Penn Press logo
Historic Real Estate

In Historic Real Estate, Whitney Martinko shows how early Americans debated whether, and how, to preserve historic structures as permanent features of the new nation's landscape. She argues that early advocates of preservation affirmed a capitalist system of land development by promising to make it moral.

Historic Real Estate
Market Morality and the Politics of Preservation in the Early United States

Whitney Martinko

2020 | 328 pages | Cloth $39.95
American History / Architecture
View main book page

Table of Contents

Introduction. Architecture, Society, and Economy in the Early United States

I. Corporate Properties
Chapter 1. Capital Plans: Ancient Monuments in Public Squares
Chapter 2. Sacred Forms: Public Buildings and Urban Improvements

II. Commercial Sites
Chapter 3. The Business of Preservation: Antiquarian Views and Commercial Enterprise
Chapter 4. Moral Real Estate: Sacred Historic Space and the Politics of Speculation

III. Domestic Spaces
Chapter 5. Civic Housekeeping: Voluntary Associations and Domestic Economy
Chapter 6. Ancestral Estates: Patrimonial Property and Rural Improvement

Epilogue. Rethinking Mount Vernon and Its Legacy

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Architecture, Society, and Economy in the Early United States

In April 1788, Rufus Putnam ascended an embankment of the Muskingum River determined to make history. Here, where the Muskingum poured into the Ohio River, he would lay out the first U.S. city to be built in the Northwest Territory. Putnam had spent three years preparing for this moment. He had worked with other veteran officers of the Continental Army to organize a New England land company whose shareholders wanted to make a future west of the Appalachians. The Ohio Company of Associates had negotiated the purchase of 1.5 million acres of Shawnee territory not from its Indigenous residents but from the U.S. Congress, which claimed the Ohio country as federal property. Putnam alighted on a corner of the massive tract poised to build a capital city not only for Ohio Company shareholders but also for a nation of settler colonists.

As Putnam traversed the site for the first time, he envisioned the future city by focusing on remnants of the site's past. On the high ground, above the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers, Putnam marveled over a complex of earthen architecture (Figure 1). Mounded walls created a wide corridor from the banks of the Muskingum to a quadrangle above, where more walls enclosed three large forms. Their pyramidal bases lofted flat tops several feet above the heads of people below; gently sloped earthen ramps provided access to their elevations. Half a mile to the southeast, a conical mound stood thirty feet tall. A wide ditch encircled its base, limiting an approach to a narrow land bridge.

Indigenous Americans had built these monumental structures between 800 BCE and 500 CE as sites of astronomical ceremony, ritual deposition, and human burial. The Muskingum complex was one of many along Ohio country waterways that drew Woodland era travelers from across the continent. Here, ancestors of the Shawnee, Miami, Ojibwe, and Kickapoo peoples and their kin forged connections across cultures, generations, and geographic distance. In 1788, however, Rufus Putnam viewed these structures as evidence of an ancient history of the new nation: they formed the remnants of an American town comparable to classical Rome. As he translated an idealized urban grid to the particularities of the new site, he appropriated the earthworks as markers of this imagined past, making them centerpiece monuments of public squares. Ohio Company directors passed several rounds of directives affirming Putnam's plan. By their definition, construction of the new city would proceed as a project of preservation.

Rufus Putnam was not alone. In subsequent decades, residents of the early United States attempted to make architectural evidence of the past permanent, from mounds in the Ohio Valley to the old Pennsylvania statehouse in Philadelphia; from Benjamin Franklin's childhood home in Boston to St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; from the Van Rensselaer family manor near Albany, New York, to Henry Clay's Kentucky estate. Observers did not define these structures solely as vessels of historical memory or metaphors for the past. They also saw them as real estate. When individuals characterized these structures as historic and sought to secure their futures, they made preservation a way of defining what should not be for sale, how consumers should behave, and how certain types of labor should be valued. Preservation was, in other words, a strategy for making a moral economy.

