Events

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Architecture: Preserving the Modern--from the ridiculous to the sublime

As the National Trust for Historic Preservation continues to remind us, modernist mid-twentieth century architecture is embattled: Even where it was once welcomed as a visible statement of commitment to innovation and progress, it is now not merely scorned, but threatened with destruction.  

Acutely endangered sites range from a major academic building on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, to Boston City Hall, to a Christian Science church in Washington, D.C.  To be sure, many of these structures are difficult to maintain and to reconcile with modern energy-conservation practices.  Still, listening to those who would dismantle this heritage, one at times has the feeling that this is an emotional act of revenge, rather than a rational one of renovation or reconstruction.

The case of the Christian Science church would be amusing if there were not more at stake: Preservationists had the building designated a historic landmark, and now church members are trying to have that designation removed so that they can demolish their place of worship.  (Presumably, if it were a vessel of flesh and blood rather than concrete and steel, it could just heal itself.)  Fortunately, we live in a society that separates church and state, so church members will have to demonstrate not simply that they don't like their building any more (for they are of course free to sell it and relocate elsewhere), but that their practice of religion will be "substantially burdened" if the building is not altered.  Good luck.  

One church member laments,
"We think it says, 'Stay away.' Something goes on in here that they don't want to get outside, which is exactly wrong for all Christianity. We don't think the architecture conveys taking the Word to the people." [. . . . ]
"Nothing expresses a church's religious exercise more than its architecture. And this architecture does not express our theology and our exercise. Brutalism is not our religious expression."
Leaving aside all the architecturally, theologically, and historically problematic aspects of that statement:  If brutalism was not the ideal style to communicate the message of a welcoming church, but then why didn't the church think of that when it commissioned the building, which was presumably intended to last for some time? Is it impossible for the current generation to understand the reasoning and sentiments of the preceding one? Does not the teaching of the church count for more than the shape of the building in which it takes place?   And, if the architecture was not a burden to the practice of religion when the structure was built, how can it be so now? Once upon a time, believers were willing to suffer martyrdom for their faith, but nowadays aesthetic discomfort resulting from changing tastes evidently constitutes intolerable oppression.  Call Human Rights Watch.

As we have seen, the University of Massachusetts has been dismantling the vernacular architectural remnants of its agricultural heritage, causing community members, alumni, and preservationists to fear in particular for the fate of its modernist structures, which, like their counterparts elsewhere, are endangered.

It is therefore both ironic and encouraging to see that Lexington, Massachusetts, the cradle of the American Revolution, has no problem embracing its modernist heritage.  As a press release to the Massachusetts preservation listserve announced, there will be a symposium on that happy coexistence on 17 October:
Mid-Century Modernism: Lexington's Second Revolution

When people think of architecture in Lexington, 'modern' may not be
the style that comes to mind. However, in the post-war years, a
building boom led to the development of nine distinct neighborhoods
with utopian aspirations: to create low-cost modern houses that
blended with their surroundings and took advantage of the hilly
topography of their sites, natural light, and access to the outdoors.
These close-knit communities shared common land amenities and
governance, and still flourish today. And, more significantly, their
contemporary style houses are one of the most vital and well-preserved
architectural features of Lexington.

It's modernist domestic architecture and not brutalist public structures, to be sure.  But if Lexington can embrace its modernist heritage, why can't we? It might be, well, a revolutionary change.

University of Massachusetts: Preserving the Modern?

The University of Massachusetts last month announced plans for a sweeping internal renovation of the modernist Campus Center, designed by Marcel Breuer. The emphasis in the press release was on improving amenities and general levels of service, with an eye to maximizing profitability in a competitive hospitality industry:
For the first time since the Campus Center Hotel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst opened its doors in 1970, the facility is undergoing a complete renovation of its guest rooms, lobby and adjoining areas.

According to Meredith Schmidt, director of the Campus Center/Student Union complex, all 116 guest rooms are being gutted and modernized. The remodeling will be completed two floors at a time so that the hotel can remain open and accommodate guests during construction. Work on the initial two floors is scheduled to begin Aug. 22. The tentative completion date is April 2009.

“This is more than just re-carpeting and changing bedspreads—this is a total makeover,” said Schmidt. “We are trying to create a three-star hotel. We know we have location and now we want to offer a very upscale product to the community.”

[. . . .]

Instead of one-bedroom or two-bedroom junior suites, the refurbished hotel will offer a mix of room types with new king, queen or double beds. Each room will be outfitted with new desks with ergonomic chairs, dressers, coffee makers, hair dryers, plasma televisions and high-speed Internet connections. Closets with glass doors will be constructed and in the bathrooms, bathtubs will be removed and replaced with walk-in glass showers. Even the room doors will be refinished to a dark walnut color, said Schmidt.
As an afterthought, the piece noted the architectural significance of the structure:
Schmidt said the firm’s renovation plans reflect a conscious respect for Bauhaus architect and influential modernist Marcel Breuer, who designed the Campus Center with his associate Herbert Beckhard.
(more)

Two things raise possible concerns:

1) The fact that the rooms are "being gutted." If all the fixtures are being ripped out and finishes changed, it is not clear what "respect" is being shown for the internal aesthetic integrity of the structure.

