The Geek Atlas: Historic Sites of Science & Technology

Bell Labs photo by Flickr user sodapop

Bell Labs in Holmdel, NJ; architect Eero Saarinen. Photo by Flickr user “sodapop.” CC BY-ND 2.0

With the increase in preservation of 20th-century historic sites has come a parallel rise in  preservation efforts for buildings and places that played host to some of the greatest innovations in science & technology.  As a former digital content manager, married to a computer programmer who’s nuts about science, I’ve been following with interest the efforts to preserve Nikola Tesla’s 1902 Lab on Long Island and the Eero Saarinen-designed Bell Labs in New Jersey, the site of significant research leading to the computer and cellphone.

Now tech history buffs have a new guidebook, The Geek Atlas. A BBC News story, “Follow in the footsteps of geeks,” features this new travel guide that highlights important science & tech history sites across the globe. Although heavy on places in the UK, the guide includes sites such as the White Sands missile testing range in New Mexico and the Jacquard Museum in Roubaix, France, with exhibits on punched-card weaving technology, predecessor to the modern computer. Each entry in the book includes background info and precise GPS coordinates, natch.

BBC journalist Bill Thompson says, “It’s our geek heritage, and the more we make people aware of it the more likely it is to be preserved in some way.”

Read the full BBC article >

BBC Series on UK Preservation

The BBC is currently airing a documentary series on English Heritage, a historic preservation (termed “conservation” in the UK) governmental advisory commission.  It’s a rare opportunity to get an inside look at how our British brethren face the day-to-day challenges of preservation, including the ongoing debate about brutalism. Unfortunely, the Guardian claims that this “grimly funny series,” also called “English Heritage,” reinforces stereotypes about elitist preservationistsYou can decide for yourself by watching the show online. Currently the show is only viewable online by those within the UK, but English Heritage has established a webpage to cast light on the issues raised in the program.

The very nature of preservation often has us on the defense, fighting to be heard by developers, city councils, and sometimes the public at large. But we run the risk of taking ourselves too seriously. A TV series exposing the process of preservation, warts and all, can still raise the profile of the overall issue of the importance of place and preserving our built heritage, pushing the dialogue forward. And that’s a good thing.

Night at the Museum

One week ago, on Sunday night around 8:00pm, I  received an emergency call that made my heart stop — an ADT rep told me that the smoke detectors in the Arlington Historical Museum had just been set off, and they had notified the fire department. It was the type of call I’d feared most as Chair of the Museum Building Committee. Our museum and extensive local artifact collection is housed in the historic 1891 Hume School building, by noted Washington architect B. Stanley Simmons.

When I arrived at the museum about 15 minutes later, this was the horrifying scene I encountered, sure to make any museum director’s or board of directors’ blood run cold.

museum surrounded by fire trucks

Continue reading

DC Community Heritage Project – Grant Workshop tonight

The Humanities Council of Washington, DC is offering up to $2,000 for nonprofits working on projects to document and preserve DC’s heritage. Deadline for applications is May 1st. To get information and assistance for applying, attend the grant workshop tonight, Tuesday, April 21 rom 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM, at the Southeast Neighborhood Library.

For more information, contact Albert Shaheen at or check the Humanities Council of Washington, DC website.

The Greening of Historic Preservation

illustration of a gas can that looks like an historic building
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.
Continue reading

Desperately Seeking Pola: The Conundrum of Oral History

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

pola negri autograph

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.

Continue reading

The First American Prefab?

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.”

Sears & Roebuck Catalog House, "Vallonia" design (Manteo, NC)

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.
Continue reading