was a famous haunt of local politicians and writers like Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton.  At the Parker House, Malcolm held the benchmark of low-paying restaurant jobs: the busboy.

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Bus Station, Parker House Restaurant

The Parker House, now run by Omni Hotels & Restaurants, looks, feels and smells like an institution that thrives on established wealth.  Its consistency makes a strong selling point to those accustomed to an old fashioned notion of luxury, and little has changed.  It is proudly past its prime.

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The Parker House is the type of place one might imagine being underdressed in, until you arrive and realize that money is money-even yours, and guests are happily getting along in flip-flops and Disney sweatshirts.  The same 1856 Boston Creme Pie recipe is still as venerated as it once was, yet now it’s woefully overshared on social media as a key component in the Boston experience.

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The crisp white shirts Malcolm X wore have been replaced with gold vests and ties, yet the notion that the busser is present but anonymous remains.  There is no temporary stewardship of the guest experience, or push for the upsell.  Bussers are encouraged to fade into the background, yet they are expected to maintain a complementary demeanor.  They are the only component of a restaurant that exists comfortably among the table linens and silver trays of the dining room, and the dish bins and sinks in the kitchen, the most vital connectors between the front of house and back of house.  They clean up after the servers and vacuum the crumbs from the carpet.  They lift heavy bus bins, take out the trash and are responsible for what is often a restaurant’s most thankless, labor-intensive work.   The colloquial job title is still woefully, pejoratively gendered, as the term ‘busboy’ is fundamentally belittling.  There is no question the work environment of a sixteen year old African American male, a self professed “hick” from Michigan just months before Pearl Harbor in a well to do downtown Boston restaurant was not one of respect or appreciation.  A black person in an expectedly subservient white space.

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Associate Entrance, Omni Parker House Hotel

Research has showed that little has changed.  In restaurants, the lighter your skin, the more likely you work in a front of house job such as a bartender or server.  Black and Latino workers are far more likely to hold busser, food runner or dishwasher positions.

Service industry professionals build a thick skin against the criticisms of both their guests and co-workers.  You learn to internalize anger, as being agreeable and non-confrontational are seen as not only positive attributes, but traits that will get you the biggest tip percentages and the best table sections.  You brush off disparaging comments and harassment, and learn to keep your head down.  While the Parker House wasn’t Malcolm X’s first service industry job or his last; he washed dishes at a restaurant in Mason and would go on to shine shoes at the Roseland Ballroom in Roxbury, it was undoubtedly a place where he saw the distinctions between social classes clearly.  Was he talked down to by white customers and white staff?  Did he see fellow black employees struggling to make ends meet at menial jobs?  While Malcolm X wrote little about his time at the Parker House or in the service industry, he borrowed generously from personal experiences throughout his life, allowing them to inform his ideologies at various stages.  Perhaps it was this job, the first outside of his hometown, where he further developed the sense of frustration and anger towards the status quo that would lead him to champion African American self-determination and later cast a wide net fighting against racism, Colonialism and white supremacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Man Mound: A Transformative National Historic Landmark

 

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Aerial View of the Man Mound after the spring “burnoff” of dead prairie grass, 2014.  Image via Sauk County Eagle.

Deep in the rolling hills of the northern flanks of the Baraboo Range, and about two miles northeast of Baraboo, Wisconsin, lies an ancient and mysterious earthen figure, cut off at the shins. An amputee.

The Man Mound of Greenfield is the only surviving anthropomorphic effigy mound in North America.  It was formed of earth between 700 and 1000 AD by the Late Woodland effigy mound builders, who constructed both humanoid and zoomorphic mounds across the eastern and middle western portions of what is now the United States.  Until the turn of the 20th century, Sauk County had as many as twelve humanoid mounds, with hundreds of others depicting birds, snakes and other animals.  Despite early recognition by surveyors of these earthworks as special monuments, almost 75% of the mounds previously identified have disappeared.

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Looking north towards Man Mound’s “horns.”  Despite the snow cover, the rise above grade is clearly visible.  Mowing of the mound ceased in 2008, attributing to an array of prairie grasses and flora seeding from it, including ferns not native to Wisconsin.

Not long after measurements of the Man Mound were taken and the mound was brought to wider public attention by civil engineer and naturalist Increase A. Lapham, an east-west road was cut below the figure’s knees, detaching the body from the feet, an unmistakably adverse effect that would be inconceivable today, and illegal in terms of federal and state laws regarding the mound’s historic and cultural status.  But this was the Midwest in the 1860s, less than a lifetime after the Indian Removal Act, and the center of a century where transportation routes and the opening of government lands pushed non-native people westward.  Immigrants of German and Irish decent were coming by ship, steamboat, railroad and then in wagons through the Baraboo Valley.  Thirty years prior to the construction of Man Mound Road, Native Americans were the primary inhabitants of Wisconsin.  The name of the road has a deeply disquieting effect, as if the mistake was acknowledged as soon as the road was laid.

