Public Good and Private Profit, Historic Preservation in Early America—A Review of “Historic Real Estate”

Martinko, Whitney. Historic Real Estate: Market Morality and the Politics of Preservation in the Early United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.

Reviewed by Stephanie Gray

The practice of historic preservation is and always has been political. While “the politics of preservation” are time and place specific, in Whitney Martinko’s Real Estate: Market Morality and the Politics of Preservation in the Early United States, the context is the dynamic relationship between public good and private profit mediated through historic architecture in early America.

Martinko makes a compelling case that US citizens saw the cultivation of the historic built environment as a forward-thinking business venture from the nation’s start. In this impressively researched examination of preservation as capitalist activity in early America, she convincingly argues that transactions about the future of old properties were rooted in the economic and political world. Over time, the meaning and value of historic sites transformed according to market changes—and who wielded decision-making power. Debates over what to preserve and what not to preserve were irrefutably bound up with the image of corporate and commercial success, the possibility of lucrative business deals, and partisan influence afforded to privileged and propertied men.

Divided into three sections and moving largely geographically from the western lands of Ohio, to the major East Coast cities, and down to the northern South, the book examines three types of historic real estate: corporate properties, commercial sites, and domestic spaces. Regardless of category, actors involved in the business of preservation were preoccupied with determining the monetary and moral value of their historic properties. Exhibiting moral market behavior meant (in theory) prioritizing the maintenance of historical continuity as a public good and condemning commercialization for the sake of making a profit.

Particularly engaging is Martinko’s exploration of how commercial proprietors, like merchants and tavern owners, colluded with imagemakers to harness the value of their historic properties for profit through the publication of prints, photographs, maps, and city guides. They created “preservational views” of locations to link the veneration of historic structures with the development of a moral consumer ethic, nurturing the emotional ties early Americans developed with old places and at the same time cementing historic properties as profitable real estate. Business owners employed this wily marketing strategy to encourage moral commerce, as was the case of Philadelphia clothier William Brown. His ready-made attire business, Birthplace of Liberty, operated out of the building where Jefferson had drafted the Declaration of Independence. Brown highlighted his dressing saloon’s association with this historic and high-principled deed in advertising materials to posit his business as a place of respectable consumption. The tactic to exploit historic sites for profit was not confined to the economic sphere. In cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, people of all political backgrounds, from Jacksonian Democrats to Whigs to Garrisonian abolitionists, used the business of preservation as political fodder to demonstrate their own ethical market behavior and denigrate that of contending groups.

Engraver Henry Snyder depicted Albany’s recently demolished Dutch American church in its commercializing urban context in this typical “preservational” view, 1806. “A view of the Late Protestant Dutch Church in the City of Albany” (1640-1904), New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In the third section and epilogue, the author engages with the gendered implications of preserving historic structures as economic activity. As the men who served as stewards of historic properties claimed economic (and moral) authority, thereby developing a masculine “brand of civic housekeeping,” they minimized the role women wielded over domestic spaces. Savvy, business-minded owners of historic homes eagerly capitalized on the associational quality of their property to turn a profit. Male descendants’ plans for the “rural improvement” of their ancestral estates, which typically meant allowing lucrative development, revealed frictions between private owners with legal autonomy and public demands for architectural permanence of cherished landmarks. Henry Clay’s Ashland in Lexington, Kentucky, is an example of the public laying claim to private estates. The statesman’s son James Brown Clay defended his decision to level the familial mansion as a beneficial economic act and his right as heir and new patriarch. Yet, the demolition birthed ample and widespread commentary about propertied citizens’ obligations to the public as cultural property owners.

Ashland, Henry Clay’s ancestral estate. “Ashland the Home of Henry Clay” (ca. 1852), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The author wraps up the book where many narratives of the US historic preservation movement begin: Ann Pamela Cunningham and the campaign to save Washington’s Mount Vernon. Martinko positions Cunningham as an economic actor with sound business sense, whose success in ensuring Mount Vernon’s permanence through legal contract exhibited moral economic behavior done in the service of public interest. By doing so, Martinko couches early preservation activity—often regarded as sentimental, patriotic, historical reverence—in its proper context. She drives home the argument that the genesis of preservation was not a simply nostalgic attachment to old places, but rather a complex and sophisticated strategic approach to accessing and acquiring market capital in a rapidly developing economy.

Stephanie Gray (PhD, University of South Carolina, 2019) is a historian of the American built environment and a historic preservationist. She lives in Pittsburgh where she is an assistant professor of Public History at Duquesne University and the Department of History’s Director of Student Research. Her current book project examines the federally funded restoration of historic landmarks during the Depression era as a critical component of the New Deal’s cultural agenda.

Featured Image (at top): Maintenance of Newport’s historic Touro Synagogue became a matter of public interest when Abraham Touro named the state the property’s steward in his will. Kenneth C. Zirkel, “Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island” (2017), Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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