A Conundrum: managing layers of historic resources


Eric’s post on the park’s segregated past brings to mind the sort of conundrum we face in managing a park with several layers of resources.  The stone wall reconstructed by the African-American CCC camp still stands, as you can see here.

Over the years (and especially when we reconstructed missing segments of the wall in 2004), it has become apparent that the CCC reconstruction is, in terms of quality and accuracy, quite poor. It is a wall with a core–much narrower than the original, with, as you can see, stones somewhat randomly placed.  It does not accurately reflect what was there in 1862.

But, the CCC wall obviously has a history of its own.  The dilemma:  do we consciously preserve what amounts to a historical “mistake”–because the “mistake” is now historic in its own right–or do we seek to replace the CCC wall with something that faithfully reflects the dimensions, construction, and profile of what sat on the landscape in 1862?  Such are the conundrums we face.

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17 thoughts on “A Conundrum: managing layers of historic resources

  1. Agreed with Sandra above.

    Could not one alternative be to somehow bridge the two which while inaccurate through interpretation (ranger, signage and/or brochure) could address the reproduction of the 1862 wall versus the 1933 wall constructed by the CCC?

    Just my immediate reaction.

  2. I think a similar conundrum exists with the “Freeman Markers” around Richmond, and the “Happel markers” around Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania. The text is somewhat dated, but the markers have a history of their own.

    • Craig. Ah…the Happel markers hereabouts. We have considered them extensively as we install new exhibits in the field. Happel’s stuff is beautifully written and generally accurate…and they are part of our visual landscape. But, should they be preserved? This brings us to another great question…one that I’ll do a post about over the weekend. What responsibility does the NPS have to preserve in place its own efforts to interpret the battlefields over the years, and what are the implications of doing so? It’s an important question…and I’ll share some thoughts on it when I have a bit more time to write intelligently.

      • Many of the Happel markers interpret areas where the visitor would not normally be on foot, like the Wilderness and where a more casual reading from the car was indicative of the era in which they were created, the dawn of the automobile tourist. However, with road removals in some areas, like Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle, more engaging and graphic displays are vital. I do wonder about areas such as Widow Tapp’s field on Hill-Ewell Drive and stops on Jackson Trail, are people more prone to drive by and not get out as often? Does this impair the experience for some visitors? The Happel signs have a “nostalgic” feel to them for many of us, but they can or could serve as a lure for further exploration, as with the more graphic signage going in. Now in retrospect, one must wonder how many visitors in “the old days” might have hardly set foot on the actual battlefields. A quandary in a conundrum.

  3. A similar dilemma probably came up at Gettysburg – especially with the CCC constructed restrooms at Devils Den. But in that case, Civil War trumped CCC. Each individual park must weight what is more historically significant. An interpretive conundrum indeed!

    • As MAR Regional Historian, Regional National Register Coordinator, and Regional 106 Compliance Coordinator, and their watered-down successor positions, I was directly involved in such controversies. The GETT CCC restrooms, I believe constructed by the “Colored” CCC company there (which had black USA officers) was an especially troubling issue. The park didn’t want them, but they indeed had considerable significance per NRHP Criteria and Areas of Significance. And the fact remains that MARO and the PA Bureau of Historic Preservation agreed that all New Deal resources in NPS units in PA which retained integrity, even resources which may have been worked on by New Deal agencies (specifically certain features at Ft. Necessity), were to be regarded as Register-eligible.

      GETT, having been allowed to become a universe of its own, bypassed MARO when finally completing its long-overdue NRHP documentation. I don’t recall how the form treated the restrooms, but there is no question that from both the Regional and BHP perspectives such resources were “historic.” If GETT wrote them off, and the BHP agreed, it was a violation of the MARO-BHP agreement, which included all PA parks. The compliance process does not require that “historic” resources be preserved forever, but it illustrates that in “the good old days” the decision-making process involved parks, Regional Offices, SHPO’s, usually the ACHP, and often WASO. In that era, individual parks could weigh what is more historically significant, but they didn’t, and in my opinion shouldn’t, have the last word.

