An Unsolvable Problem

As historic preservation has matured, some of the problems the field has had to address have grown more complicated. Social issues can be addressed, at least partly, by being more inclusive: the creation of the African Burial Ground National Monument was a response to finding remnants of graves during the construction of the federal building next door but also, and more importantly, to addressing the imbalance between monuments to the white inhabitants of colonial New York and monuments to everyone else. Meta-preservation issues are more difficult and I would argue unsolvable. The picture above* is a view of Fraunces Tavern, an eighteenth-century institution in a building** that cannot easily be given a date.

The history of the tavern building is well known. It was constructed as a house by Stephen DeLancey*** in 1719 and converted to a tavern by Samuel Fraunces in 1762. It was the site of several historic moments during and immediately after the American Revolution, and then settled back into decade after decade of serving beer, wine, beef, and seafood. The building was not static, however: it was renovated after fires in 1832 and 1837; during renovations after a fire in 1852, two stories were added; in 1890, the first floor walls were replaced by glass and iron storefronts. Then in 1904 it was bought by the Sons of the Revolution in New York State and renovated again. That renovation is usually referred to as a restoration to the original 1760s tavern appearance, but many of the details are speculative and some are likely wrong.

After the 1890s renovation:

After the 1904 renovation:

It is undeniable that the site is historic and there has been some kind of tavern operating there more or less continuously for close to 260 years. On the other hand, the current building is mostly twentieth century construction, with most of the original material not visible. The fact that most of the south wall – the back in the lower picture – is original doesn’t matter much to visitors. Most visitors believe that this is either the original building or a restoration of the original building. Also, the current renovation is over a century old and is the state that the building has been in longer than any other. If the tavern had been demolished in 1800 and the current building erected in 1904 as a reconstruction, it would qualify as historic as an artifact of the early 1900s trend for reconstruction of colonial buildings.

No one is recommending demolishing the building, which is just as well, since it’s a New York City and National Register designated landmark. And I can’t think of any way to get people to better understand its compromised history, since the facts are already public, just ignored. Maybe the answer to an unsolvable problem is to say it’s not important.

* An 1883 engraving based on an 1832 drawing that may or may not have been accurate.
** Diagonally across the street from our office.
*** As in Delancey Street on the lower east side. Or, for Marvel Comics fans, Yancey Street.

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