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Marking historic sites

Look how much more real and revealing the Betsy Ross House appeared in 1900 than the theme park of today. The early photo shows a two story rowhouse from 1740 sandwiched between two commercial buildings built about 150 years later. This small house, said to be where Betsy Ross (1752-1836) lived and worked when she produced the first Stars and Stripes flag, is located in Philadelphia at 239 Arch Street. 

The Betsy Ross story emerged in 1870 from family accounts, and was popularized during the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. The circa 1900 photograph showed that the site remained legible and fascinating into the 20th century. The importance of the historic house was acknowledged, but without isolating it or turning back the clock.  Life goes on and the city has adapted. 

In cities layers of history build-up over time to form a tangible record, and can be read as a geologist might interpret core samples taken from the earth. This enables later generations to understand the motivations and purposes of those before them.  Each generation can interpret its significance.  In our view, this is the most compelling argument for historic preservation. 

"Birthplace of Old Glory" was purchased in 1936 by Philadelphia radio mogul A. Atwater Kent with the idea of restoring the building and opening it to the public.  Kent hired traditional architect R. Brognard Okie to design the restoration and oversee the work.  

Okie was fascinated with Pennsylvania's colonial vernacular building traditions and with photographer Philip B. Wallace studied surviving examples.  They learned to identify regional and cultural variations and the details appropriate for specific periods. At this time (1936-1940) Okie was the chief designer for rebuilding Pennsbury Manor, William Penn's country estate on the Delaware River, and an obvious choice for Kent's project.

For the restoration Kent and Okie decided to remove 19th century changes, and back date the building to suggest its appearance in 1777 when the Stars and Stripes flag first appeared. The desire was to preserve as much of the original structure as possible, and replace missing features with salvaged materials from the same period.  Their design was based on evidence and conjecture, and Okie was meticulous in his choice of details.  They also added a small "carriage house" in back for a new furnace and toilet rooms.  

Arch Street was by then an established commercial street.  The earliest known photograph that included the Ross House is from 1859. It showed rowhouses of similar size along the street.  By 1871 we see larger structures built on each side, and by 1900 the Ross House appears to be the last survivor of Federal era.  

Kent decided to give the Ross house more breathing room. He bought the adjacent buildings to the west and tore them down. Kent claimed this would create a "civic garden" for the house museum.  Completed and opened in 1937, Kent's project was donated to the city of Philadelphia in 1941.

In the economic recovery after World War II Americans took to the highway for vacations, and Philadelphia's historic sites were a popular destination.  In 1965, the Betsy Ross Museum built an annex for its offices and souvenir shop behind the house.  In preparation for 1976 Bicentennial events the remaining open space was made into a courtyard with a fountain featuring... cats.  The site was no longer grounded by historic precedent and became a tourist theme park. 

Betsy's 18th century rowhouse remained at its original location, but isolated when loft building to the east was demolished.  Blank sidewalls that once connected the house to its neighbors were left exposed and the house appeared the survivor of an unexplained disaster.  Visitors could not tell how the site would have looked in Betsy's time, or how it ended up like this.

Modern vs. traditional city building

Isolating the landmark as they did also suggests how pervasive Modern planning had become with its emphasis on stand-alone buildings. Modernists preferred buildings set back from the streets and property lines, as if in splendid isolation.  Adjacent buildings and context could be ignored.  Nothing connected or created something greater than the sum of its parts.  Landscape architects were hired to design a leafy backdrop for the isolated gems of self-expression.  Modernists preferred their buildings photographed with as little context as possible. 

Pre-modern cities like Philadelphia developed in small increments over generations.  As it grew buildings took their places on a clear pattern of streets, squares, blocks, and lots. Only civic and religious buildings were built freestanding in park-like settings. As the city evolved, buildings cooperated toward spatial definition. 

Modernists regarded traditional cities with contempt. Their idea was to limit the past to selected landmarks and rebuild--tabula rasa--to a new vision.  Modern theory came to dominate the architecture and planning schools and convinced a generation of architects to reject traditional practices. The Modernists advocated stand-alone buildings regulated by an abstract set of requirements that limited height, lot coverage and setbacks.  Every individual parcel was a world unto itself, and the context irrelevant. It did not take long for most pre-modern U.S. cities, once walkable and well-connected, to become fragmented and scattered. 

Single-use zones were established to avoid obnoxious uses, like a stock yard in a residential neighborhood, but in effect they drove everything into separate districts. This isolated even compatible uses, making city life more difficult and less attractive.

The unintended consequences of Modern zoning fostered both suburban sprawl and massive increases in the size of commercial buildings. Cities up-zoned their central historic districts to attract redevelopment.  Parcels could be consolidated and huge projects built. The historic district's human scale and fine-grain character were lost.  As cities spread out they became less walkable and required more transportation infrastructure to get around.  

