Research trip to the USA

In September I took part in a seminar on popular culture at the annual conference of the German Studies Association in Pittsburgh. The seminar felt a bit like being back at university—only that everyone had read the text and engaged in the discussions. The gap between literature scholars and historians in evidence at other events at the GSA, was not a problem for us because we all felt like outsiders in our respective disciplines and faced similar problems not least the difficulties in finding sources. Popular culture isn’t preserved in the same way that high culture is and therefore poses a unique problem for researchers. We all felt thankful to the fans and enthusiasts, who had collected material that became our sources and without whose work ours would have been impossible.

The conference also provided a welcome opportunity to do some research in archives and libraries in Washington and New York, the United States have become increasingly more important to my project. After three days in Pittsburgh I took an early Amtrak train to Washington. In search for coffee I stumbled upon the observation car. Gazing out through the large windows, I thought of Marguerite Yourcenar’s afterword to Hadrian, where she recalls writing crucial parts of the novel “alone in the observation car of a Santa Fé limited, surrounded by black spurs of the Colorado mountains, and by the eternal pattern of the stars”.1 Sadly, I was too late for stars and there were no mountains. But the view onto the Potomac and the forests of West Virginia was pretty impressive, too. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a raft with beaver-hatted pioneers floating down the river. As the train moved eastwards at a leisurely pace, I felt like travelling back in time. 

Eventually we arrived in Washington. On the following day, I had the good fortune of meeting a German colleague on the bus bringing researchers from the imposing building of the National Archives near the National Mall to a less imposing outpost some 45 minutes away in Maryland. She explained to me how the National Archives worked—so similar in many ways, every archive, every library has its own very distinctive ways of doing things—which saved me a lot of time. Still, I frantically filled out call slips for some fifty boxes. In a rare case of archival luck, the very first box contained exactly what I was looking for.

What I was looking for was some proof for the assumption that the American National Trust of Historic Preservation—chartered by Congress in 1949—was modelled on the British National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, founded in 1895. The literature did imply this without, however, going into detail or giving any examples. Now I had them in front of me neatly filed: a speech by the British diplomat Sir John Balfour about the National Trust in 1947, a digest on the British National Trust from 1948 and plenty of mentions of the British National Trust—and preservation provisions in other European countries—in the minutes of meetings and conferences.

The next days I spent in the Library of Congress, ploughing through three decades of Historic Preservation, the journal of the National Trust as well as many other books and treatises on historic preservation. I also went to the National Gallery, where most of the inaugural meetings of the National Trust had taken place and which, in 1985, had shown an exhibition on “The Treasure Houses of Britain”, a sort of pendant and American follow-up to the British “Destruction of the Country House”-exhibition of 1971 (see blog post).

From Washington I took the bus to New York, the last stop of my trip. Some friends, I had outlined my itinerary to, asked, somewhat sardonically I couldn’t help noticing, “and this is for research, too?”, implying my reasons to go to the big city weren’t entirely academic in nature. To those doubters let me say that yes, New York also has a role to play in the history of historic preservation. In Britain, the destruction of the first Euston Station and particularly the big arch in front of it in 1962 had a galvanizing effect on the preservation movement. Nearby St Pancras Hotel and Station—desitined for the same fate—were saved by listing in 1967. A similar story unfolded in New York in the very same years. In 1962 it was announced that Pennsylvania Station would be demolished and moved underground, to be replaced by the new Madison Square Garden. In the aftermath, New York passed the Landmarks Preservation Act in 1965. Thanks to it, Grand Central Terminal, also scheduled to be demolished, was declared a landmark in 1966 and survived. Examples like these show how attitudes towards the past shifted during the 1960s. Initially accused of nostalgia, preservation gained a wider following and began to prevail over modernist planners and architects.

Pennsylvania Station
Madison Square Garden

On my last day in New York I visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street. This museum shows what it was like to live in a tenement in the early 1900s as if frozen in time. In 1935, its owner, rather than modifying the building to conform to new laws, decided to evict the residents and to rent out only the ground-level shops. As a consequence, the flats above were preserved in the state the tenants left them. In 1988 the building was discovered by two women, who went on to found the museum. In 1994 it was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Trust in 1994, making it also a good example for the work of the Trust.


  1. Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian: And Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian, London: Penguin, 2000, p. 275. []