John Larson

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Interviewee: John Larson
Interviewer: Charlotte Adams
Date: October 15, 2016
Accession #: PHP 018
Length of Recording:
Sound Recording

John Larson was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and moved to Columbia, South Carolina when his father joined the Department of Political Science at the University of South Carolina. Larson earned a Bachelor’s degree in History at UofSC. At the time of graduation, John wanted to become a Civil War historian. He served in the Army until 1973 and then began applying to graduate schools in North Carolina. When he returned to UofSC to seek letters of recommendation, Larson was instead recruited into the flagship class of the Applied History program by Walter Edgar and John Bryan. Interview includes discussion of his atypical experience in the program, a course he took at UNC Greensboro in conjunction with the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts on material culture that shaped his career, and his internship at Old Salem Museums and Gardens. Larson transitioned from intern to employee at Old Salem, finishing his thesis and graduating from the program almost nine years after he began in the mid-1980s. Since then, he has worked as the Vice President of Restoration at Old Salem, excepting a three-year period when he worked as a preservationist for the architectural firm Phillips and Opperman. Larson was elected to City Council in Winston-Salem, NC in 2016. Interview also includes Larson’s perspectives on historical preservation and gentrification, as well as his critiques of changing the name of the program to “public history” from “applied history.”



Applied History | Civil War History | City Councils | Decorative Arts | Economic Rehabilitation | Gentrification | Historic Preservation | Material Culture | Old Salem Museums and Gardens | Restoration | U.S. Army



Charlotte Adams: This is Charlotte Adams interviewing John Larson for the USC Public History Program Archive. It is October 15, 2016. All right, getting started. So I wanted to ask you how you first heard about or became interested in the field of public or applied history.

John Larson: Right. When I first started looking at going back to graduate school, at that time I was not aware of any history program that offered what we now call public history. Most historians were in the academic realm, working in universities or maybe in high schools teaching history. But I’d always been interested in the sort of tactile aspect of history: outdoors, parks, Civil War parks, and those kinds of things. I particularly was interested in Civil War history. When I did my undergraduate work at USC I thought I was going to be a Civil War historian; I studied under Tom Connelly who was the Civil War historian at USC at the time, wrote my thesis or my senior paper on the Alabama Claims, dealing with the Confederate Navy.

When I went into the Army, I continued to be very interested in the Civil War, collected Civil War artifacts and continued to study Civil War history and so when I got out of the military in 1975, I thought, “Well I would go back to school and become probably a Civil War historian and see what I could do with that,” either work for the Park Service, possibly work as a historian at a university or something. I applied for graduate work in North Carolina, which is where I was stationed at the time at Fort Bragg, and I went back to South Carolina to get some letters of recommendation, particularly from Walter Edgar, who was still down at school at the time and had been supportive as an undergraduate.

So, I arrived there asking for letters of recommendation and he started to explain to me about this program that was being commenced between the History Department and the Art Department. John Bryan who was faculty in the Art Department and Walter Edgar who was going to handle the history part of it, and it was going to be what they called “Applied History.” The name fascinated me. It just seemed to be so blue collar, working class, get out there, roll up your sleeves and get the job done kind of history. And, it wasn’t going to be about getting paper cuts in the archives and researching documents, it was going to be out there in the real world and that seemed very interesting to me.

Then they promised, because the class had not been formed yet, they promised to have graduate assistant money. I was getting out of the military so I had G.I. Bill, they were happy about that, and so it looked like I was going to be rolling in cash as a graduate student, and so I redirected my thought and I didn’t (cell interruption) I redirected my thoughts and ended up, I didn’t really even have to hardly apply to South Carolina cause really what Walter Edgar did was recruit me. And I said “That’s great,” and I got out of- basically out of Fort Bragg, moved down to Columbia took up residency in apartments down there off of Fort Jackson Boulevard, and would undertake a year’s worth of class work at USC. And…you want me to keep going here?

CA: Sure.

JL: Well, ok. So the history devolves, and it was a small class. I forgot how many were in it, maybe eight of us, maybe ten, not a lot. And, as I recall there were maybe three guys and maybe six women or something like that. We didn’t know what we were doing. It was pretty wide open. There were three tracks allegedly; there was one dealing with historic preservation, there was one dealing with museum studies, and there was one dealing with archival work. And- but we didn’t know the difference I mean, and at that point there were a variety of classes being offered, all of them seemed relevant, and you sort of pick and choose.

My little grumbling has been, and you’ll hear this throughout my narrative probably, is that they hadn’t really embraced archaeology as one of the disciplines in dealing with history. And I had taken- I had done archaeology under Stan South at the University of South Carolina. I knew something of the value of historical archaeology was to understanding place and understanding material culture and I thought “Well, you should know something about archaeology if you’re going to deal with history.” It’s an archive, it’s a type of document. So, we didn’t really have that.

On the other hand, the program was designed, at least initially as I perceived it as pretty loose. There was a series of core courses you could take: art, history, American preservation movement. There was archival studies, documents, and there was the core courses and you sort of cobbled them all together. I don’t think at the end of the day you would end up at the end of the day with an M.A. in History or an M.A. in Art still, and you didn’t really end up with a M.A. in Archival Studies or an M.A. in Museum Studies. There were no certificates at that point; it was just a matter of taking courses and finding things that seemed relevant and interesting, and putting together a program of study that sort of equipped you to go out and work in one of these fields outside of the classrooms.

It seemed like a great idea; I loved it. And I spent one year at Columbia in classes, taking various courses. I don’t even remember, I took John Bryan’s Art History course, I took Walter Edgar’s Historiography course I think; I forgot what all courses I took. Then the game changer was: I was in McKissick Library one spring day and I noticed an ad for a course offered at UNC Greensboro and it was a comprehensive course theoretically on Southern Material Culture. And it was like- I don’t know, some incredible number of credit hours. I don’t know it was six credit hours or something outrageous. I said “Wow that’s really great.” And I thought “I’m going to be this hot shot Civil War historian, I need to know something about southern material culture.”