The Man Mound is a transformative being, a curiosity of the Lower World, a primordial deity, a water spirit, a bear, or a rabbit, or any of these things.  And to native peoples like the Ho-Chunk Nation, who lay claim to the Late Woodland effigy mound builders as parent stock, a symbol of renewal.  In 1908, the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, along with the Federation of Women’s Clubs and The Sauk County Historical Society moved to acquire the Man Mound Site, establishing it as one of the first archaeological sites preserved specifically for preservation purposes.  This purchase occurred in the nick of time, as the previous land owner had disclosed that he was looking into cultivating the site.  Man Mound Park was dedicated on August 8th, 1908.

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Historical marker erected by the Sauk County Historical Committee, 1969, alongside the Wisconsin Historical Societies’ plaque from the 1908 park dedication.  The Man Mound’s torso and right arm are visible in the background.

While the dedication of the park did include an invocation of indigenous peoples, accounts of that day paint a woefully misguided picture of appropriation as appreciation, showing a version of the disconnection between Americans and native peoples that we see today, from feathered headdresses at Coachella to the Washington Redskins to referring to a work meeting as a pow-wow.  Native Americans were not considered a part of the 20th century narrative of the Man Mound, and were instead relegated to a cultural footnote during the celebration-tipis, wampum and all.

Detached from the rest of the body, the feet were now located in a cow pasture on the other side of Man Mound Road, and would over time get trampled down to grade. Even without legs, which is certainly an integrity problem for the ages, Man Mound was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Rob Nurre is a landscape historian and longtime steward of the Man Mound who has come to live “seventeen man mound-sized steps away from the park.”  With the 100th anniversary of the park looming, Nurre began thinking about the Man Mound’s amputated legs and feet, along with ways to raise public awareness for the site.  Using measured drawings from the 1850s and a can of white paint, Nurre gave Man Mound new prosthetic limbs stretching across the road, and worked with the land owners north of the road to mark off the area where the feet once stood.

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The Man Mound’s “ghost legs” stretch across Man Mound Road.

“How do we best care for these sites,” asked Nurre. “When they are such a reference point in terms of how we see the world?” Perhaps the Man Mound’s painted legs are an arbitration between a careless past and a conscious, deliberate future.  They also “get in your face” Nurre said, as they clearly do not relate to roadway safety, and you’ve got to drive over them in order to get west of the mound.  Rebuilding the missing extremities from grade wouldn’t be appropriate mitigation, as it would serve to erase the lessons in stewardship and our cultural dialog with the past that the flattened legs and feet force us to interface with directly.

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The location of Man Mound’s trampled feet, fenced off from a cow pasture.

In 2016, the Man Mound was designated as a National Historic Landmark, a distinction only given to historic places that have a profound national significance, and are already listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Only 2,500 of our nations historic landmarks meet this criteria.  The boundary of the Man Mound National Historic Landmark was extended beyond the boundary of the National Register of Historic Places listing to include the area of the road containing the “legs” as well as the section of pasture where the feet once were.  The creative mitigation of modern interference is now a part of the Man Mound’s official story.

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William H. Canfield’s map of the Man Mound, 1859.  Canfield shared Man Mound’s discovery with Increase A. Lapham, and Lapham publicized the find.  Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, WHi-77567.

In 1859, Increase A. Lapham wrote that the Man Mound “is in the act of walking, and with an expression of boldness and decision which cannot be mistaken.” At over 214 feet tall, Man Mound is striking when viewed from the ground, but aerial views are truly mystifying, and beg some serious questions.  Was the Man Mound meant to be viewed from the sky?  Where is it walking to?  What is the true meaning of the iconography?  We as a modern people know so little about the purpose of effigy mounds, and almost as little about their contents.  As many as 87% of effigy mounds that have been subject to archaeological investigation were used to mark or contain human burials, with most contained near a figures’ heart or inside the head.  While archaeological digs have occurred in the area where the feet once were, yielding nothing of interest, there is no record of disturbance for the rest of the body.  Digging into a cultural monument that is over a thousand years old would be a selfish, obscene choice, and would produce nothing of value.

The Man Mound will continue to yield information on our collective reference point, but by way of our understanding of what has occurred above ground, and how we weigh our current decisions against the established effects of the past and the unknown future.  So what is the best practice in terms of an effigy mound without legs, when there are no other effigy mounds with legs to compare it to?  Perhaps this is the Man Mound’s true character as a transformative being.  One that continues to learn from us as we learn from it.

The author would like to thank Rob Nurre for his generous contributions to this article.