2) In particular, the fact that the work is being financed by the University of Massachusetts Building Authority, which callously pushed ahead with the destruction of historic agricultural buildings this past fall and winter--and even after being found in violation of state law, repeatedly obstructed and delayed agreement on a memorandum of understanding brokered by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Still, the mere fact that the University is (1) acknowledging in advance and (2) promising to protect the character of a historic structure offers at least modest grounds for optimism. To the extent that progress has been made, we owe that to the vigilance of Preserve UMass. Whether any such confidence is justified, only time will tell. The University indicates that the work is being carried out two floors at a time, so that the building can remain in operation. Work is expected to end by April 2009.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Your Community Preservation Dollars at Work: North Amherst Community Farm



"Simple Gifts Farm" exemplifies the possibilities of collaboration between citizen's groups and Town bodies.







A citizens' group created the North Amherst Community Farm (NACF) in 2006 in order to conserve this piece of open space and historic agricultural land in the North Amherst village center. Funds came from contributions by residents, as well as the Commonwealth and Town of Amherst: Community Preservation Act money, for example, helped to provide an agricultural preservation restriction (APR), to ensure that the land would continue to be used for farming.

The Historical Commission also provided advice to NACF, successfully urging the owners to preserve and adaptively reuse or restore rather than (as planned) demolish decaying agricultural structures linking house and barn. In this case, the goal was not simply to save an old building for its own sake, but also to maintain historic views and the patterns of circulation of this typical New England layout.

In late 2006, Simple Gifts organic farm (1999) and NACF entered into a collaboration that allows the former to lease the land.



The third annual North Amherst Harvest Festival takes place here this Sunday, 28 September, from noon till 6 p.m.

The Community Preservation Act (2000) provides Massachusetts locales that adopt it with support for Open Space and Recreation, Historic Preservation, and Affordable Housing. Funds come from a progressive surcharge ranging from one to three percent, based on local property tax assessments but exempting the first $ 100,000 of assessed valuation. Participation has moreover traditionally earned communities state matching funds, derived from property transfers. Initially, all communities could earn a 100-percent match. However, as the number of participating locales has increased and property values decreased, the Commonwealth determined that, as of autumn 2008, only communities whose surcharge lay at the upper end of the scale would be eligible for matching funds. Amherst initially adopted the minimum one-percent rate, and cautiously increased the rate only to 1.5 percent in 2006. A measure on the November ballot now proposes to increase our surcharge to the maximum three percent, in order to increase amounts available from local resources and to ensure that we continue to receive matching funds. (Many of our neighboring communities, including Northampton, Hadley, and Leverett, already have three-percent surcharges in place.)

Adopting the measure in Amherst would mean an additional surcharge of only $ 55.87--or around 15 cents a day--for the average single-family house with an assessed value of $ 332,500.

Among the vital historic preservation projects for which we have used CPA funds are the restoration of the historic 1730 West Cemetery and the masonry of the 1889 Richardsonian Romanesque Town Hall.

The Amherst Historical Commission supported placing the referendum on the ballot but has not yet taken an official stance on the measure, as such. A local organization called "cpaYES!" has taken the lead in advocating for the measure.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Community Preservation Act Dollars at Work: West Cemetery Headstone Restoration



Daily Hampshire Gazette, 24 September 2008
Scott Merzbach, "Restoration Underway at Amherst's West Cemetery"
AMHERST - Deteriorating and broken gravestones in the town's historic West Cemetery, which regularly draws tourists from around the world as the burial site of Emily Dickinson, are being repaired in anticipation of the town's 250th anniversary next year.

Members of the Historical Commission on Monday got a firsthand look at the project, which is restoring headstones dating from the 1700s through 1900s. The work is funded through $150,000 from the Community Preservation Act account that was authorized by annual Town Meeting three years ago.

(read the rest)
(reattached gravestone fragments)

members of the Historical Commission
and associated Town Staff (Associate Planner Nate Malloy
and Planning Director Jonathan Tucker, on the right)
inspect work in progress on the headstone of Revolutionary War soldier
(later: General) Ebenezer Mattoon (1755-1843) and
his wife, Mary, after whom the local DAR chapter is named.




the Mattoon grave
Meanwhile, the Historical Commission is looking at using a symbol from a representative gravestone that will be the graphic for signs that will formally adorn both the Triangle Street and North Pleasant Street entrances to the cemetery.

Members were closely examining the gravestone of Benjamin Kimball, which has a face at the top, with wings protruding from it, and ornamentation down the side. Member Lynda Faye said the traditional shape of this stone, along with the strong graphic, might make it ideal.

Other gravestones with similar faces and skulls might also be used in the signs.

Commission members were joined in this endeavor by students from my Hampshire College seminar, "Making Landmarks, Doing History." The goal of the seminar, undertaken in collaboration with the Historical Commission and the Massachusetts Center for the Book, is to train students to research local figures listed on the Literary Map of Massachusetts, in order to develop appropriate historical markers for sites at which they lived and worked. At the same time, the course provides a more general introduction to historic preservation, public history, the history of Amherst, and research techniques.