So I’d been working with John Bryan and Walter a little bit on the Columbia Canal. That’d been sort of one of my projects. And I spent a lot of time looking at Robert Mills and his role on the Public Works Commission and I’d been doing a lot of research in the library and in the art museum, anywhere I could find images of the canal and I had been walking the canal; I’d found the old part of the canal that had not been modified and the new part that Ludlow had reworked for water power and all that. And I’d grown up on the banks of the Broad River in high school, and so I was sort of familiar with that area, and it had new depth and understanding and appreciation to me.

This idea then of working on the Columbia Canal had connected me to buildings, and particularly (unintelligible). It had really began to make me think about architecture. And Walter Edgar had taken me under his wing to a certain degree and we had gone and they were tearing down a building in Columbia, an 1850s building, and we did salvage, I remember one Saturday, he tried to actually get me in the Army Reserve and I was useless cause I didn’t want anything more to do with the Army, but he was very good at mentoring students. So, one day we went out and we salvaged things out of this 1850s building and that was the first time I really engaged architecture, as a topic. I was still thinking about everything in the context of Civil War and all that but, you get in a building and begin to get doors and in this case mantle parts; whatever that he was saving out of the building. It was kind of, it was interesting; it was a good bonding experience.

I get this idea coming up here to Winston-Salem and taking this course with UNCG now. Again, first time, this is 1976 at this point, this is the first time that this course had been offered at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. I don’t know whether you know much about Early Southern Decorative Arts, but it’s a southern cultural, material culture museum that Old Salem operates. And, so I come up here and get involved in the course. We’re housed over in Greensboro and we’re shuttled back and forth, whatever. And we’re learning all about slave culture and material culture and what makes the South different and it was great, it was all great stuff. And we had a project to do. You had to pick an object or something to write about or elaborate on and define the social significance of these sorts of things that material culture people do. And everybody’s picking Charleston miniature paintings, little silver from silverware, silver from Baltimore, furniture from Fredericksburg Virginia.

I (unintelligible at 11:37) so I sort of went back to my Robert Mills idea, said “We’re going to do brick.” So I took brick as my material culture. Brick’s great, such a great material, it’s legendary. Everything from “Three Little Pigs” to revolutions in France, people throw bricks. It is an object that has had an impact on the world and it goes way back. And it’s very intriguing how it’s manipulated, I don’t know if you know anything about brick, but I could go on forever about how it’s bonded and how it’s made and how it’s implemented into buildings and the craftsmanship and artisans go into that, and ultimately how it defines architecture in a lot of ways.

So, I’m drifting, slowly drifting away from guns and drums and I’m getting into brick as material culture. Sitting in the audience at the time when we did our presentations was a guy by the name of Charles Phillips. Charles Phillips was an architect from Texas who had been hired as the Director of Architectural Restoration at Old Salem [Old Salem Museums and Gardens] at the time, and he was basically a preservation architect. I think he was as bored as I was with Charleston silver and miniature paintings and so that somebody would actually deal with architecture enthralled him. And so he came up after my lecture, my talk, and said, “You need to come to Old Salem and do your internship.” And I said, “Well I have to do an internship, but I’m in Columbia, I’m not in Winston-Salem and I have a wife and we have to move up here and ehh-” and he said, “That’s all right. We’ll work that out.” So sure enough, I ended up renting an apartment up here and moved out of Columbia and immediately talked to Walter Edgar and said I’m moving to Winston- Salem here. I got one- I got two semesters of coursework here.

I haven’t done my comps, haven’t done my language requirements, have not finished my coursework, still have not, but I will get my internship done, and I will get a thesis topic out of this theoretically. He said “Great, go. We’ll work out everything else.” Sure enough he did. I mean because what we did then was I did some correspondence basically. I did selected reading courses, tutorials of sorts and I would read books and I would write them up and whatever and I would send them in and whatever and I worked through my coursework. I came back the following summer and took the course on speed reading Spanish basically and got through that requirement, got through my language requirement, and then took the comps, basically, got through that, and then it was writing up the thesis.

Finishing the shoe shop and whatever. And that went on longer than Walter Edgar could hardly stand, and finally he said “If you don’t do it, if you don’t finish it, then you’re going to have to start over again.” Well, that was a motivator. And I had basically, because it involved restoring the shop or whatever. So this was 1982 maybe, I’d have to go back and look. And I don’t know whether anybody else finished their thesis or not, I don’t know what has happened to my classmates, I was gone. I wasn’t in Columbia anymore. And I was, I was working, and I had, and by that point Old Salem had flipped me from an intern basically into an assistant to the Director of Restoration. So I had sort of a job. And I just couldn’t… just like everybody else I couldn’t find time to write it up. So, finally did. Finally got it written up.

I think I had the distinction- you could probably look it up- but I think I had the distinction of having the first illustrated thesis in the Public History Program. Now this is before you had desktop publishing. This is when you had shoot the photographs, you had to put copy text on, you had to bind them into the binder, you had to make sure the margins were one and a quarter inches or whatever the hell they were, all those guidelines. We were still typing thesis then. I had to hire a typist cause I can’t type worth…anyway, anything and I make too many mistakes. So you had to do that, all the footnotes, and you had to weave in because I was dealing with material culture and I wanted to talk about maps and documents and buildings and people and process and so I needed illustrations. I needed images.

