Preservation by bulldozer?
November 14, 2007
Yes, folks, it’s another historic battle – a Historic Preservation battle to be exact. A steel cage match: throw ’em in, lock the cage and wait for a victor to emerge – bloody, but still at least alive.This no-holds-barred brawl features the usual bunch of battlers: lawyers, planners, homeowners, developers, politicians, bureaucrats, contractors. Anyone else want a piece of it?Throw in a couple of alligators and maybe a bear or two, and we’d have a real show.They’re fighting over the meaning of “historic.” Is it 100 years old or 100 days? Or, for that matter, 100 hours?In other places, it might be “George Washington slept here after winning the Battle of Trenton.”Here, it’s more likely “Alberto Tomba got drunk here after winning the World Cup Slalom.” Or “Suzy Creamcheese threw up here after winning the Wet T-shirt Contest.”In any case it is, I suppose, a worthy debate.But once we finish fighting over the meaning of “historic,” we might also consider discussing the meaning of “preservation.”And whether it involves bulldozers.In fact, there’s a debate on that exact topic right now on the national level. And, curiously enough, it has a direct link to this valley.It’s the battle over Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns (perhaps better known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), built of marble from the quarry at Marble.The focus of the furor is a crack in the marble that grows a little every year. The crack doesn’t threaten the structural integrity of the tomb. It is simply a very visible flaw.Plans are in the works to replace the flawed monument. The Marble quarry is ready to provide a new, flawless 48-ton block of stone.But now the project has been stalled by people who say that replacing the tomb would be an act of destruction, not preservation.And so: What is the meaning of “preservation”?The superintendent of Arlington wants to replace the tomb. He says the monument should be perfect – just as everything at this national cemetery should be perfect in honor of the men and women buried there, who have served their country and, in many cases, given that “last full measure of devotion.”How could we allow this most sacred of monuments to fall into disrepair?On the other side are those who argue that the stone itself has become hallowed and that replacing it would be a kind of sacrilege. They ask: Would you repair the crack in the Liberty Bell?For some, then, replacing the stone is as simple a matter as replacing a tombstone damaged by vandals. For others, replacing that stone would be, in itself, vandalism.Perhaps we can step back and see the philosophical differences.For some, preservation means maintaining a state of perpetual newness, as close to perfect as possible. It’s a theoretical preservation, striving for a Platonic ideal.For others, it is the actual physical object – not the idea of the object – that counts.And so, to Aspen.What are we trying to preserve? An essence, an ideal, an idea? Or a reality? Are we preserving “Aspen’s history”? Or are we preserving houses?There are, after all, “preserved” “Victorians” here that contain not one single board, brick or nail from the original building. Yet they stand, shiny bright, a kind of Platonic ideal of the Victorian home. Good as new. No, better than new.They were created through a process of preservation that, oddly enough, often did involve a bulldozer and a pile of rubble, out of which a brand-new “preserved Victorian” emerged, like that fabled phoenix from the ashes.And then there are still a few – fewer all the time – lovingly preserved homes, carefully tended over the decades. They shine with the beauty of the age they proudly show.Think of a woman who has grown old, gracefully but unmistakably. She has gray hair and her face is not unlined: but she is strong and healthy, older but very much alive. She glows with the experience of the life she has lived.And then consider another woman, perhaps the same age … but who can tell? Her hair is dyed, the lines on her face have been erased. Her glow is most certainly from the tanning booth. She is, I am certain, strong and healthy. But has she lived? Has she learned? Who can tell?She is perhaps someone’s Platonic ideal of a mature woman. Is she your ideal? I know she’s not mine.Preservation? You decide.Andy Stone is a former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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