Many residents of the early United States engaged preservation to work out practical applications of a central concern in the new nation and, indeed, the early modern world: the relationship between public good and private profit. Historic sites made compelling locales to test this correlation because they were places where the materiality of the past and the market economy met. Advocates of preservation defined architectural permanence as a statement of civic virtue—a willingness to balance communal and personal interests. In this light, it is not surprising that the earliest concerted project of architectural preservation in the United States started in its newest territory, where questions about the relationship of private profit to public good first bubbled up around the sale of federal lands. In the coming years, people as varied as Abraham Touro, a Jewish philanthropist; Stephen Gould, a Quaker artisan and antiquarian; Payton Stewart, an African American salesman of secondhand clothes; John Doyle, an Irish tavern keeper; and Ann Pamela Cunningham, the South Carolinian founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, defined different modes of preservation to demonstrate economic behavior as social virtue. Despite their disparate strategies, they all shared a common belief with the agenda that Rufus Putnam modeled in 1788: securing architectural evidence of the past for future generations displayed civility, or a self-cultivated fitness for participation in public life.

This definition of preservation framed it as a material practice that fomented the bonds of civil society and, in turn, determined who should be included in—and excluded from—"the public." Americans who championed this social model made claims of superiority over "uncivil" populations. One did not have to know or subscribe to the intricacies of stadial theory—the idea that human populations progressed through discrete, hierarchical stages of social development—to associate characteristics of the built environment with particular levels of social evolution. In this generalized worldview, savages and barbarians exhibited self-interest with temporary structures and architectural destruction; civilized people advanced the commonweal with permanent architecture. Early U.S. advocates of architectural preservation translated this materialist conception of civilization into racialized conceptions of savagery—often embodied by Indigenous Americans, Euro-American agrarians, and African Americans living according to "primitive" material standards. Yet they also defined speculative capitalism as a form of barbarism. Individuals who sought maximal wealth in the market economy, they suggested, engaged in environmental destruction that degraded civil society as much as people who refused, or lacked the ability, to improve it. The impermanent architecture of both populations, in this view, demonstrated a self-interest that threatened early U.S. civil society—and the success of the new nation itself.

Of course, purveyors of preservation aimed to profit from their commitment to a so-called common good. They calibrated their designs for architectural permanence to portray themselves as agents of an incremental process of civilization. In turn, they advocated for the preservation of historic sites as a strategy for economic participation, not as a retraction from it. Rufus Putnam, for instance, appropriated the Muskingum earthworks as a way of making competitive appeals to investors as well as dispossessing Indigenous residents of the Ohio country. Other corporate trustees, land developers, household consumers, laborers, family heirs, and commercial entrepreneurs shaped designs for the historic built environment to paint themselves as moral economic actors who strengthened civil society. They applied their plans for architectural permanence to sites whose particularities seemed to fulfill a national promise of local self-determination, not necessarily sites whose past symbolized the nation whole cloth. As individuals proposed different physical, legal, and financial means of making structures and sites permanent, they shaped a national historical consciousness constructed in materiality as well as memory.

History and Materiality

Many scholars have studied architectural preservation as a process of making historical memory: the creation of a usable past for a contemporary purpose. They have shown that residents of the early United States shared with European counterparts a practice of historical place-making honed to define national identity in an age of revolution and imperialism. After the War for Independence, many residents of the United States looked to sites associated with the revolution and its leaders to define the new nation and its citizenry. They attended anniversary celebrations that enlivened battlegrounds with living memories of war and laid monuments to military engagements and the birthplaces of their leaders. Tourists visited these sites to pay respect to men defined as national martyrs and to experience the power of place to connect them to the past. More broadly, travelers and antiquaries traversed the land looking for material evidence of local history. Indigenous Americans and settler colonists both created physical markers of place invested with memories of past events, especially of colonial violence.