Getting those into a thesis was a challenge, and you can go look at my thesis and it’s really quaint now when you consider what is possible with desktop publishing. It would’ve been so much easier if I could’ve just dropped images in and worked the text around ‘em and whatever but at that point in time, the technology just wasn’t there. And so to get the historical images, the photographs of Samuel Schultz, photographs of the shop before it was restored, Sanborn maps, and all the other things that needed to go into this document, to record the building had to be done manually, it was tedious as hell, and no wonder it didn’t get done, but it finally did in I think it was ‘85, I finally got my thesis done, that was ten years later or whatever it was, about nine years since my enrollment date. But I got in under the line, got it signed, got my thesis done, and I was no longer a Civil War historian. I was locked in to these Moravians, who are, you may have learned today, a bunch of pacifist Germans in the back country of North Carolina which all South Carolinians hate of course, did not like Chapel Hill, did not like anybody up north of Cheraw and here I was up here getting locked increasingly into this place and the restoration of the museum.

Now, the other part of this which we can get into is I ended up in the museum world. And you have to understand that the world of preservation shifted radically as you can imagine in the 1960s with the federal government involved with all the tax credits and the National Register Program and all the SHPO [State Historic Preservation Office] offices and all the stuff that was coming out of that was changing the landscape of history preservation in America. And here was I, who actually thought I might work for the Park Service, I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do, found myself in a museum that was replicating to a large degree the Williamsburg model which of course dates back to the 1920s.

So the idea of scrape philosophy versus non-scrape would be discussed, the idea of interpretation, restoration of a whole town as a museum experience, not as a rehabilitation project, not as a paint bucket, not as a back to the city, not as a sustainability study, all of the other wagons that the preservation movement has hooked themselves to over the years. This museum has existed as a restoration effort as a museum and in a very unique sort of way.

And I’ve ended up to a large degree then building a career of thirty-seven years in this place with a break of about three years when I left the museum and went and worked with an architectural firm doing historic preservation work, and then Old Salem came and made the mistake of hiring me back and that was in ‘91. So I’ve been here since ’91 working on the preservation of this town. And that’s basically the nuts and bolts of it. Now, do you have another question or do you want me to keep going?

CA: Well I wanted to ask you if you thought that internship experience was sort of the jumping off point that really prepared you the most for what your career was going to be?

JL: Well I think there’s no question about that it opened the door for me. I mean what sort of opened the door for me in a way is sort of as I morphed from guns and drums Civil War to place, buildings, and building materials, and design and architecture. See I’d never been trained and people say “Well you’re an architect, right?” No, I’m not an architect. I am at best, and I’m not even sure I’m that, is an architectural historian. So, but not- my training for architectural history is limited to one course that John Bryan taught. And that’s Italianate and Greek Revival, it has come from an experience of working in the field and particularly getting engaged in my world of vernacular studies and that is the less formal aspects of architecture design. Get into Renaissance, Italian Renaissance, it’s like “Oh my God, I wouldn’t have any idea how to even describe it much less restore it.”

But German backcountry, I’m pretty damn good at at this time. And I understand that. So, the internship, of course was supposed to be one semester and it turned into God knows how long. One semester was impossible and I ended up of course combining that with trying to throw on top of that the coursework, which the other semester would have been. So theoretically you’re supposed to get out of this program in two years. I had one year of classwork, I had basically two semesters of internship, one spread-out semester of selective readings and directed course works and comps and all that other stuff that sort of spilled out over a period of time to get it done. I suppose you could do it in two years. I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a good thing because I think that the time that I had to develop into the career that eventually unfolded, I needed that time. I need the time to restore that shop, I needed the time to do the research for the shop; it took me a while to even identify that project in the context of the museum that I was getting engaged in.

I think that the thing that was useful for me was that first semester, the first two semesters of coursework in Columbia when I began to look at the Columbia Canal. And I’m not sure why I did other than I had grown up alongside of it, I knew it was there, but I didn’t know much about it. And I don’t- it must’ve been under John Bryan’s tutelage that I sort of picked it up, I don’t think it was really Walter Edgar so much for that part, because John was the one that was doing- architecture mostly is under the Art Department. So, I think that gave me that academic presence of being at USC, having classroom, having the intellectual stimulation of reading with heritage so rich and Hosmer’s American Preservation Movement, all those classics that you guys don’t read anymore but should. It provided the intellectual stimulation to begin to rethink a little bit about history and how to apply history in a way that I had not really envisioned before.

So that when I came and engaged material culture, my mind was already beginning to think about the other aspects of history other than the written part, that the objects would tell stories, and that that needed to be recovered and I found that incredibly interesting, to be able to look at things and think about how they were made, what they meant, how they were used, why we discarded them and whatever. There’s a great quote that you need to- if you stay in this profession you need to look up. And I could- I don’t have it here but it’s from The Grapes of Wrath, are you familiar with that? There’s a quote in there you can find it about the women that are sitting around the house, and selecting objects to take to California. They go through these objects, these material things of their life. And they’re deciding what they’ll keep and what they won’t and it’s based upon what memories these objects contained. And they’ll talk about different things that they’re trying to decide.

“Now I had this feathered hat and it always made me sneeze; I really don’t have room to put that on the truck (unintelligible at 25:30).”  In the end what they do is they pile all these other things, all these objects of their lives, and they pile them up and they burn them and they drive away heading toward California. Sitting in the background of all this is the cabin they leave behind. The house, which they’d, occupied. And it’s a powerful statement of memory and objects and how objects contain our past. That aspect of material culture is what really fascinated me and particularly I thought architecture was the ultimate of the material objects because it doesn’t move around, it doesn’t get hauled out to California and sold under auction or whatever.

Generally, buildings stay put. So if you want to look at a material culture, if you want to look at a values system, if you want to look at hierarchy of space, if you want to look at gender issues, if you want to look at racial issues, you start looking at the built environment and then you have an index for that. And that’s what eventually drove me into the architectural field of using buildings to understand values and culture and particularly for the Moravians it’s just like in your face. So and the restoration of the town has allowed me then to explore that. So that’s what we’ve been doing.

CA: Well you talked about this a bit, a lot actually, but I wanted to ask you about your career since getting your thesis and going on and working for such a long time. And I also saw that you had done some projects with architectural history with [Montpelier].

