History Trashed

Imagine the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles being carted off to the trash to make way for a new school. Is that sad or is that life? Or is it even good riddance to a bad architectural wart?

Or imagine, alternatively, that the Ambassador Hotel had missed its appointment with the wrecking ball and the pantry was now the centerpiece of a museum. Would you go?

Or, a third option, imagine going to school in a building where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Would that change your sense of history, your sense of place, for the better?

The question came up a few days ago (if not exactly in the terms I just proposed) , on the anniversary of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, in an NPR segment featuring Patt Morrison, a newspaper columnist who had been active in the effort to save the hotel. Morrison argued that there was no substitute for actually being in the place where it had happened. Even if the pantry were recreated somewhere else with the pieces that had been preserved, she said, it wouldn’t pack the power of the original.

Ambassador HotelAll of which led me to the architectural wart theory. To be honest, I startled myself with that conclusion, since in general I’m much in favor of museums, I’m extremely interested in history, and I’m even more keen on preservation and keeping things out of the trash.It took me a while to puzzle through the values and assumptions that took me to that unexpected destination. Let me start with the obvious:

– Bobby Kennedy is not really part of my personal sense of history. I didn’t live in this country when he was assassinated. I don’t even know why he was assassinated. I have no idea what I could possibly learn from visiting the scene of the crime. It’s sort of interesting to imagine what would have happened if he hadn’t been assassinated, but I struggle with the notion that anything would have been radically different in that case. Anyhow, if the pantry had been hallowed and presented as a museum shrine, I’m unlikely to have made the pilgrimage.

– The whole thing reminds me of all the worst pseudo-museum experiences that the western world has been apt to produce and exploit: the Catholic veneration of relics, the ghoulish insalubrity of a Mme Tussaud’s waxworks, the goggle-eyed horror of a circus sideshow with its oddities, deformities and abnormalities.

– History wasn’t lost when the pantry got thrown out. There are aspects of history of which we have only a few mute objects to reconstruct the people and events that produced us, and they become precious beyond words. This particular piece of history isn’t one of them.

Some things are too fragile not to put in a museum. At least a museum is a public place, which makes its treasures available to whoever has the price of entry and a preference for low-adrenaline entertainment. In those respects, I like museums. A lot. All the same, there’s tremendous loss in the lines a museum draws around the objects it preserves and displays. Museum alienates us from living history: they take history away from our lives, put it a glass case, and serve it up with expert interpretation. Perhaps a historical marker works a lot better.

In my ideal world, we wouldn’t build anything that couldn’t last for a long time. We would repurpose and adjust the things that outgrow their original intention. In that case we can live surrounded by things that testify to other people, other ways, other cultures, other values. We would have to forgo the lustre of the new, the promis of a fresh start and a limitless future, but we could have a living connection with the past.

So if I could rewind time and choose a different fate for the Ambassador Hotel, I would rewind it all the way past the Kennedy assassination, back to a point before 1921. Of course the most important thing to undo would be the assassination itself, but next on the list is building something that could withstand the tooth of time.


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