Having just completed a set of readings on cemetery culture, from seriation of Colonial New England gravestone art, through the rise of the "rural" or "park" cemetery movement of the nineteenth century, to current debates over the fate of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, students were eager to make their own suggestions for the marker emblem. Interestingly, their opinions roughly mirrored those of Commission members. The famous progression of typical early gravestone motifs begins with the winged death's head, which is gradually transformed into a winged cherub's head, and eventually gives way to the urn and weeping willow. All the students recognized that the twin issues were historical and aesthetic: choosing a design that was associated with Amherst's past but would also function effectively as a graphic for a public sign. Most thought that we should take something from the early history of the cemetery (since its age was what made it so important in Amherst), but felt that the death's head might be too grim as a public symbol, and therefore inclined toward the more welcoming cherub. A few suggested, however, that we also make a point of looking for something that was unique to or particularly representative of Amherst and West Cemetery. The Commission selected three images--related to typical designs but in distinctive local variants--for further consideration and design development.


Town Planning Director Jonathan Tucker,
explaining early Amherst history to students
in my class.

As noted earlier on this blog, restoration work has been underway since this summer, and headstone repair is now in full swing. By the end of August, the conservators, Monument Conservation Collaborative, had restored 74 of the 269 endangered grave markers specified in the contract, and anticipated that, barring the unusually early onset of cold weather, they would be able to complete the work this autumn.



the gravestone of teacher
John Scott (1737), the oldest
marker in the cemetery



The Town Tomb, where corpses were stored in the winter, when frozen soil did not permit the digging of graves. The Town has appropriated $ 5000 from CPA funds for an engineering study of the Tomb. The North and South cemeteries have similar structures, which will also be part of the study.

The Community Preservation Act (2000) provides Massachusetts locales that adopt it with support for Open Space and Recreation, Historic Preservation, and Affordable Housing. Funds come from a progressive surcharge ranging from one to three percent, based on local property tax assessments but exempting the first $ 100,000 of assessed valuation. Participation has moreover traditionally earned communities state matching funds, derived from property transfers. Initially, all communities could earn a 100-percent match. However, as the number of participating locales has increased and property values decreased, the Commonwealth determined that, as of autumn 2008, only communities whose surcharge lay at the upper end of the scale would be eligible for matching funds. Amherst initially adopted the minimum one-percent rate, and cautiously increased the rate only to 1.5 percent in 2006. A measure on the November ballot now proposes to increase our surcharge to the maximum three percent, in order to increase amounts available from local resources and to ensure that we continue to receive matching funds. (Many of our neighboring communities, including Northampton, Hadley, and Leverett, already have three-percent surcharges in place.)

Adopting the measure in Amherst would mean an additional surcharge of only $ 55.87--or around 15 cents a day--for the average single-family house with an assessed value of $ 332,500.

Among the other vital historic preservation projects for which we have used CPA funds is the restoration of the masonry of the 1889 Richardsonian Romanesque Town Hall.

The Amherst Historical Commission supported placing the referendum on the ballot but has not yet taken an official stance on the measure, as such. A local organization called "cpaYES!" has taken the lead in advocating for the measure.

Community Preservation Act Dollars at Work: Town Hall Restoration Proceeds



Work on the Town Hall masonry restoration, financed with Historical Commission sponsorship from the Community Preservation Act funds, continued this month.







Town Manager Larry Shaffer
takes a close look at the work





The Community Preservation Act (2000) provides Massachusetts locales that adopt it with support for Open Space and Recreation, Historic Preservation, and Affordable Housing. Funds come from a progressive surcharge ranging from one to three percent, based on local property tax assessments but exempting the first $ 100,000 of assessed valuation. Participation has moreover traditionally earned communities state matching funds, derived from property transfers. Initially, all communities could earn a 100-percent match. However, as the number of participating locales has increased and property values decreased, the Commonwealth determined that, as of autumn 2008, only communities whose surcharge lay at the upper end of the scale would be eligible for matching funds. Amherst initially adopted the minimum one-percent rate, and cautiously increased the rate only to 1.5 percent in 2006. A measure on the November ballot now proposes to increase our surcharge to the maximum three percent, in order to increase amounts available from local resources and to ensure that we continue to receive matching funds. (Many of our neighboring communities, including Northampton, Hadley, and Leverett, already have three-percent surcharges in place.)

Adopting the measure in Amherst would mean an additional surcharge of only $ 55.87--or around 15 cents a day--for the average single-family house with an assessed value of $ 332,500.

Among the vital historic preservation projects for which we have used CPA funds are the restoration of the historic 1730 West Cemetery.

The Amherst Historical Commission supported placing the referendum on the ballot but has not yet taken an official stance on the measure, as such. A local organization called "cpaYES!" has taken the lead in advocating for the measure.

Condemnation for Jewish Terrorist Attack on Leftist Professor. Sign the Protest Petition.