JL: Phillips and Opperman, yeah when I left Old Salem, I went and worked again with Charles Phillips who was running an architectural firm call Philips and Opperman; two architects, they were classmates in Texas, and they developed a preservation firm. For three years, I worked with them on buildings. And that included the initial evaluation of Montpelier, worked with Miles Brewton house in Charleston, worked with Fayetteville Market House, I led the charge on Fayetteville Market House National Landmark Building, Stratford Hall, White House of the Confederacy, a Latrobe building, out at Senator Pope’s house out in Lexington. These were all historic buildings, incredibly interesting buildings of significance, Decatur House in Washington, D.C. I mean its great projects.

I enjoyed it; it was great work. I learned a lot, I got to work with again building-hone diagnostic, building diagnostic skills. How to read a building, how to understand building technologies, how to understand evolution of buildings, and how to read them basically, and that was valuable to me professionally, probably as valuable as anything for me. Then I’ve come back to Old Salem. Basically, I got tired of traveling around. You know when you start thinking you deserve to be in first class when you’re flying, “I want to upgrade to first class. I’m tired of riding in steerage;” you know you’ve been traveling too much. I had a daughter, a wife, and I was away on the road way too often. And doing these projects all over the country.

So when Old Salem came back to me, right across the way here, right here in the neighborhood, it seemed like a logical thing to do. I resigned from that vice president’s position at Phillips and Opperman Architectural Firm and took up the vice presidency at Old Salem, basically. So that’s the only really interruption. I thought I was thinking back as I retire, I’ve really only had two or three jobs in my whole career. I was in the mili- well I started out as a produce handler at Winn-Dixie grocery store; that was really what launched me into material culture. But beyond that I was in the military and graduate school and Old Salem and then the architectural firm and Old Salem. And that’s pretty much it. That’s pretty much what my life has been here. And maybe I’ll be city councilman come November, but other than that it’s a pretty boring, simple, straightforward, sort of life. Yeah.

CA: How are we doing on time?

JL: I’m fine; I’m fine for now. (Side conversation)

CA: So, at the time that you were in the program, it was Applied History, then shifted into Public History, what do you think about the-

JL: It’s awful.

CA: I don’t know how to phrase this-

JL: It’s awful. It’s awful. It…this is the problem though. This is all about marketing and nomenclature, and Walter Edgar and John Bryan had a brilliant idea, and, but unfortunately, they were just behind the wave apparently, and the idea of the terminology of applied history did not catch fire. The term public history somehow or another did. Not sure exactly how that occurred, I was asleep at the wheel, I don’t know, didn’t matter. But before I knew it, everything’s doing public history. And I don’t like the term. I don’t think the public understands what it is. I don’t think it really helps the field much as far as the relevance of history.

I mean if you want to make history relevant to modern living and a broader population, applied history is pretty self-explanatory. Yeah well what does it mean? Well it means archival work, it means the public, it means working at museums, it means saving our downtowns, it means, all kinds of things, Parks and Recreation, whatever. Great. Public history, what is public history? Well I know what public housing is, I now what public restrooms are, I know what public transportation is. So public history is about the history of the public, right? Is that what that’s about? And this is my own snooty attitude, you’re just going to have to live with it because I’m an old goat, and it’s- that wave is gone.

But I do think there’s a lost opportunity in the sense of how it’s marketed. And I think this is a real crisis right now I mean the history profession which some people would say there is in America. Then you have to ask, how do you market yourself and what do you say you do? And I say applied history makes history work and it’s blue collar and it gets out there and it has some relevance to our daily lives. Public history doesn’t mean anything to me as a term. And I’ve never considered myself a public historian; I consider myself an applied historian out of the University of South Carolina and at this point a museum person. Pretty much it.

CA: With the three original tracks, were you museums or preservation?

JL: I really wasn’t- I never declared. I never declared, I never had to. I wasn’t there long enough I guess. For the first year it was sort of loosey-goosey, first time anybody taught any courses. I was never even there for the second wave, the second class getting hired. I just wasn’t there long enough. So, I never- I ended up in museums. But this is the other point, the other point of this is that: let us not confuse the role of museums in historic preservation. And the thing that I have advocated for most of my career and all of these public history programs is that you- when you start separating museums from public history preservation programs, start separating, setting museums aside from the mainstream of historic preservation, preservation does that at its own peril in that preservation has relied on museums to anchor basically America’s perception of history in historic sites.

And so, yes you can take downtowns and turn any cotton mill into a Ghirardelli Square or you can make it a condominium or do any tax act projects you want, but then that’s fine. We all know that the economics of that and get into this rant. But the idea of we’re- of keeping history in historic preservation still resides to a large part on America’s museums. And America’s museums still provide the public educational component, still provide the public access to history, still provide the research to a large degree that a lot of preservation tax act projects have very little to do after the National Register nomination is written. That gets done, gets filed in the SHPO office, gets sent off to the Park Service, they get the tax credits, and nobody knows what the hell that building was in the first place. And my rant is that if we really care in historic preservation about history, then my question is, within the historic- within the preservation movement, and I see this even in the National Trust, is preservation- is history still prevalent?

Or are we- what we’re really talking about now is economic rehabilitation. And if that’s what this field has become, then it’s not, it’s drifted away from the history theme, and I think again at some peril because if the history that gives relevance an anchor to place and to buildings, it’s not just about inserting a flower shop into a storefront. It’s about whether or not that place contributes to our understanding of our past. And all this propaganda. But, this is really the really good question- and I challenge every time this comes up in a discussion as to why the hell we don’t have a requirement for tax act projects, National Register projects, whatever, to say something about how a building was used originally.