Yet these Americans recognized a crucial difference between constructing new monuments to the past and maintaining historic architectural features themselves. As one writer put it in 1831, "If there is any good reason for our erecting mementos of past occurrences, there is certainly stronger ones for preserving those which our fathers have erected and are identified with themselves." Historic structures could serve as bearers of collective memory. Yet they also constituted physical remnants of the past itself. I attend to this defining distinction of preservation in the early United States by framing it as an environmental ethic: a set of moral principles articulated to guide how people treated the world around them. Residents of the new nation did not see and shape their environments solely according to aesthetic principles of beauty and contemporary style. Proponents of preservation tried to cultivate a built environment that engendered a moralizing historical consciousness that pivoted from a view of the past to a view of the future. They saw the forms, fabrics, and situations of historic structures as evidence not only of the past but also of the care that current denizens expressed for fellow citizens and future generations. To reconstruct the broad environmental ethic of architectural permanence that they promoted, I take a synthetic material cultural approach to analyzing the built environment. Written descriptions and visual depictions of architecture do not simply convey evidence of environmental appearance or record environmental features that their makers chose to memorialize or erase. Residents of the early United States defined and contested the social meaning of architecture in the materialities of objects, images, and texts. They defined the built environment in genres of prose as well as words, in the design of artifacts as well as their fabric, and in the visual conventions of images as well as the features depicted.

Each chapter of this book moves from an analysis of how some U.S. residents used architectural materiality to embody evidence of the past to an argument about how they deployed these forms of material culture to shape society and economy to their own advantage. In doing so, it shows the necessity of interpreting historical sources in their material contexts. We cannot understand how Ohio Company leaders appropriated Indigenous earthworks if we do not understand the trappings of Masonic rituals. We cannot understand how business proprietors such as upholsterer John K. Simpson harnessed preservation to attract customers unless we analyze the precepts of antiquarian and commercial imagery. We cannot understand why writers such as Edmund Quincy began to call some sites sacred if we do not understand new methods of building construction and design. And we cannot understand why people such as John Fanning Watson and Anna Cora Ritchie organized associational efforts to buy historic houses if we do not understand the contours of domestic luxury goods.

This approach to the material world demands a broad view of the shared conventions of hemispheric and transatlantic material culture as well as a close look at the particularities of time and place. Residents of the early United States shaped the meaning of architecture, images, objects, and texts in conversation with early modern predecessors and transnational peers. Rufus Putnam drew on preservation edicts of urban planning from Renaissance Rome. Congregants of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Charleston followed the reconstruction model of British Gothic churches. Popular writers highlighted house museums in Germany and Switzerland as models for the former American residences of William Penn and George Washington. All developed vernacular theories of preservation decades before European architects John Ruskin and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc published their treatises on the subject. More broadly, these U.S. residents helped to define transatlantic strains of Eurocentric historicism that believed that architecture could inform rational studies of the past and, in turn, cultivate a shared love of country that would strengthen devotion to fellow citizens.

Yet U.S. residents made preservation a tool of nation building by designing architectural permanence in diverse environmental conditions and legal landscapes where architecture made visible local particularities and regional distinctiveness. Its practitioners sought to construct a national historical consciousness grounded in continuous change and progressive social development, not simply in the memory of Revolutionary founders or events. They defined nationalism not by the homogenization of Anglo-American architecture but by histories of Euro-American colonization of North America. In turn, they created a historic landscape that fashioned colonization as a process of civilization brought to fruition in U.S. civil society.

Permanence and Civil Society

Even before the War for Independence, elite Euro-Americans had shaped transatlantic currents of material culture to define civility in the context of specific North American environments and peoples. Residents of the early United States adapted these practices to define new material markers of civility and cosmopolitanism in a postcolonial and colonizing nation. Americans of various economic statuses strove to demonstrate civic virtue not only with conspicuous consumption and refined comportment but also with the collection of historic artifacts and the creation of historic archives. The donation of excavated objects or family manuscripts to historical societies, for instance, defined civility in material meaning made outside the marketplace of goods.

Amid this interest in the materiality of the past, the preservation of historic structures activated a broader significance of architectural permanence. People indoctrinated in Enlightenment theories of civilization conceived of social and environmental development as a single process of improvement. Individuals on both sides of the Atlantic made the preservation of historic architecture part of this campaign for so-called improvement when they framed it as a tool for creating environmental permanence. In the early United States, advocates of preservation made their plans a principal strategy for creating a new order of property and power promised by revolutionary principles. By substantiating civil society in professedly historic architecture, they defined a national citizenry across time as well as space. They framed the permanence of historic structures as a matter of public interest to this multigenerational populace. Yet unlike leaders of postrevolutionary regimes in France, U.S. citizens did not make historic sites the property of the national government. Instead, they determined to let properties of public interest emerge from private holdings. Citizens would substantiate civil society in the United States, they believed, by working out local claims to the public or private nature of city squares, public buildings, domestic spaces, and commercial sites. In this way, they made debates over the architectural permanence of historic sites as central to the formation of a U.S. "public" as state-funded infrastructure and the regulation of space.