Automobiles provided a short-lived competitive advantage for the affluent until central city streets and highways were clogged with traffic. The quality of life in historic cities suffered and increased congestion and conflict drove the middle class out. Philadelphia, with its excellent commuter rail service, saw many residents depart for the village-like Main Line suburbs.
Where's Betsy?
Historic preservation and cultural myths
Betsy Ross House in context, as it appeared ca. 1900

The Birth of Old Glory (1917), reproduction, Edward Percy Moran (1862-1935). 
Elfreth's Alley, one of America's oldest residential streets in continuous use, missed the wrecking ball and languished for decades until rediscovered and restored.  The 33 individual houses were built between 1713 and 1836.
Betsy Ross re-enactor, 2011
Betsy discusses her life and times with museum visitors
We might acknowledge that Betsy Ross has been a useful role model for generations of youngsters, and her story has had a long run. The Ross House continues to receive 250 thousand visitors a year, and remains one of the most popular historical sites in Philadelphia. Tens of thousands of school children have toured the house, and heard Betsy's story.  

Visitors find a re-enactor in period dress who quietly sews and discusses the concerns of the day (1777) with anyone willing to play along.  Betsy is portrayed as a defiant and independent Free Quaker who understands the creation of America as a moral proposition.  Despite personal danger she is steadfast in her commitment to the vision.  For Americans she represents the nation's character and fortitude.  It would be a shame to lose her as we are called upon to rebuild a coherent society.

Tim Andersen







reproduction of Percy Moran painting
Betsy Ross House, 2011

In present day America, a society in which Edward Bernays' ideal of 'managed perception' has triumphed beyond his wildest dreams, parables are no longer tolerated.
Creating an appropriate setting

​When the Ross House was restored in the 1930s Kent should have left the adjacent buildings in place.  As the museum grew some of this space could have been adapted for exhibition use, offices, orientation theater, ticketing and shop.  This would have taken pressure off the historic house to be more than a period appropriate restoration.  Arch Street with its two centuries of development could have remained legible, if not as coherent as Elfreth's Alley, only two blocks away.

Visitors to 18th century Elfreth's Alley find its atmosphere and scale enchanting, and are drawn to notice even the smallest details.  In this setting we can easily visualize life here two hundred years ago, suspend disbelief and allow our imaginations to navigate the terrain between romance and reality. 

The Ross House does not encourage anything like this, and its lessons are not so engaging.  Readiness for instruction and readiness for insight are not really the same.  Instruction implies absorbing and integrating prescribed information. The path to insight seems more a willingness to see things anew, suspend assumptions, engage imagination and follow its lead.

A better setting for the Ross House could be realized. Gaps in the street wall on both sides could be filled with small buildings similar in scale and style to those seen in the early photographs. This is what the National Park Service did on Market Street at the entry to Franklin Court where five historic rowhouses were entirely rebuilt.  Public access to Franklin Court is through a portal between the houses, and the same idea could work here. The courtyard would become the museum entry and place to marshal group tours. The building fronts would be connected, and visitors given a plausible historical setting to experience the landmark.

This would seem to many a reasonable proposal and not even controversial, but they would be wrong. The idea of emulating 18th century rowhouses would be ridiculed by orthodox Modernists and preservationists claiming it was "false history" and a betrayal of the zeitgeist. Critics could not rest until plans were dropped, or new buildings so mangled anyone could tell they were modern. Too bad-- if an appropriate setting for the museum could be realized, most people would prefer historically competent designs with a simple plaque to identify the year of construction.
Postcard, "Betsy Ross House Where the first American Flag was made. Philadelphia, Pa."
Betsy Ross House courtyard as it was developed in 1974. Tour guides await deployment at the cat fountain.
2 April 2018
2,400 words
We only have to look to Franklin Court, a couple blocks south of the Ross House, to see what could go wrong. The Benjamin Franklin Museum was planned for 1976 Bicentennial celebrations and designed by the prominent postmodern Philadelphia firm of Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown. 

Location of new museum was intended to show where Franklin’s historic (1763) house and print shop once stood.  Demolished in 1812, only fragments of the original foundations and privy pits were found.  Layout of the ground floor could be determined, but no drawings were discovered to show the exterior character. 

Venturi knew architectural historians would attack any scheme that appeared to interpret original design from scant evidence. To prevail the architects took the historians' position to its inevitable conclusion and proposed a thin tube steel outline of the two buildings with no detail or scale references, except three chimney-like outlines sitting on a ridge.  Ground plan included four large concrete hoods to shield windows over foundation fragments. The court was left open with a new 30 thousand square foot museum built below.  Path into the museum was an arcade (later removed) with what looked like a huge over-scaled rail fence from a suburban lawn along its edge. 

Scale cues and designs were intentionally tongue-in-cheek. The architects were playing with us, but their potential critics had been silenced.  An American Institute of Architects jury gave the project a National Honor Award in 1977.  No one dared ask if the ghost frames were even necessary. Their location and size revealed little, and did nothing to stimulate our imaginations.