Figures from across the spectrum of intellectual and political life in Israel responded with shock and disgust to a pipe-bomb attack that wounded a distinguished academic.  Professor Ze'ev Sternhell, known for his foundational studies of fascist and right-wing movements in European history, was also an active leftist public intellectual who often harshly criticized his own country.

Flyers left near the scene of the crime offered a reward of over a million shekels for the murder of "Peace Now" members, too, pointing to obvious conclusions as to the identity of the attackers.  A reactionary settlers' movement claimed, rather preposterously, that the flyers were a leftist provocation created by the Shin Bet security agency.  Several spokesmen for these extremist groups, such as Baruch Marzel and  Itamar Ben-Gvir of the National Jewish Front, denied responsibility for the attack but also pointedly declined to condemn it.   Let's face it, they are the political equivalent of cheap prostitutes: their clumsy attempt at coquettishness only calls attention to their revolting character.

Peace Now, for its part, laid part of the blame at the feet of the government, which, it said, had not cracked down on settler violence:  "Those who don't enforce the law on violent settlers... will find themselves with a Jewish terror organization in the heart of Israel."

All political elements but those on the lunatic fringe unequivocally condemned the assault.   A sampling of reaction:  

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke of a "shocking incident."  Foreign Minister, Kadima Chairwoman, and presumptive Prime Minister Tzipi Livni expressed her sympathy to the Sternhell family and said the attack was "intolerable, and cannot be glossed over." In a New Year's statement from the Foreign Ministry, she declared: "The state of Israel is a lawful state, and moreover, it is populated by a society with values. It is the responsibility of the government and the Israeli society to renounce such phenomena as soon as they rear their heads."

From New York, at the United Nations, President Shimon Peres called for universal condemnation of the act and said, "We must not allow such extreme and dangerous people to take the law into their own hands."

Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter:
'This attack takes us, Israeli and Jewish society, back many years, to the days of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination,' Dichter said at a police ceremony held in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv.

'We should view the explosive planted last night as one that aimed to kill,' he said.  'The law enforcement establishment and police will not rest until those terrorists will be placed where they deserve to be – in prison.'  Referring to the perpetrators of the attack, he said 'those are despicable people who endorse the killing of those who do not share their views.'
Defense Minister Ehud Barak (whom Sternhell had harshly criticized earlier this year):
We are returning to the dark spectacle of pipe bombs that are aimed at people, in this case against a very gifted person who never shies away from expressing his opinion.

We won't let any elements, from any dark corner of Israeli society, to harass people who let their clear, lucid, unique voices like that of Ze'ev Sternhell be heard.
Haim Oron, Chair of the left-wing Meretz party, a possible coalition partner in the new government:
They better not talk to us about a few bad weeds. These phenomena spring up on the right-wing [of the political spectrum].

This thuggish and dangerous act is the result of the continuing see-no-evil approach toward the vicious violence against soldiers and police officers and anyone else who doesn't agree with the brutish section of the extreme right wing.
Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, although targeted for removal by left-wing parties in coalition negotiations with Kadima over a new government, shared their revulsion:
a politically motivated attack could undermine Israeli democracy and reopen wounds that have still not healed, and may never heal. This phenomenon must be uprooted.
Similarly, conservative Likud politician and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “this is a sickening attack by abominable people who are not part of the public debate in Israel,” adding, “They need to be distanced from society and placed behind lock and key.”

And from the conservative National Union-National Religious Party:
MK Effie Eitam (National Union – NRP) addressed the attack on Professor Ze'ev Sternhell, calling the act 'a disgraceful act in the eyes of the law, morality and Judaism.'

'Those behind this heinous act do not represent the values of Judaism and the love of Israel. My objections to Sternhell's outrageous opinions aside, I wholly object to any attempt to silence opinions through violent means,' said Eitam.
Sternhell, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who fought in three of Israel's wars from 1967 to 1982 and won the presitigious Israel Prize in political science this year, defiantly said that he would not be intimidated, but worried more for the fate of the country than himself: "If this act was not committed by a lone lunatic, but by elements representing a political persuasion, this is the beginning of the way to the crumbling of democracy."  

Several voices in the press and politics expressed similar concerns.  (The attack is certainly symptomatic of a dangerous mentality.  Debate turns on the question of whether it is part of a concerted new radicalization of tactics by extremist settlers determined to resist any government attempt to dislodge them.)

That the sentiments need to be expressed at all is deeply sad and disturbing.

That such attempts to silence dissent through intimidation or even liquidation of the dissenter are the exception in Israel but the rule in the territories and states at war with Israel should also give one pause for thought--in particular, those who share Sternhell's critique of Israel's policies but not his dedication to the original Zionist enterprise from which it derives, and that serves as his yardstick of moral measurement:
'The War of Independence fired my imagination,' he says. 'The decision to immigrate was a personal one, which stemmed from both a Zionist family history and my own desire to take part in building the state of the Jews.'
Israeli academics are planning a solidarity protest: "The incident was an attack not only against the man himself, but it also threatened the freedom of expression and thought in Israel," one of the organizers said.

