By Amanda Thibault ‘17
This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.
Historical preservation has always been a problematic issue for the National Park Service. Park officials must find a balance between preserving and exploiting historical landscapes. At battlefields such as Antietam, the National Park Service has issued a policy of landscape freezing to help visitors understand the historical significance of the park. Landscape freezing refers to preserving the landscape of a particular historical period in time. Antietam has issued a policy of restoring the landscape to the eve of the battle to the maximum extent possible. However, there are many problems facing this plan, like removing the roads that allow visitors to travel through the battlefield and form an emotional connection to the site.
The problems of historical preservation are pronounced here at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY, especially at the Elizabeth Cady Stanton property. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the primary figure behind the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848. During tours of the property where Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her husband Henry Stanton, and her seven children lived from 1847 to 1862 only ten people are allowed in the house at once because of its small size. If there is a larger tour, the remaining visitors have to wait outside. Today, the only remnants of the Stanton property are the horse chestnut tree in front of the property and fruit trees located in the northeast corner of property. The orchard, flower and vegetable gardens, the circular driveway, the outdoor playground for the children, the barn and other outbuildings no longer exist. I believe the National Park Service should recreate as much of the original landscape as possible so visitors can roam around while waiting to go inside the house.
However this possible course of action presents several problems. First, since the Stanton property was a vernacular homestead landscape there are no professional plans or records of the landscape at the time of the family’s residence. Second, because of the property’s early period of significance there are no historic photographs dating to the Stanton family’s time on the property. Third, the existing landscape has very little vegetation from the Stanton period because of the changes to the property. When the Stanton family moved to New York in the spring of 1862, the estate changed hands several times during the 1860’s. However, due to the housing shortage crisis and rising rents in 1864 and 1865, the estate was subdivided into six new lots. Preservationists might never know exactly what the Elizabeth Cady Stanton property looked like during the mid-nineteenth century.
That said, cultural landscapes are important to historic parks because they help visitors understand how historic events connect to the environment and world around them. By adding the historic vegetable gardens, orchard, and playground back into the property, visitors will be able to connect to the role women held in the home such as homemaker and mother, both roles that Elizabeth Cady Stanton hated and later used to fuel the women’s rights movement launch in Seneca Falls. However, historians must understand that no matter the landscape it is impossible to return back to any historical period. Landscapes change over time and the changes cannot be reversed.
Temkin, Martha. “Freeze-Frame, September 17, 1862: A Preservation Battle at Antietam National Battlefield Park,” in Paul A. Shackel, ed., Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape (Florida, 2001): 123-140.