By the same token, many residents of the early United States made preservation a means of colonization by dispossession and spatial control. As an ethic of permanence, this conceptualization of preservation promoted the same campaign for "civilization" as did the praying towns in Nipmuc territory and the agricultural landscapes of Creek country. In some instances, as with the earthworks in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, U.S. citizens appropriated Indigenous structures as markers of a settler colonial past. In others, they secured the architecture of European colonizers as evidence of the "founding" of America. Both propelled acts of possession by fencing, planting, and deeding Indigenous lands as private property. In rural as well as urban locales, advocates of preservation used claims to permanence to remove or surveil people who did not comply with material markers of civil society. Later generations of urban planners, highway engineers, and park superintendents would make this an enduring strategy for exerting power over residents of locales around the globe, from Lahore to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

This ethic also enabled its practitioners to authorize demolition. By applying calls for permanence to some structures, U.S. residents cast others as expendable in the project of building the nation. In this way, they continued a long history of the demolition of sacred Indigenous sites begun by Spanish, French, and English colonists in previous centuries—what one scholar has called "settler iconoclasm." More broadly, they abided, approved, or enacted the demolition of a number of buildings that certainly held collective historic meaning for many Americans and, in turn, excluded caretakers of "disposable" structures from civil society. At the same time, advocates of preservation shaped a politics of demolition that characterized the destruction of historic architecture as civic iconoclasm. In this way, they created a new politics of preservation defined not only by backcountry savagery but also by market barbarity.

Market and Morality

In the early United States, observers defined the social value of architecture in the context of a market economy. Historic structures and sites were embedded in an environment thoroughly commodified by most Euro-Americans by the end of the eighteenth century. The federal government carved up its territorial lands for sale to private owners. Investors commissioned buildings as sources of rental and resale income. Financial booms and busts leveled new structures that had seemed grand and permanent just years earlier. Demolition crews sold salvaged materials from dismantled buildings. Even houses of worship and benevolent societies used their property to generate capital. These new conditions of U.S. real estate markets prompted observers to question the relationship between the financial and use value of buildings and sites invested with some degree of public interest.

Advocates of preservation promoted a materialist conception of historical consciousness as a means of addressing this question. Like architects of new churches, penitentiaries, schools, and houses, they believed that architecture had the power to shape morality and behavior. Yet proponents of preservation believed that architectural forms and fabrics of the past could advance social development, not block it. When individuals and institutions encouraged Americans to manage historic structures according to use value rather than a solely financial one, they made preservation a key node of contention in defining morality in the early United States. Their proposals show how debates over sacred space in the early United States arose not from the extensions of religiosity into secular spaces but from broader efforts to determine the limits of environmental commodification.

Rather than disconnecting from capitalist economies, campaigns for architectural permanence aimed to shape them with a code of civic morality. Market participation alone did not cultivate civil society, they implied; in fact, the pursuit of capital according to strict rules of political economy could harm the public good. By framing the perceived problems of the economy as social, they confirmed the spread of capitalist markets by promising to make them moral. Unlike the Indigenous Americans and Euro-American agrarians who tried to resist commodification of land by maintaining common property, advocates of preservation embraced the strictures of private property. A variety of men and women offered up different and often conflicting expressions of historical permanence to fashion themselves simultaneously as moral economic actors, members of civil society, and deserving members of a national public.

Advocates of preservation addressed their growing trepidation about the social effects of capitalism by turning to sites that encapsulated their anxieties: corporate properties, commercial sites, and domestic spaces. I trace the development of preservation methods in pairs of chapters centered on these three types of sites and the economic and social concerns that they embodied. In the first two chapters, I examine efforts to secure "public" historic structures owned by collective entities: town squares held by a land company, municipal cemeteries, landmark houses of worship, and governmental buildings. These sites attracted the attention of city residents in the first decades of U.S. nationhood because their fates were bound up in debates about the relationship between state authority and local self-determination embodied by corporate property. When residents of aspirational and established urban centers debated the material and legal perpetuity of historic sites, they engaged in larger efforts to define and enforce principles of corporate governance in the new nation.