We spend all this money on creating condominiums in old tobacco factories and there’s no statement about the strike that occurred on civil rights in this particular tobacco factory in 1912 when they had the- in Winston-Salem they had to pull out the Gatling gun to make sure whatever that the riot didn’t get out of control. And now we’ve got nice condos there. That’s great, great tax act project, great the building’s saved. Fine. You know, is that what we’re about now though? Is that ultimately what were about? And this- so it’s about economics. It’s about tax credits, it’s about economic viability, it’s the undergirding of the preservation program right now is tax credits. It’s not history, it’s not a moral imperative, it’s not like we’re saving these building because they’re really important to our understanding of place and time and what differentiates Winston-Salem from High Point, which is why Old Salem got saved, is because we thought that there was something worth remembering here.

So the hazard that I see right now is- is America- is our- if our preservation program is so linked to tax credits and the whole National Register structure, which is problematic too and I’ll rant on that in a minute, but, if it’s all hooked to that, that’s a pretty dangerous ledge to be on. Because we already know it’s happened in North Carolina already that the state legislation, probably the federal government given a chance, will eventually cut that stuff back. And when it does, we already hear the hew and cry about “Oh we can’t save old buildings because oh well we have to have underwriting, we have to have preservation money to make it work,” well bullshit. That’s not- we’re at the trough now and we’ve got ourselves addicted to this idea that we have to have tax credits to save old buildings, and it just ain’t so. It just isn’t so. And museums have been doing it for years with no tax credits.

Truly, you can’t have all museums- got that, you don’t need to convince me of that. But you’ve got to understand too that there’s got to be something deeper than the bottom cash line of a project development to make our preservation project worthwhile. And the challenge I would have-I’ll rant on this, is compare ourselves to the environmental movement. And the moral imperatives and the values that are instilled in the environmental movement, which started largely at the same time historic preservation started- almost within a year or so. You know as you look at Earth Day and the other things that developed out of that- what is the difference? What has happened to the two tracks, through time, if you were to do a comparison of it? And I think most people- “Oh recycling’s really good, there’s an economic incentive for you to put your trash out there. Yeah, I’ll do that. Oh we should- we shouldn’t use as much petroleum, we’re ruining the air.” Well we are, fine. So now historic preservation is trying to hook onto that wagon and try to say, “Oh we’re all about sustainability, we’re all about the best and most environmentally responsible building is a building already built.” Fine. You know fine. That’s great, we’ll play that. And when there was a gas shortage in the 1970s, what did the National Trust use? Oh we used the gas can shape of a building, “Oh we can save money if we don’t, you know, or if we have a monetary crisis of some sort build- old buildings are more economical.”

You can revitalize the downtown, paint bucket programs, tax bases whatever. You know we hook our identity to anything but history. Is where the field is going right now. And that’s because well history’s handled by museums so we don’t need to worry about that and we know that museums can’t save the world so were going to let the museums sort of do that over there and meanwhile real preservation is about saving the downtowns saving our neighborhoods, National Register nominations, surveys, that sort of stuff. If we’re lucky we’ll get a planner, a planning department that deals with historic preservation or we’ll establish a committee a commission historic preservation committee or historic resources commission something of the city will regulate the hell out of neighborhoods or try to control what happens there and all of this in the name of what? In the name of what?

And so residents get angry because they can’t put changes to the houses and they don’t understand why they can’t. And there’s going to be- my fear is there’s going to be a backlash, and it’s going to be about property rights, we’re already seeing it, and it’s going to be people because they don’t understand why preservation is valuable and why they should respect- why they should respect the buildings that have been given to them from the past to the present that they are now the stewards of. What’s encapsulated in those buildings, not just in energy and sustainable blah blah, but in the history and the identity of a place. And respecting something that has been given to us by our forefathers, given to us and we should give it the same respect that we would like my daughter, my grandchildren, to respect whatever I do. If we don’t have respect for our past, why would we think anybody in the future would respect anything that we did?

This is the problem right now that I’m seeing in historic preservation because we haven’t figured out yet- after all these years we’re still struggling and we’re relying on regulations, we’re relying on tax credits, we’re relying on zoning issues; we have bureaucrated ourselves to make preservation an integral part of our world. In some regards, yeah we’ve saved a ton of buildings. Look at all the stuff, look at all the buildings we’ve saved and train stations and skyscrapers and rehab stuff. I got it. Totally got it, but there’s something else that we’re missing here, and I don’t know how we capture it. I work in the museum world, I work in interpretation every day, telling people why a place is important and why buildings are particularly, why buildings can tell us something about our past and how that technology and how those values are expressed in a physical form in our landscape today and what that means to us today because they did it then and they’ve given it to us today.

And that’s, that’s what going- you probably didn’t get any of this over there because nobody, it’s a difficult thing sometimes to convey. It’s so much easier to say, “Oh look at that old fireplace, and oh rippled glass and you know it’s got old brick.” And very quickly go to an aesthetic without actually going any deeper in saying “Why? You know why? What does this gas station mean? Why is this gas station here in this part of town and why did it not survive? Or if it did survive how it changed?” and just take anything. Take anything I mean material culture.

But take a building and say, “Why is this important? Why is a shotgun house important? What does it mean? Why do blacks not want to live in it today? What is it about in well I don’t know in Greensboro or High Point or you know…” I remember when I was working initially in Winston-Salem- in Columbia, working on Columbia Canal, and out near where the fairgrounds is now and out near where near the stadium was- was I can’t even remember the name of it there was a working mill town. There was a mill town there. And its probably still there- its not Shandon, that’s the other… Shamrock? Maybe? Anyway it’s that area, it is between the river and where the stadium is and sort of back behind coming back toward town and there’s a whole residential area of working-class mill houses there, and I remember going when I was working on the canal, I went into that area because the canal sort of skirted the edge of it and…people didn’t want to live there. They didn’t like it. They thought they wanted to get out of there.

CA: You mean over near like Olympia and Granby?

JL: Olympia. That’s exactly where it is. And I think it’s all gentrified now and I think it’s all flipped. And it’s gotten to be very fashionable.

CA: The big mill is an apartment complex now.