Academics elsewhere can demonstrate their solidarity by signing the following petition, from Scholars for Peace in the Middle East:
We, the undersigned, professors with widely varying political orientations and from many disciplines, from around the world, strongly condemn the targeted bombing and injury of Ze'ev Sternhell, Professor of Political Science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ha'aretz columnist.

As Professor Sternhell's fellow academics, we also denounce the attack on him because it appears to have been intended as retribution for his expression of his political views. Thereby, it endangers us and the entire academic enterprise, which depends on freedom of expression.

As human beings, as well as academics, we condemn all acts of criminal violence and hope that the perpetrator(s) of this treacherous assault and attempted assassination are brought to swift and maximal justice.

[Sign]

Thursday, September 25, 2008

24 September 1831: Dedication of Mount Auburn Cemetery


Wildwood Cemetery in Amherst

The creation of Mount Auburn cemetery outside Boston is generally credited with beginning the "rural cemetery" movement (sometimes also and more accurately called "park cemetery" or "garden cemetery", though the former term was the one that stuck):  carefully landscaped burial places that replaced their rather unkempt and desolate Colonial predecessors and served the needs of the living as much as those of the dead.  It is from this prototype that most of us derive our image of a cemetery, and indeed, it was then that the term, "cemetery," began to replace "graveyard" and "burial ground."

These attractive, peaceful spaces reflected a new attitude toward death and were seen as tools of aesthetic and political education--as Nehemiah Allen put it in 1834, "a feeling of the spontaneous goodness of God." "Man should learn from Him, to be the same everywhere that he should choose to be in the sight of his fellows, and to have all his actions proceed from a deep, uncompromising conviction of duty, and love of what is right, rather than from a hope of reward." Humble monuments to ancestors and local worthies were viewed as appropriate to a republic, a constant spur to patriotic citizenship. An anonymous writer said of the Forest Hills Cemetery in Roxbury in 1855, "The spot where their fathers and friends are buried, if it possess those charms which impress the heart and gratify the taste, will never be forgotten, and the land which contains it, though it have no other attraction, will yet be dear [to the living] for this."

The rural cemeteries were so popular that they became the destination of outings. In the 1840s, when Lady Emmeline Wortley visited the President of Harvard, she recalled that the first trip was to Mount Auburn, and afterward "we went to see a little of the colleges." So popular were the new spaces, that they spurred the creation of urban parks, in part in order that the veneration of the dead and recreational activity might better be separated.

Wildwood Cemetery (1888) in Amherst is our local exemplar, in contrast to West Cemetery, whose oldest portion, at least, preserves a rare piece of untouched Colonial topography and the feel of a Colonial cemetery.

Although Frederick Law Olmstead, who had designed the Town Common, declined the invitation to perform a similar service for the new cemetery, he did make recommendations of appropriate native plant species, which Austin Dickinson (brother of the poet), who took a leading role in establishing the new institution, followed.

Carpenter and Morehouse, in their venerable but standard history of the town (1896), say, "Nature has made of Wildwood cemetery a garden-spot for the living, a noble sepulcher for the dead.  The best that man can do is to preserve therein the beauties of Nature's handiwork."

Resources: Mount Auburn Cemetery; Mass Moments entry

Monday, September 22, 2008

20 September 1918: Birth of Historian George Mosse


Mosse's grave, Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, Wisconsin

George Mosse, one of the most influential historians of modern Europe, was born into a distinguished German-Jewish publishing family in Berlin at the end of the First World War. (His grandfather was Rudolf Mosse, who revolutionized advertising in the German periodical press and brought out the famous liberal newspaper, Berliner Tageblatt, among other titles.)

After emigrating to the United States via England, Mosse studied early modern history and established his reputation as a Reformation scholar in the 1950s. He liked to note, with a mixture of pride and irony, that all of his examinations at Harvard were in fields prior to 1700. It was ironic because he became best known for his work on nineteenth- and twentieth-century history. He was in fact, a co-founder and -editor of the Journal of Contemporary History.

When, in the course of his early employment at the University of Iowa, and then Wisconsin, students asked him to talk about and teach the Weimar and Nazi eras, he both turned to and revolutionized another field. Mosse was among the first to take fascist and Nazi thought seriously, more interested in understanding its origins and functions than in judging its intellectual sophistication or lack thereof. Having set forth his views on the relation between high culture and popular attitudes in his influential text on The Culture of Western Europe (1961), he proceeded to show how racist and fascist ideologies--particularly German völkisch and antisemitic thought--far from being the mere ravings of a lunatic fringe, in fact corresponded to deep-seated needs of societies wracked by change and seeking reassurance and meaning. Rejecting both old-fashioned intellectual history as pedigree-hunting, and the abstractions of political sociology, Mosse located fascist thought squarely in the European cultural tradition. By stressing the nature of fascism as a politics of consensus based on true mass movements and popular support, he moved beyond simple notions of dictatorship and terror, offering an interpretation that was far more complex and ultimately far more disturbing. In the final phases of his career, Mosse turned to the history of sexuality and gay studies, again showing how cultural stereotypes and sharp oppositions between the putatively "normal" and "abnormal" in popular culture led to the conflation of difference and hierarchy and informed a host of practices, from the personal to the political. Again, a deeply disturbing revelation: social manners, antisemitism, and anti-homosexual prejudice all derived from similar notions of respectability, which were in turn linked to deeply held values of class and nation.

