I spent this past weekend back at my alma mater, Goucher College in Baltimore, for the conference “A Critical Look at Sustainability and Historic Preservation.” Sustainability is a hot button issue for preservation, especially when it comes to LEED standards for green building and whether they really give historic buildings credit where credit is due. More than just a catchphrase, “The greenest building is one that’s already built” is a sustainability mantra that conveys the massive amount of embodied energy in old buildings. You can even figure out how much energy is lost in the demolition of a building using this handy embodied energy caluculator.
Of all the great presentations, I was most impressed by the “accidental preservationists” — speakers from two Philly-based nonprofit organizations whose missions represented a holy trinity of environmental, social, and preservation goals.
From the ubiquitous (“George Washington slept here”) to the obscure (Bunny Man Bridge), every community has local lore unproved as fact or fiction. Local legends, like some old Hollywood screen legends, often refuse to die. Local myths linger on, taking on new life and usually growing more salacious with each successive generation. Sometimes the story is so preposterous, local historians won’t touch it. But often there’s just enough plausibility, or even a thin shred of evidence, to lure us on a wild goose chase for the truth. Ultimately, confirming or disproving the story becomes secondary to the value local lore holds in our personal and collective memories.
Pola Negri and the Gulf Branch Nature Center
In Arlington, Virginia, there’s a long-held story about a local visit from silent film star Pola Negri. Many Arlington residents have heard the story that Pola Negri once lived in the 1920s stone bungalow on Military Road, converted into the Gulf Branch Nature Center in the 1960s. The staff of the Nature Center have even incorporated the Pola Negri connection into their programs, screening her films during an annual “Pola Negri Night.” But despite the many affirmations of the Pola Negri connection in local news stories about the Gulf Branch Nature center, a source of documentation is rarely cited.
We Americans have long been obsessed with documenting — or claiming — firsts in achievements and innovations. A claim to “being first” can be influenced by the precise definition of the achievement, the available information at the time of the claim, and yes, ego. In the case of architecture, many prefab homes have been erroneously awarded the title of “first prefabricated house in America.”
Some folks think prefab in the U.S. dates back to the Sears Homes of the 1910s to 1930s, since they are perhaps the most successful and well-known kit homes. Many other prefab homes are mislabeled as “one of the earliest,” but actually miss the mark by at least 40 or 50 years.