JL: Absolutely, absolutely. And this happens in North Carolina everywhere too. But so that area was going to go under transition and you had an original population there who wanted to get out and now you got people coming in, and is that a good thing? Yeah, I think it’s a good thing, gentrification. You got (unintelligible at 45:45) well what are you going to do? You know economics, we live in a capitalist world. So yeah this idea of trying to understand context of buildings, value of buildings, the history of Olympia is incredibly important in understanding the post-Civil War industrialization of Columbia. That needs to be the story.

It doesn’t matter who’s living there now as far as I’m concerned. But if they don’t understand why that’s there and what those little houses represent instead of cute little cottages that starter couples live in at $190,000 or whatever they cost probably, they’d be astonished. So this is where I worry about historic preservation at this point and I worry about museums. Museums are suffering horribly right now in part because history is so devalued right now within our society. And we have this horrible ahistorical- I think it’s been called historical illiteracy, right? Or amnesia? I think is the term that’s been used on American history and it’s, it goes right back to the academics, it goes back to universities, it goes back to common core testing values in our high school and our school systems that have removed history as a core value in our society.  And there are a variety of reasons for that, I’m not going to go into that tirade right now, of which the academy can take a good chunk of blame for.

Just as preservationists can take a big chunk of blame right now if in fact there’s a backlash of private owners- property owners who do not want to be regulated any longer- they’re not even willing to have their houses designated because they’re afraid that the federal government is going to come in and start ruling what kind of paint they can put on the buildings. Have to deal with that right now; we just enlarged our national landmark here at Old Salem. And I heard this, “I don’t want the federal government messing with me.” They don’t have any idea- the common people don’t have any idea what historic preservation’s about except that “Oh well, it’s old buildings that’s kind of cool,” and well yeah, there’s a little nostalgia factor in there, and then regulatory.

CA: Being that history is so devalued, what would you say is the value of history? Why is it so important? I mean obviously I share your opinion but…

JL: Yeah so you- first of all, you cannot have- you can’t have a society. What was it, is it, who was it? Who was the famous historian that said that… you… is it Boorstin? Basically trying to plan your future without the past is like trying to plant- is trying to plant a garden- pick flowers or something I- you have got- I forgot the quote, I’ll find if for you if you want, I’ll send it to you. We’ve got to have an understanding of who we are. With all the flaws. I’m not glossing over the injustices or the problems that history can reveal. This is not a trip on nostalgia.

On the other hand, you’ve got to find common ground somewhere. If you want a country that has any cohesiveness, you’ve got to understand what it is that you’ve got. And if you don’t have at least a common platform for discussion, whether it be slavery, whether it be personal rights or Second Amendment rights, what? Evolution of women’s rights, African-American history, take any subject- it has a past! You know and we are here today based on in part that past. And if you don’t understand that past, how can you possibly comprehend what we are doing today in any kind of rational context? And what you end up doing then is making kneejerk responses like certain presidential candidates who basically fly off with whatever opinion they have at the time. And it’s not based on any understanding of constitution, law, history, anything.

It’s just my opinion, I think we ought to do it, hell with the courts anything else. And so you sort of have to say, “We are in a- we’re moving through time, and it’s a perpetual process.” And some things we have direct contact with. I still remember the ‘50s. You think that’s a great nostalgic era. And that’s where the National Register’s going now and were all about ranches and were all about split-level neighborhoods and God knows what. So, to me that’s current events. For me that part of history’s not the same way you look at history because what we have these overlapping periods which is good, it’s absolutely the way its got to be. And yet, I will go back further, and I strive now to understand what my parents were doing during Word War Two.

I’ve gotten very interested now that my parents are gone, to understand what the ‘thirties and ‘forties were like. My father went through the depression, my mother went through the depression, my father was in World War Two. And trying to understand that. Then I jump back even further and say well my grandfather came from Czechoslovakia and then I make the Moravian connections and then I get all this tangled up and my mother was christened in a Moravian church and what does this mean to my life right now? As somebody who’s working to preserve the story of that presence, that heritage, that Moravian heritage in a small part of the world that had nothing to do with Iowa and nothing to do with Czech Republic particularly, but and yet all connects together in this matrix. And so I think it’s a cliché but you can’t know where you’re going to go in the future if you don’t have some idea where you’ve been. A little bit. You kind of, you got to know a little bit at least. Yesterday? Ok, fine. A week before, where I was last year, where I was two years ago, well what about if you keep going back? Why is the South like it is? Why are we- why do we remain a part of this country that is so culturally identifiable?

These sorts of questions are what- those sort of things that make me want to study history. And say well why do we drink iced tea that’s sweet down here? Why is barbecue so important? Why is NASCAR? Why the hell do we have NASCAR here in North Carolina? Well you can maybe trace it back to horse racing? Maybe you trace it all the way back to equestrian events that southerners love so much, hunting and racing and stuff that you don’t see in New England and that competition, that sense of competition, is that one of the connections? And I love the thought of trying to think about that. And as you go to Camden and you look at steeplechase races over there, think about NASCAR and what are those kind of connections of Southern mentality that create this environment that we live in today? Fascinating stuff, it’s horribly amusing.

CA: All right well, got some general wrap-ups, well, well maybe the last one.

JL: Have I passed so far? Am I an A minus maybe? B plus?

CA: You’re doing great. We don’t give minuses.

JL: Oh, you don’t.

CA: So, I wanted to ask you why you decided to volunteer to be interviewed for this project?

JL: Because I was asked. And I don’t have a lot- I used to have a lot of contact with USC, Walter Edgar would bring the class up and I would rant with them and tour ‘em around Old Salem and talk about egalitarianism in colonial America and how Moravians strayed in a Capitalistic World and free enterprise and slavery and all that and, and that was great. And then he eventually left Applied- Public History. I think about the time it switched over come to think of it, and he went to Southern Studies and then Scardaville [Michael Scardaville, former Director of the Public History Program] and other people would take over stuff at the South Carolina program and I became less and less in contact with ‘em down there.