Although Mosse thus gravitated to many epochs and subjects in succession, there was in fact a deep and underlying unity to his research. As he always told us, the historian was best advised to focus not on a time, place, or topic, as such, and rather, on a significant question. For him, one of the most profound questions had to do with the ways that people find or make meaning in their daily existence--and reconcile themselves to the constraints of living in society; hence his definition of culture as "a state or habit of mind which is apt to become a way of life." Everything was therefore of a piece for him: His studies of Protestant and Baroque Catholic ritual and liturgy helped him to make sense of nineteenth-century nationalist monuments and the Nuremberg rallies. Observing popular Christianity in Mexico--he liked to recount stories of peasants splattering chicken blood on churches at Easter--provided him with insights into other syncretic forms of thought. The fixation with the artistic legacy of Classical Antiquity shared by the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie and Nazis alike led him to connect ideas of beauty with acts of brutality.

Mosse's work contributed greatly to the introduction of the study of collective mentalities into the study of modern history. An immensely learned man who wore his learning lightly, he eschewed the sort of complex theoretical discussions favored in some other branches of the profession (particularly those influenced by francophone scholarship), instead preferring to illustrate the workings of theory through its application to concrete examples, presented in eminently readable prose.

Mosse was one of the most popular professors at the University of Wisconsin, where he came to hold the position of Bascom Professor of History. Following his death, the Humanities Building, in which he had worked and taught, was renamed, "The George L. Mosse Humanities Building." Today, however, the forty-year old modernist structure is threatened with the wrecking ball--a fate that has provoked debate among academics and historic preservationists.

Resources:

the Wikipedia entry presents an admirably solid and comprehensive portrait of the man, his life, and his work.

George Mosse Teaching Fellowship, University of Wisconsin History Department

neighbors in life and death: 
graves of George Mosse and his colleague and political sparring partner, Marxist Harvey Goldberg



Sunday, September 21, 2008

It's Reigning Khazars! Lost Capital Update

AP: Mansur Mirovalev, "Scholar claims to find medieval Jewish capital"

Details on the discovery of the long-lost Khazar capital are starting to come out in the popular news media, and this piece contains several color photos of the site and artefacts.

The article includes a statement from Khazar researcher Kevin Brook to the effect that he is convinced this is the correct site. Most of the discussion turns on the nature of what was found (architectural remains and material culture, rather than texts). Based on the statements cited here (though their representativeness remains to be determined) one could speculate as to which themes or debates will emerge: on the one hand, a long-overdue positive recognition of the Khazar role in Russian history; on the other, a potentially regressive questioning of the Jewish character of the Khazar empire.

As promised, a more extensive round-up of coverage will follow in the near future.

Dickinson Break-in Update: Finally, the Facts

Press stories at last confirm what early clues suggested: that the break-in at the Dickinson Museum early this month was a random act of antisocial behavior.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported Saturday that the man who broke into the Museum was the same one who attempted a break-in at a private residence a short time later:
A University of Massachusetts student faces criminal charges for allegedly causing $600 in damage at the Emily Dickinson Museum after attempting to force his way into the building in the early morning hours of Sept. 5. Police say he was very drunk at the time.
[ . . . . ]
The man first smashed a window and door at the museum in an unsuccessful attempt to get inside, and in the process lacerated his right hand and bled extensively. A bookcase inside the museum was tipped over when he reached inside to unlock the door. Police said the cost of cleaning up the broken glass and the blood was $600.
(Full story: Scott Merzbach, "Man to face charges for museum damage")

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dickinson Break-in Update

No news, actually.

The Amherst Police Arrest and Call Log records the initiation of a breaking-and-entering incident at the Museum as of 8:30 a.m. on Friday, 3 September (incident # 08-545-OF), and today's Amherst Bulletin notes same in its famous police blotter. However, no details are available, and no reports seem to have appeared yet in the traditional media.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

6 September 1841: Birthday of Antonín Dvořák


Dvořák's grave at Vyšehrad
in Prague, where many of
the greatest Czech cultural
figures are buried


Antonín Dvořák is one of the most sympathetic modern musical figures: a man of lower middle-class origins who attained the height of fame yet never lost his connection with the common people, a Czech nationalist who proudly refused lucrative offers to compose operas to German texts, yet never succumbed to chauvinism.  He is also one of the most underappreciated modern composers.  Often relegated to second-class status and treated as part of an ethnic sideshow to the Germanic main event, he was in fact in the eyes of many contemporaries second in importance only to Brahms. Indeed, he achieved the rare distinction of having won the respect and eventual friendship of Brahms, who was by no means easy to please.

