Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Tidy Past

One of these days, I'd like to see an historic house - which is supposed to evoke the way people used to live through period furniture and other artifacts - actually try to depict they way a lot of people really used to live, that is, without tidying up all the time. I've been to a fair number of these kinds of places, from the home of Lincoln here in Illinois to the reconstructions of village houses of Edo Japan, and I have to ask: where's the clutter?

Inevitably, there's a bit of a house beautiful sensibility to the way the space is re-created. The books are all in their shelves, the toys artfully positioned rather than randomly scattered, the dishes clean and arrayed for a meal: everything is pretty much in its place. Of course, I've visited actual non-historic houses that look that way. But I've also visited a lot more houses that look like someone actually lives there, and never have I seen an historic recreation that's less than tidy. How about a disordered stack of Godey's Lady's Books off in the corner of the sitting room, a pile or two of clothes in the bedroom, or some simple toys here and there where an adult might actually step on one? Most people might have had fewer possessions in those earlier times, but they did have possessions, and I can't believe everyone, or even most people, wanted to emulate a proto-Martha Stewart.

Someday among historic preservationists there might be just such a movement. It's one thing to re-create a house as it might have looked after spring cleaning in 1880, but quite another to depict it on an ordinary day that same year, as if the owners had just stepped out and weren't expecting company anytime soon. The human condition is cluttered.

I thought of that when I toured the uncluttered interiors of some of the structures at Dallas Heritage Village at Old City Park last week. Which isn't to say that there were some interesting things to see, such as the 1901 Blum House, a Jewish house of the period. It's a painted a very pretty lavender on the outside but is otherwise little different from any other house of that style, except for the silver menorah and (I think) the separate sets of dishes among the possessions.

Other featured structures in Old City Park include a small hotel, a doctor's office, a dentist's office with its scary late 19th-century devices, a general store, law office, print shop and bank. The shotgun shack -- called a house, but I knew better -- was a little cluttered with tools and the like, but even it had a touch of organization probably not known to the folk who originally lived there. The church was satisfyingly Protestant in its simplicity, and the saloon had some good touches, such as a stuffed grizzly bear.

The largest of the houses was called Millermore, built in the late 1850s by a cattle baron named Miller and re-created to 1861, which included the first Confederate national flag, the Stars and Bars, hanging outside. We actually took a guided tour of that one, provided by the docent who also recommended places to eat lunch in the modern neighborhood around Old City Park, known as the Cedars, just south of downtown Dallas. It was odd at times to look up from some ca. 1880 building to see the office buildings of ca. 2010 Dallas looming in the background, but there they were.


Post a Comment

<< Home