      Clifford Tobias, Ph.D.
      MARO/CHSO-ALLE/PHSO/NERO-P, 1977-2009

      • Thanks Cliff. We are just about done with an update of our National Register documentation, and indeed virtually all (if not all) Depression-era resources in the park are considered contributing resources with respect to the National Register. 99.9% of the time, we move easily through the process of avoiding these resources (of working on larger landscapes, for example) or properly preserving them (if working on them directly). Certainly in my 15 years at the park we’ve not had a project that would constitute anything close to an adverse effect on CCC, WPA resources–though inevitably, some day, there will be a collision of cultural values and preservation priorities. I do hope it comes when I am well down the road….

        Thanks for your input…and especially your glimpse behind the scenes in the NPS. There are often vigorous debates over how to treat these resources, debates the public has no sense of (it’s a bit like making sausage, so the public should thank their stars for that).

  4. Fortunately, we don’t run into this all the time. Usually, features of significance from a later period can coexist side-by-side with what I would call “core” resources–that is, those things that collectively comprised the wartime landscape. But, occasionally, the demands either of preservation or interpretation of the wartime landscape present us with that conundrum. We have it here, Gettysburg has it (spectacularly) with the old cyclorama center. There are LOTS of perspectives on this issue….and some middle ground can sometimes be found…but often it’s all or nothing one way or the other. Thanks for commenting. John H.

  5. As a novice and occasional park visitor, I feel you should look at these as attempts in their time to increase visitors’ knowledge of events at the park and can/should be modified by future generations after careful consideration to resemble the area at that time to increase current visitors’ knowledge. When I first saw the wall I wondered why cannon balls did not destroy it. Also this is not a CCC memorial.

    Lastly realize what you do today will be the future conundrums.

    • The wall may not be a CCC memorial, however if the wall is part of the interpretation it is worthwhile to note that is was rebuilt by the CCC and that is is not an accurate interpretation according to current knowledge. Just think of the cost of completing an accurate replication of the wall….sometimes some things need to remain.

      • I realize the parks have very limited budget. I did not intend for the wall to be replaced now but the responsible individuals should at the time when the CCC wall has deteriorated be able to build to the specifications during the war and not to the CCC build. I also realize that since the park takes good care of these treasures it will be past my children’s time when this will have to be considered.

  6. Why not retain a portion of the CCC wall as history in and of itself. But since CCC history is not the theme of the park, it should be replaced by a more accurate rendering of the wall.

  7. I’d like to know more abut what is “wrong” with the CCC wall. To be quite honest, due to its imperfections, it looks more “real” than the more recent reconstructions we see popping up at NPS sites. The newer walls are too perfect. I have never seen a wartime photograph of a wall that looks so good.

  8. From Hennessy
    David: Thanks for your comment.

    Whether or not the wall is “wrong” depends on the lens you use. Looking at it purely as a reconstruction of a historic feature adjudged by modern standards, it is indeed flawed. Even before its steady degradation over the years by people hauling off bits of it (no doubt thinking they were getting a piece of the 1862 wall), it bears little resemblance to what was there in 1862. Most importantly, the CCC wall is not built as dry-laid stone walls are built: to bear its own weight over time, which requires a proportionally wide base and the careful cutting and laying of stones. Because the CCC wall is not dry-laid; its dimensions are thus way out of wack (its base is about half as wide as it would need to be if it were dry-laid); its stones were not cut to lay upon each other and interlock (rather they are adhered, and thus appear jumbly). Other than being of stone, it bears little resemblance to what was there. At the same time, I will freely admit to you that until we had the adjacent wall rebuilt in 2004–using the right methods, design, and material–I never gave the CCC wall and its accuracy much thought. A wall is a wall. But, with the 2004 reconstruction done, the differences are stark, and I can’t help but notice them. It’s a bit like denying you need glasses, and then trying them on: “Oh, THAT’S what it’s all supposed to look like.”

    Now…as a piece of history, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the CCC wall. It is what it is. It faithfully reflects the methods used at the time and and concept of preservation and restoration that guided their work. Moreover, it is a legacy and manifestation of a work program (the CCC) that was and is immensely significant to the nation, and especially to the development of this park. The wall as an artifact (as opposed to the wall as a reconstruction) has a significance all its own.

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