The cartoon-like quality of Venturi’s design was intended to be a parody and snub of picturesque historicism. If you were hoping for some cultural continuity, or comfort in the past— well, forget it.  What is fascinating about this project is that it included both extremes of preservation theory.  At the opposite polarity of the Venturi scheme John Milner Architects completely reimagined the five colonial era townhouses.  Design was based on extant party walls, fire insurance records, and the architects' extensive knowledge of Philadelphia's historic building traditions.
Franklin's house and print shop were demolished in 1812. Architects for the 1976 Benjamin Franklin Museum depicted the two lost buildings as steel "ghost frames" with Museum built below. Beyond ghost frames are the five new brick rowhouses with portal to Market Street. Mark Cohn Photo
Five reconstructed Market Street rowhouses (c. 1786-1804) with arched portal entrance to Franklin Court. John Milner, Architects, 1976
This intriguing view of Franklin Court site (1950) looks north to arched portal at Market Street. The five historic rowhouses have gained two more floors and evolved into sweatshops.
​1859 photo of Ross House (to right of lamppost) shows near-twin addition for cake bakery. Building on the right is still a compatible height. Frederick de Bourg Richards photo 
1871 photo of Ross House shows within 12 years a four story building has replaced its near-twin, and the scale of development is increasing.
M.P. Simons photo
Betsy Ross is an American folktale

A 1917 painting by Edward Percy Moran, The Birth of Old Glory, shows an early twentieth century interpretation.  We see Betsy has been transported from tight quarters above her Arch Street shop to a fine Colonial Revival in the suburbs. There is a welcoming glow in the fireplace, geraniums basking in the sun, and General Washington is speechless before her creation.

National myths are ideology in a narrative form. The stories we tell ourselves confirm shared values and inspire civic virtue. They support social cohesion by emphasizing common purposes, and thereby reduce class and ethnic competition. In the United States, despite a huge and diverse population citizens have cooperated when essential and crossed boundaries of class and ethnicity. 

In the retelling of myths, we separate ourselves from the present and connect to a broader ideal.  The traditional role of fables and parables is to excite the imaginations of young people. Betsy Ross is an American folktale, a historical figure to personify the character and grit of the Founding Generation. 

As with all parables the lessons are not definitive, but encourage further questioning. They open paths of inquiry for young people, and lead to provisional understandings.  Interpretations and emphasis may change.  To remain relevant a myth must be adaptable.

Around 1950, Dean Cornwell (1892-1960) offered his interpretation of the Betsy Ross story.  We find her surrounded by a proud family in what could be a modern Colonial Revival house. They appear in a comfortable sunlit room. The high-key color palette suggests a bright future for these children, who are smartly dressed and ready for school. In the foreground are their books with an apple for the teacher. The nation's patriarch, General Washington, looks over the scene approvingly.  Cornwell is offering reassurance to Americans that this unique experiment in self-government will survive if the historic character of its people can be preserved.
Since the 1950s academic historians have been busy debunking cherished myths, and the Betsy Ross story was an easy one to challenge. Prevailing opinion among historians today is this was not likely the Arch Street house that Betsy Ross occupied, and she probably did not design or sew the first American flag. The story was introduced in 1870 by her grandsons, and popularized with no other evidence beyond the family's claim.  In the post-Civil War malaise it was immediately accepted and celebrated.

In present day America, a society where Edward Bernays' ideal of managed perception has triumphed beyond his wildest dreams, parables are no longer tolerated. Truth is dispensed to Americans through six media conglomerates, and they are careful to stay on message.  The mainstream media limits acceptable debate, and marginalizes dissent. It sets the agenda, frames the issues, and shapes popular opinion by an endless repetition of official stories.

There is always a danger of myths being exploited for nefarious purposes. Since 9/11 Americans have seen an undeniable push to equate patriotism with militarism, and to manufacture consent for invasions and wars.  Identity politics has been widely promoted to fracture society, and dilute opposition. The classic divide-and-conquer strategy has undermined social cohesion, and allowed a tiny minority of political zealots to dominate policy. 

A culture under attack decays from within for lack of shared vision and purpose.  Mythology and historical lore are conduits to transmit cultural values, and to foster affection for one's nation and people.  Without a sense of solidarity or a stake in the nation's future we are merely isolated individuals and competing tribes.  A contemporary painting,Tribute to Betsy Ross #6, by Ray Mack (b. 1985) says it all.  The artist takes ghoulish delight in satirizing the Stars and Stripes parable and we see a grotesque people have created a Frankenstein monster.
Betsy Ross, by illustrator Dean Cornwell (ca. 1950)
Edmund Bacon, renown Philadelphia City Planning Commission Director (1949-1970) with model of Society Hill Towers designed by I.M. Pei and Associates, 1960
Tribute to Betsy Ross #6 (2016), Ray Mack, oil on canvas, 72w 68h
A. Atwater Kent, 1925
Wow, it's Betsy in a handheld device!