Dvořák, who came to the United States and served as Director of the National Conservatory of Music, caused an international controversy when he proclaimed in The New York Herald in 1893 that the future of American music lay in its African-American traditions:
I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies.  This can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.  When I first came here I was impressed with this idea, and it has developed into a settled conviction.  These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil.  They are American.  They are the songs of America and your composers must turn to them.  All of the great musicians have borrowed from the songs of the common people. Beethoven's most charming scherzo is based upon what might now be considered a skillfully handled negro melody.  I myself have gone to the simple, half-forgotten tunes of the Bohemian peasants for hints in my most serious work. Only in this way can a musician express the true sentiment of the people.  He gets into touch with the common humanity of the country.  In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.  They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, gracious or what you will.  It is music that suits itself to any mood or any purpose.  There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot find a themetic [sic] source here.
What then seemed to many to be a reckless prediction or even harebrained idea today seems prophetic.


He also maintained that soup was the foundation of a good meal.



Community Preservation Act Dollars at Work: West Cemetery Gravestone Restoration Underway


Restoration work on headstones in Amherst's historic 1730 West Cemetery began this July and is now in full swing.








The work, carried out by Monument Conservation Collaborative of Norfolk, CT, is financed by an appropriation of $ 150,000 from Amherst's Community Preservation Act fund.




The team takes a break on a hot day: 
Irving Slavid (President), 
Martin Johnson (Conservator, partner),
applying a biocide to remove
moss, fungus, lichen, and other
surface growth:

before


after


adhesive repair of fragments,
using epoxy



relamination of split slates, 
using flowable grout


Friday, September 5, 2008

Breaking News: attempted break-in at Dickinson Museum


There was an attempted break-in this morning at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, specifically, the 1813 Dickinson Homestead in which the poet spent most of her life.

Partial and unofficial information suggests that this was a case of disorderly and antisocial behavior (one might speculate about alcohol or drug abuse) rather than any sort of attack on the museum, as such.

The publication of Brock Clarke's provocatively titled and darkly comedic novel, Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England(2007)--which begins with the narrator's confession, "I, Sam Pulsifer, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts"--of course set preservationists everywhere on edge, though he was welcomed to the Valley as part of his book tour last year.

Fortunately the Dickinson Museum is adequately protected and well monitored, but the incident underscores the need for vigilance.  Many other small museums and historic structures, whether due to meagre resources or for other reasons, lack proper security measures against both human mischief and natural disaster.  Installation of such systems even in the best of cases poses stiff aesthetic and technical challenges.  And of course, large-scale natural disasters can overwhelm even the best security measures.  Preservationists breathed a sigh of relief when Hurricane Gustav failed to develop into the catastrophe that was Katrina. They are still struggling, not without controversy, to save what can be saved from the destruction of three years ago.

The near misses this past week in both New Orleans and Amherst remind us just how fragile and precious our historic resources are. That they have survived this long is due in no small measure to good luck, but we cannot rely on good luck alone to protect them in the future.




It's Reigning Khazars! Breaking News Update: Long-Lost Jewish Capital Found

The Khazar Empire, from J.-H. Schnitzler,
“L’Empire de Charlemagne et celui
des Arabes . . . au commencement du
IXme siècle . . . . (Strasbourg, 1857)


Agence France-Presse announces, “Russian archaeologists find long-lost Jewish capital.”

The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz recently reported the discovery of ruins of the walls of Jerusalem dating from 2100 years ago. Those archaeologists, however, were Israelis, and there is of course nothing long-lost about a Jewish capital in Jerusalem under the Second Commonwealth (debate centers instead on the age, nature, and extent of any historical remains associated with the biblical accounts of David and Solomon.)

What is noteworthy about the French report is that the long-lost capital happens to lie within the boundaries of the Russian Federation.

This exciting archaeological news provides a welcome opportunity to introduce a new rubric that I had long intended to add.

The history of the Khazars is so dramatic and mysterious that someone encountering it for the first time could be excused for dismissing it as a fiction or fantasy—as many have indeed done.

A Turkic people, who maintained their independence in the face of both the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim Caliphate, the Khazars blocked the advance of the Arabs and Islam in eastern Europe—a development every bit as fateful as, though far less well-known than, the parallel achievement of Charles Martel and the Franks in the west at Poitiers in 732. In the early ninth century, stunningly, the Khazars converted—en masse, it is now believed—to rabbinic Judalsm. At its height, this Jewish empire dominated the territory between the Black and Caspian Seas, controlling the lower Dnieper, Don, and Volga rivers, and stretching from Kiev in the west to Khwarizm in the east. Indeed, the Caspian Sea was known as the “Khazar Sea,” a term that survives in Turkish, Arabic, and Farsi usage, among others.

Khazaria, celebrated for its military prowess, agricultural riches, economic influence, and religious tolerance, became a mediating force and buffer between the realms of Islam and Eastern Christianity and rivaled the Byzantine and Carolingian empires in extent and power. In the second half of the tenth century, the ascendant Russian state in effect destroyed the Khazar empire, the severely truncated remains of which succumbed to the Mongols nearly three centuries later.