I always thought it was a great program. Obviously, I came out of it, but it involves a love-hate as well in a way because the name changed. It became seemingly less technical in building technologies and the sorts of things that I was interested in, John Bryan retired I guess and the sense of architectural studies or how to read a building, how to look at a building as a object of material culture, South Carolina didn’t seem to be providing much of that. I got involved more heavily with a program over at UNC Greensboro and tried to and for a number of years incorporated archaeology into their program and incorporated building- I ran a field school, summer field school in building technologies, I make mortar and cut glass and shingle roofs and how to repoint buildings and high line mortar and basically the sorts of things that I found valuable when I tried to look at a building and understand more than just the stylistic signatures on it, but understand the technologies and the craftsmanship that were involved in the detailing that those artisans would leave as traces of their hands on the building.

South Carolina wasn’t doing much of that, didn’t seem to anyway. Charleston building technologies, College of Charleston was doing some, Clemson was sort of easing into that down in Charleston, so you know the relevance of what South Carolina was doing also seemed to shift a little bit more into what’s happening in the field generally and that is a National Register tax credit survey work. The institutionalization of preservation. I did not have any contact with the museum side particularly. The loss that was did occur. But I watched you guys and I sent people to you and because it still was a very strong program compared to you know anything like Mary Washington of course is doing it for undergraduates and you know they got a more technical aspect for undergraduate studies which I thought was pretty interesting and I knew faculty there as well so it’s just sort of drifted away.

Now my career is over this is my last statement for oral history to say that it should have stayed applied history. I’m old guard, it should’ve stayed, it should’ve stuck with that name but they weren’t brave enough to do that because they didn’t want to fight the tsunami of the bureaucracy of the intellectual world, of the academic world, of universities, the start of all these programs throughout the – well everybody was starting public history programs and South Carolina wasn’t brave enough to carry the flag of applied history as their public history. And they wanted- so they succumbed to that pressure of calling it public history. And that’s fine but that’s not what I…

CA: So, what would you like to see our program do in the future to- I don’t know get back on track or just to go forward in training applied or public historians?

JL: I think- this is what I would recommend. Two things: I would recommend that anybody who’s going to do site work, if they’re going to be a historic site manager, if they’re going to go into the museum world, they need access to more historical archaeology and idiots can go on and take responsibility for a major site in America and not understand the value of historical archaeology. I don’t care how they do it. They can do it in a field school, they can do it in a classwork, but they need exposure to that and I don’t think they’re doing that still and I’ve fought this fight over at Greensboro for a long time and successful but less so now.

Second thing I would recommend is that if you are going to deal with buildings, you need to have a good understanding of how buildings are built and the technologies that are involved that differentiate the different time periods within a building. So that when you start asking question of this building, that you can dissect the different periods and understand what the changes through time that have occurred. Now, here comes the fundamental problem and that deals with scrape versus non-scrape and continuum, which is the ongoing argument that we have in the field. As long as continuum is the dominant philosophy of what how we look at place in saving things; that everything is equal and that we should save basically the continuum story on site, you don’t have to differentiate anything.

You don’t really have to understand that this represents the eighteenth century and this represents the nineteenth century and this represents early twentieth century whatever because it’s all one story and you don’t have to be too precise as to where those edges are, right? So you don’t really need to understand the difference between cut nail, wrought nail, and wire nail technology or saw marks or whatever else, whatever stylistic- the quirk in a molding that’s in the side of a thing. You don’t need to have the indicators of change in style and technology at that level of knowledge because you don’t- you’re not having to make those kinds of decisions. In fact, very rarely will anybody spend the time to try to really understand what the changes actually are because nobody wants to scrape a building anymore. You don’t want to take it back to a different period, that’s disrespectful in preservation to a large degree now.

So you don’t need to understand the building if you’re not going to take any part away from it. Is that- you follow this argument? So why bother to be informed about joining, how buildings are built up or how framing systems work or nailing patterns or anything that would allow you to differentiate a period because you’re not going to have to determine what period is more significant than another period. Because it’s a continuum. Right? It’s just all the same. So why worry about it? Photograph it, say it looks great, it was built in 1793, had some alterations to it, we can record those on Sanborn maps and let’s rock and roll. Now, if you have to make the decision, which museums still do much to the dismay of many preservationists that you are going to actually scrape this building, and you’re going to take it back to an earlier period, then you better damn well be informed about what the hell you’re giving up and you better be pretty confident in what you’re going to take this building back to, that in fact it has some sense of authenticity.

And the biggest argument that it’s occurred over is Montpelier. Which is recently a restoration, which had been fought for over years after it was donated to the National Trust and eventually the decision was made in fact to restore it to the Madison period.  I don’t know if you follow- if you guys follow any of this or not. But the big arguments of whether that was worth doing and whether in fact we needed another presidential house, whether James Madison’s house was all that important or whether the DuPont additions to that house were as important as James Madison’s house was. Or could you do both of them? Well the damn fact was, you can’t do both of them.

If you want to understand James Madison and his house and his architecture and his values and how he occupied it and what happened there, you need James Madison’s house. You don’t need to have the DuPonts thrown in on top of it to the point that it’s unrecognizable. And that argument existed over years and it was a study and you can go at some point and go look at it and I was involved in those arguments. I am still not afraid to scrape because I think clarity is useful for the public. And I think continuum as an argument is a very weak argument if that’s all you can come up with. I mean, you’re going to be different when you walk out the door tonight than you were two hours ago; it’s a continuum, it doesn’t matter, it all changes, it’s not- is that that the only important story we have to tell?

