October, with its beginnings of decay and references to ghosts and haunted houses, has always been rather strongly associated with memories in my mind. Latent memories have a way of rising to the surface as the weather gets colder, gloomier, and we spend more time indoors. Buildings become more forbidding in the darkness – and those rotting window frames or that peeling paint are more present, clearer marks of age and decay that affect all structures eventually. And sometimes, we see traces of other buildings still remaining, and remember presences that are no longer there.
Look at Franklin Court – originally a house Benjamin Franklin had constructed in 1763 and owned until his death in 1790. Around the time of the United States Bicentennial (about two years prior to it, in 1974), the country decided it was important to preserve evidence of its founding and began to look, in earnest, at preserving vestiges of that past. Unfortunately, Ben Franklin’s house – surely a crowning piece – had actually been destroyed somewhere around 1812. Fortunately, when the national government began purchasing and assembling the lots, archeological investigations in the 1950s and 60s found remains of the house.
And there we find ourselves confronted with ghosts, remnants of buildings, and what they mean to us. Do the archeological remains of those buildings hold enough power to evoke a memory? Do they require augmentation to be made more relevant to the present-day viewer? Should they be reconstructed? In 1974, the firm of Venturi and Rauch reached a compromise. The buildings, the actual house and a smaller print shop, are literally “ghosted” in, using tubular steel to suggest the outline of these structures. The archeological remains – mostly indicative of the plan of the building – remain below, incorporated into the museum, allowing visitors to walk in and out of this suggested structure, requiring that they make up their own mind about the actual form and arrangement of these buildings.
The tubes give you a sense of height, of size. Human beings find it easier to imagine what a space was like when you give them some three-dimensional comparison, something in relation to their own sense of self, rather than just a two-dimensional plan. A ghost of an envelope is present in those tubes, which keeps the building alive. In a humorous twist, the ghostly reconstruction itself has been listed as “non-historic, contributing” by the National Parks Service – an acceptance that the ghost somehow adds to the site’s history. As a lover of old buildings, I can’t help but be torn about the technique. There is something visceral and amazing about only seeing the actual remains of a building – a mark of time passing, that nothing is forever. At the same time, seeing the ghost of the building there forces you to fill in the blanks in a way that those remains do not, requiring you to dig into memories (or go find a history book) to try and flesh out the apparition, and in doing so give it an extra breath of life.
This ghost has been emulated at other historic sites over the years, and is no longer quite so uncommon. But it still raises the question of memory and our attachment to a three-dimensional representation – is form, an overall structure needed to evoke memories and interest? Could our buildings’ ghosts perform so well without a little of our help? Perhaps. Or perhaps without it those ghosts would slip away from us, and take memories with them. We prefer to be sure, to keep close the memories we want to maintain, and choose how our old buildings will be haunted.
Architect: Venturi & Rauch
Original house: 1763 Reconstruction: 1974
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Holland, Alyssa. The Reconstruction of Historical Buildings: A Visitor and Historical Site Study. Virginia Commonwealth University. December 2011.