In the next two chapters, I focus on commercial sites, or localities characterized by their positions in marketplaces of goods and real estate. Between the panic of 1819 and the depression recovery beginning in 1842, business proprietors and political partisans defined preservation as a means to create opportunities for and limits on commercial profit in speculative economies. Merchants, tavern proprietors, and imagemakers perpetuated historic architecture as a competitive market strategy, enticing customers with a historically conscious vision of respectable consumption. Some of their contemporaries, however, argued that historic sites should be set apart from commercial enterprise. Partisan political writers condemned the treatment of venerable public buildings, old houses, and Indigenous earthworks as commodities and encouraged readers to treat them as sacred spaces whose permanence should be secured outside the bounds of speculative markets. Both types of appeals operated in a broader constellation of economic schemes to define moral commerce for a new era of finance, labor, industrial production, and marketing.

The final two chapters examine domestic spaces, including house interiors and the seats of family properties. From the 1830s to the 1850s, men and women argued over the merits of old houses and ancestral estates to debate how capitalism affected family economies. As women exerted more authority over domestic economies—and sometimes their public-minded philanthropic extensions—some men moved to preserve domestic spaces as sites of public historic interest. Middling men created plans to make old houses the property of incorporated voluntary societies, where they developed an antiluxury mode of civic housekeeping that reclaimed a place for men as moral and material leaders of American home and society. By contrast, heirs of ancestral estates adopted new modes of rural improvement to position themselves as patriarchs for a new generation, maintaining familial homes while parceling off outlying tracts in suburban land markets. Men looking to maintain patriarchal authority in new modes of domestic living, both within family economies and urbanizing locales, shaped modes of preservation to maintain strains of "old-fashioned" economy and society as moral principles for a modern world.

This narrative progression, from corporate to commercial to domestic sites, tracks the expansion of efforts to define economic morality with architectural preservation in the early United States. In fact, observers often assessed the same structure in multiple ways. I end this book where many histories of preservation begin—with George Washington's former estate at Mount Vernon—to give a view of how advocates of preservation synthesized concerns about corporations, commerce, and domesticity by the mid-nineteenth century. In light of the previous chapters, the epilogue offers a new telling of the efforts of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association to purchase Washington's estate. It repositions their project not as the birth of preservation but as the consolidation of its popular practice as one that complemented market transactions and substantiated a supposedly moral form of capitalism for the "modern" era.

This new history of preservation shows it to be a crucial component of the history of capitalism in the early United States. Architects of plans for preservation argued that social welfare demanded that citizens sacrifice not self-interest but the boundless pursuit of profits and luxuries afforded by capitalist marketplaces. They used architecture to define ways that citizens might demonstrate this commitment to the public good: forgoing maximal profits on real estate sales, contributing money to stewardship efforts, producing or purchasing documentary views, shopping in historic structures, or donating labor to the care of historic sites. Campaigns for preservation shaped not only particular sites but also the urbanizing society that stretched along roads, rivers, and railways into small towns and farms as well as growing cities. Residents of the early nation fashioned the built environment to work out the contours of local markets, economic value, law, consumer culture, and conceptions of moral commerce and benevolent capital and labor. U.S. residents, in others words, shaped the landscape of "modern" capitalism by cultivating dynamic forms of permanence as well as architectural innovation, new construction, and urbanization.

This view of the early national built environment disrupts the clean narrative of the privatization of public space to which preservationists, environmentalists, and urbanists sometimes subscribe. Early U.S. advocates of architectural preservation claimed to limit the influence of market mentality on the built environment. But their methods of securing environmental permanence have confounded distinctions between public and private since the eighteenth century. To confront the history of this entanglement is to see historical consciousness at the heart of defining commodity production, consumption, and the value of labor in the past and in the present.

Penn Press | Site Use and Privacy Policy
Report Accessibility Issues and Get Help | University of Pennsylvania
Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press | All rights reserved