You know if there is an important story encapsulated in a building that needs to be redeemed and brought forward as a primary story, then that should trump the idea of all this other little stuff that goes on. Yeah, yeah, everyone loves asbestos siding, yeah, but does that on an eighteenth-century building really help us understand what was going on in that period of time? It just doesn’t make any sense and so every building, every time period has its own buildings, every time period has the now-modern buildings. There have been modern additions to older buildings. Does that- do we need to keep modern additions to older buildings when we have good examples of modern buildings with their own integrity and their own clarity and their own design and whatever, unless there’s something very significant about that addition that changes the value of the story? That doesn’t mean there’s not- you can’t have multiple time periods, but you ought to look at them and ask “What is the weighting of those?” And just because they exist through time to me doesn’t impress me.

What I ask of a building is, what is the highest, best story that this building can tell about its occupancy on this God’s little green Earth? And that is what we want to get to; we want to get to that nut. And the fact that is has kinds of accretions and other crap around it, well fine. Yeah ok, it changed through time, got it, they changed the siding, they put Italianate on it they did whatever to it, that doesn’t mean anything because that happens all over the world. Everything changes through time, everything’s a continuity, everything’s continuum, there’s got to be something more to that. And that’s part of the question about historic preservation… are we copping out by really focusing on what’s valuable with our buildings and telling the public “That’s what’s valuable,” or are we just putting everything on the National Register we possibly can because we can right now? Because we can do that.

And we can say “This is the best you know mid-twentieth-century neighborhood in Umpty-Ump North Carolina, it’s got forty houses, all of them were built within a fifty year period, and if this nomination lasts long enough we can push this nomination all the way up to 1967 because right now we’re only fifty years, but if we wait another year we can add these other houses or I can do whatever.” Right now, what we’re doing is we’re trying to use preservation, we’re capturing all this mid-nineteenth century stuff. I have a little problem with that- twentieth century stuff. I have a little problem with that because my problem is when the National Register started in the 1960s and we were first starting to put stuff on there, most of the stuff that went on there at least had been vetted a certain amount of time. Most of it had been vetted 150 years or more, all this stuff from the eighteenth century, nineteenth century, throw in all the Greek revival stuff on there, whatever, little mumbling about bungalow neighborhoods in the thirties and whatever, I remember those, but they were going on there.

Now is fifty years long enough to vet architecture? Particularly when most of the architecture in America- 80 percent of it is post- World War Two? I mean, what are we ending up with? Are we in fact creating a record of architectural history in this country or are we just busying ourselves with every time the calendar flips we can add another year to our story? I don’t like the fifty years. I think fifty years is stupid and arbitrary and I think that if a building has historical merit it should be put on immediately. If Reagan was shot in front of a 1900 hotel or whatever, fifty hotel, whatever it is, what is important here? And if there’s an important historical event, it doesn’t matter what the hell the age of the building is to me if it’s historical. I know you can pretty well tell whether something’s historically important. I don’t know. Is that ranty enough? If that a big enough rant? You’re not going to retype all this stuff, edit this stuff out.

CA: We’ll see. Do you have any questions you that you wished I would have asked you for you to answer that you think are important for the record?

JL: No, I think I pretty well ranted on this. I mean we covered the idea of scrape and non-scrape, we’ve covered the idea of “What is public history?” and where is the history in public history. I got really upset with the Nation Trust for a while because they changed the publication to call “Preservation” and I thought ok is that jams or jellies or what? Preservation of what? And what are we doing here? Where is the history? I keep looking. “Where is the history?” is what I keep asking everybody. I say “Show me the history in historic preservation and then we’ve got a story to talk about.”

Otherwise, I love economic rehabilitation. I’m running for city council right now. We’ve got to create jobs, we’ve got to revitalize the downtown, we’ve got all kinds of things. Is that historic preservation? Is that historic preservation? Or is it simply economic rehabilitation using available resources, under the banner of sustainability or whatever argument you want to make about it. Doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a function. But it’s economic rehabilitation. It’s environmentally responsible, it’s whatever else you want to say about it, but there’s no history in it. It’s not historic preservation.

And so- show me the history. Regardless of what it is, museums still do that. Obviously, I’m biased. History museums are still the point of the spear and let preservation be damned if they start marginalizing museums because museums are still the source that the public goes to connect the built environment to their lives and the history of a community. They don’t go own to Ghirardelli Square thinking “I’m going to go get some history.” “I’m going to go down there and buy some chocolate,” you know. And that’s great, it’s a great building, I’m not- don’t walk away thinking I hate Ghirardelli Square, Faneuil Hall or any of it, but it’s like- is that part of it? Yeah, yeah, I mean in the big picture ultimately that these buildings stay around, they’re given life, they’re given the opportunity to continue to contribute to the streetscape and the subliminal identity- that’s where the power is- is the power that somehow or another when you go down Fourth Street in Winston-Salem, when you go down whatever street in whatever town and you are essentially bombed with these facades from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it imprints.

I’m sure it imprints in your psyche, some sense of identity, some sense of I like to think well-being, some sense of relationship to your town or your place, I understand that. But I don’t think it totally gets us as preservationists to where we need to get to if that makes any sense at all. And so what we need to do is continually remind people as to why history is important and we need serious help from the academic world to help us do that. Not marginalizing people, not dividing issues, not going to- I’m going to write my dissertation on underwater mess kit repair units in the Confederacy, we need people that can write histories that are relevant and relatable and nobody is- it’s harder and harder for people to do that today.

Seemingly out of the field and we can talk about that separately. Historians today are challenged in a lot of ways to write histories that people will go to other than the History Channel or some places like that which seems to be where people are going now to get their history. Museums have an incredible challenge of relevancy and- but they have the one advantage that historians don’t in that tomorrow I can go to Salem and I can flip the story to whatever we need to talk about. Because generally, if you have the place, you have the stage, you can develop the story there. And that’s that educational component that is not possible in a populist way in the universities. And that’s why I don’t teach in classrooms. That’s why I work for a museum.

CA: Ok, this seems like a good.

JL: Good end for that.

End of Interview