Friday, January 7, 2011

Plantation Architecture, part I

I have cynical feelings about restoring Plantation Mansions. Most of them are depressing indeed: in want of funds, with period wallpaper books open to show what they want donations for, and  a dusty mayonnaise jar for you to put those donations in.

Most of these homes are mouldering faster than John Brown's body. In Louisiana along the (Mississippi) River Road, you can see them gradually cut out from under by river water, industrial development, weather, mold, cockroaches, mice, and human neglect. Most of them have elegant proportions that speak past the shabbiness and decay. They represent a type of architecture which will never return.

European Tradition
If this was Europe, we would prize the chateaus where elegance once reigned at high human cost. Europeans don't raze their architecture just because there were dungeons in the basement full of torture implements, or even though rich young lordlings raped servant girls in the pantry or peed on the marquetry table legs in marble halls. During the French Revolution, they chopped off the heads of the Lords in the palace and those who tried to sell luxury goods to those Very Royal. This scared the hell out of the rest of Europe, but not enough to change central government.  Napoleon showed up, and the Royal Pageant went on. So did war--but it was not a war to free the oppressed. It was a war of Kings against an Emperor. Like his forbears in French leadership, Napoleon sought to control all of Europe with a ruling class, not to abolish central rule.

Our Idea
But in this country, we ended slavery through means not strictly class-driven. It was a regional break, and yes an economic break, but not by class: all classes went to war against slave states or to preserve their 'peculiar institution'. Today I'm not delving deeply into the long but true history of how the slave class had to suffer too long, and never got an even break afterward--that's for another time. But this is where some cynicism lies when it comes to preserving Plantation Architecture.

The American ideal of equality for all, plus a disdain for losing, makes a full-out federal preservation protection of plantation items seem ludicrous. Why would the United States of America revere the homes of its lost oppressor class? Yet those who don't grow up in the South never quite figure out that shabby plantation homes recollect war depredations (Sherman's torch) or reparations (carpetbaggers). Each failing site signifies that an entire economic class was decimated, that they were taxed and driven out of business, that they gave their all (gallantly) and lost. So in the South, preservation of the "highest achievement" is complicated by the fact that their best wasn't good enough. It was too long on grandeur, too short on foundries. Too cruel to sustain, but it propped elegance. A shabby Southern plantation denotes high ambivalence due to unresolved injury and the memory of historical outrage. Pick the injury and the outrage depending on who you are.

Therefore, any restoration of plantation architecture seemingly speaks to a lack of ambivalence: that the North should have left the South alone, and onward to that slavery somehow was acceptable. Onlookers who wish the Confederate flag to disappear distrust the motives of plantation preservation. .In this country, such preservation is a political statement. But I think the statement could  and should be be more complex.

Yes, these plantation homes describe the high living of careless  and cruel rich white people. Maybe some were "good to their slaves". They turned the cruelty over to subcontractors: foremen, patrollers, estate agents, so they could accord themselves this luxury of kind treatment on the face-to-face or escape altogether. And we do this now whenever we buy goods produced by slave labor elsewhere. These homes have the capability of throwing present sins into our faces, too. The ambivalence may be about a present international economy as well.

These homes also describe, just as the Egyptian pyramids do, or Versailles, or any Gothic chapel, the workmanship and artisan craft of the working class. Plantation sites don't just describe a place where whipping posts were used--but a place where black artisans designed and built sugar refineries, timber mills, environmentally suitable homes, levees that held back swamps, defensive avenues of fire, forest fire abatement, and strong buildings for storage and their own, far-lesser habitations. Most of these artisans are not recorded in history, just as the masons of palaces and cathedrals and pyramids are not. Most of them were never remunerated and hardly recognized.

And Just Maybe . . .
Maybe historical preservation can bring out that an enslaved people contributed mightily to American historical infrastructure. That without the unnamed architects of the sugar refinery, the unnamed engineers of the levees, and the faithful work undertaken, we would not be who we are and what we are today.  I think when we preserve mansions and slave quarters, we should preserve technological works as well--less glamorous, far more important. Then we could see that despite every attempt to stifle personality, capital aggregation, and justifiable pride in the slave, their contributions remain. Our very map would be different along the Eastern seaboard and the Southern coastline were it not for these unnamed souls.

We could find a way to honor slaves at these sites as well as deplore their situation. We could advance our understanding of history and the human spirit--gifted and superior, even in slavery. Something past Gone With the Wind, King Tut, European Lords and Medieval Popes. Something that reconciles this historical ambivalence by refusing to bury any part of it. Something that gives shape to current national aspirations.

Still, though I believe this could be achieved, I remain cynical. I wonder, when the last plantation house in the South collapses, will we be done fixing the scars by then? On the other hand, I remember that forgetting history is like being blind to a warning. We have long been blind to the achievements of the unknown laborer, whether we espouse their cause en masse or not. So I do not know the answer.

Tomorrow, a plantation architecture that should be preserved . . . . or at least I think so . . . .


Slamdunk said...

Sounds interesting.

I don't see that in plantations--an oversight on my part certainly.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slam,
Do you think it could be made to work toward the best in us? I am still thinking it over.

Ann T.

Bob G. said...

I think your cynicism is well-placed.
This is truly a double-edged sword.

I appreciate most any kind of architecture, and I would like to see houses that depict the type of buolding that went into these mansions...
But I would also add that such things relative to "massas's plantation" ALSO be preserved, to allow us to see the mistake that slavery was to this nation.
If that includes slave quarter be it.

We need to see the WHOLE picture when it comes to any historical preservation...and the more we get it CORRECT, the more we learn.

Very good post.

Have a great weekend.

The Bug said...

I'm ambivalent too - on the one hand going to one of these places helps bring home what kind of world we were dealing with, but on the other hand there are so many folks who still behave as if they wish the south would have won the war - wouldn't these houses just fuel their racist fire (and believe me, the folks who want the south to have won aren't thinking about the cotton)? I just don't know.

Can't wait for Part II!

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
Yes, it might be pushing it to ever think these plantations would be a monument to anything except a lack of ideals or kindness.

I keep thinking if we include everything we have a chance at including where the contribution to civilization really lies.

Thanks for a great comment.
Have as good a weekend as possible!

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Bug,
It does fuel racist fire. And personally I do think that the Confederate flag ought to be lowered in perpetuity. I find the "state's rights" argument to be completely specious.

However, it also shows that art is amoral, and that elegance only flourishes if some group carries the burden of it for a group far better off.

The way that happens is through Work. The work that the slaves did should be emphasized as a contribution to american society.

Now see, I could have just written that sentence and been done with it, eh?

Thanks for a great comment.
Have a good weekend!
Ann T.