The Jewish character of the Khazar empire is now irrefutably proven through textual sources, but archaeological evidence, for a variety of political as well as practical reasons, has until recently been relatively scarce or poorly diffused. Numerous individual artifacts survive (often in obscurity or secrecy), but scientists continue to seek intact complete settlements. The great fortress of Sarkel, on the Don, was only partially excavated by Soviet researchers before it was submerged under both a reservoir and a cloak of silence during the Stalin era. The holy grail of the archaeological quest (to borrow an image from another cultural tradition) has therefore been the final and greatest of the three historic Khazar capitals, Itil (or Atil), at the mouth of the Volga near the Caspian Sea.

According to AFP, it has now been found:
MOSCOW (AFP) — Russian archaeologists said Wednesday they had found the long-lost capital of the Khazar kingdom in southern Russia, a breakthrough for research on the ancient Jewish state.

"This is a hugely important discovery," expedition organiser Dmitry Vasilyev told AFP by telephone from Astrakhan State University after returning from excavations near the village of Samosdelka, just north of the Caspian Sea.

"We can now shed light on one of the most intriguing mysteries of that period -- how the Khazars actually lived. We know very little about the Khazars -- about their traditions, their funerary rites, their culture," he said.

The city was the capital of the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic peoples who adopted Judaism as a state religion, from between the 8th and the 10th centuries, when it was captured and sacked by the rulers of ancient Russia.

At its height, the Khazar state and its tributaries controlled much of what is now southern Russia, western Kazakhstan, eastern Ukraine, Azerbaijan and large parts of Russia's North Caucasus region.The capital is referred to as Itil in Arab chronicles but Vasilyev said the word may actually have been used to refer to the Volga River on which the city was founded or to the surrounding river delta region.

Itil was said to be a multi-ethnic place with houses of worship and judges for Christians, Jews, Muslims and pagans. Its remains have until now never been identified and were said to have been washed away by the Caspian Sea.

Archaeologists have been excavating in the area if Samosdelka for the past nine years but have only now collected enough material evidence to back their thesis, including the remains of an ancient brick fortress, he added.

"Within the fortress, we have found huts similar to yurts, which are characteristics of Khazar cities.... The fortress had a triangular shape and was made with bricks. It's another argument that this was no ordinary city."

Around 10 university archaeologists and some 50 students took part in excavations in the region this summer, which are partly financed by the Jewish University in Moscow and the Russian Jewish Congress.
The essence of the Khazar story is familiar to scholars in mediæval and Jewish studies, and lineaments of it have also furnished the stuff of legend, (including cultural classics from Yehudah ha-Levi in Muslim Spain to Pushkin in nineteenth-century Russia), but the details of this historical episode are virtually unknown to the general public. In part for that reason, the mysterious rise and disappearance of the Khazars and their empire have prompted a great deal of speculation, most of it fanciful, some of it vicious. Among the latter, the two most prominent beliefs are, in brief (I’ll return to them in future postings):

(1) European Jews are mainly descendants of Khazar converts, and therefore not “Semites” of Middle Eastern origin, as a result of which a Jewish state in that region is illegitimate.

(There is a historical debate to be had here—or was, at any rate: all the documentary, and now, genetic evidence refutes this theory of Jewish ethnicity. In any case, the assertion should be irrelevant to political debates because it negates neither the ancient history nor the obstinate modern fact of a Jewish state in Israel.)

(2) The Khazars—whether defined as a discrete ethnic subgroup or employed as a synonym for European Jews or Zionists, tout court—represent a distinctly sinister force in world history. Until recently, this paranoid view was confined to the lunatic fringe that one associates with the John Birchers and their anticommunist ilk, fascists and white supremacists old and new, and contemporary Arab and Islamist hate groups.

What is most disturbing is that elements of the two political claims (one cannot dignify them with the name of “arguments” or lines of “reasoning”) are gaining currency and converging. When the creation of Israel by the United Nations—an institution regarded by progressives as a force for anti-colonialism and the general good—can again be seriously called into question more than half a century after the fact, both the founding and survival of the Jewish state can only appear the more mysterious. As a result, the distance between the quasi-respectable rants about the “Israel lobby” by Walt and Mearsheimer (1, 2) and the outré conspiracy theories of 9-11 “troofers” and hatemongers of all stripes is smaller and more rapidly traversed than one would have cared to imagine.

For these reasons, as well as because of its intrinsic historical importance, then, the story of Khazaria earns a place among the rubrics of the present blog.

One shudders to think how reactions to the news story may develop on the internet.

For the moment, though, let us hope that the emphasis will be on serious science and the celebration and further investigation of a great discovery.


realm of the Khazars and designation
of the Caspian Sea as the Khazar Sea,
from Conrad Malte Brun, “Géographie
Du Moyen Age principalement au
IXe Siècle” (Paris, 1837)


Resources:

The Jews of Khazaria (now out in a second edition; Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), by Kevin Alan Brook, provides the single most convenient and comprehensive overview of the growing but widely dispersed specialized literature on the Khazars. His website, www.khazaria.com, offers an overview of Khazar history as well as regular updates on new historical and archaeological discoveries.