Madison Alder Juliana Bennett Woefully Wrong About Historic Preservation

I came across a tweet this past week that concerned me on a number of levels. Madison Alderwoman Juliana Bennett alerted us to her lack of reasoning about historic preservation, muddled it with affordable housing, and then tossed in a dose of juvenile cursing for her most base of constituents.

The alder’s desire to undermine historical preservation and then cloud the issue with comments about the “white man” was noticed during her comments at the July 20th Madison City Council meeting. It was there she spoke out against the efforts to preserve the limited view of Lake Mendota from the Lamp House, the lone Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in the downtown portion of our city.

“We are voting on preserving the view of a dead rich white man, because, I guess, preserving the view of a dead rich white man so that he could see his lake house….”

“The resolution to preserve the view of the Lamp House so that the ghost of some dead rich white man can look at the lake reeks of white elitism, white privilege and overall a hyperpreservation that plagues our City”

“Preserving the view of the Lamp House has become an important issue to the sponsor, or to the Plan Commission because a few white elite preservationists will have the privilege and the means to make a fuss, have made preserving the view a paramount issue.”

“…preserving the view of a dead rich white man is not worth redevelopment that would benefit downtown residents”

To be frank, (no pun intended) such arguments laced with the anger of this type aimed at the “white man” undercut effective dialogue with the larger audience in our city. While I understand Bennett’s attempt to buttress an image as a progressive warrior what resulted was a self-created connotation of not being well-grounded about history, or why preserving it matters.

It is that last part which concerns me. I have thought for a couple days how I best wanted to post about Bennett’s disregard–even disdain–for the history of our city. Her attitude is deserving attention as she sits on the council.

One of the reasons that history is vital to know and preserve is that it allows for a collective memory from which to unite as citizens. There is no need for everyone to agree about the various interpretations of a home, spot of ground, or a celebrated moment but we all can agree that having those places or events in a visible form allows for history to then follow in stories and memories.

Consider how in 1927 Charles Lindbergh landed in Madison after flying around the State Capitol. His arrival at Pennco Field was a grand sight for the people on hand, and today there is a sense of that moment with a plaque near to the present site of South Towne Mall. The city basically came to standstill that day as many gathered to hear him speak at Camp Randall. It was not the first time Lindbergh had been here as in 1920 he lived on Mills Street while a student at the university.  

A crowd greets the Spirit of St. Louis after Charles Lindbergh flew the plane to Madison on Aug. 22, 1927, and landed at Pennco Field.

There are clearly many ways to view Lindbergh, some favorable, many not. The pro-German isolationist or the mega-celebrity with aviation credentials. All of these types of people, places, and events will surely be viewed differently over time, with varying interpretations based on who we are as a people and changes in our society.

The fact that people have divergent perspectives about memories of historical people and places is the reason they need to be preserved. It is those places where we then can have larger dialogues about the memory that is created from walking through a home, or gazing at a plaque as the largely blue sky beckons us to look up and imagine the arrival of the Spirit of St. Louis. And the character of the man then, and in years to come.

I reject Bennett’s accusation of elitism when it comes to historic preservation as if those who care about our collective history do so for narrow purposes. As if somehow history does not belong to all, or the joy of understanding it is relegated to only a few.

In 2007 I moved into the Marquette Neighborhood. It was soon after I first saw, every now and then along our street, a rectangular object near the curb. A neighbor informed me they were carriage stoops and were placed for the convenience of ladies as they exited the carriages back in the time the old Victorian homes were first constructed and lived in.  At once they became a point of historical pride for me about another aspect of the neighborhood that conjured up all the grandeur of days gone by.   

During a street construction project in 2009 portions of a couple of the carriage stoops were injured.  I at once contacted a local neighborhood historian and together we talked about the need to maintain the past.  Today they are protected with a city ordinance so walkers from around the city, or those who travel here from aboard to live as grad students, get to feel a slice of the past.

Equating elitism with historical preservation is not logical. Without historic preservation, the old and grand portions of Madison would have been razed. Conserving parts of our past allows for collective memories, and shared experiences. Without such touchstones (again, no pun intend) creeping amnesia occurs and then turns into a reckless disregard for where our story came from.

When our history is known, understood, and preserved one thing is clear. History is an antidote for self-pity. That is a lesson more need to grasp.

And so it goes.