Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Cameron Logan– Interview with a Washington DC History Author – “Historic Capital: Preservation, Race and Real Estate in Washington, DC”


University of Minnesota Press, 2017

  1. Tell us about the book.

This is a book about the preservation movement in Washington, DC, across the 20th Century. I focus on the physical impact that preservation activism and policy had on the city – especially the intown neighborhoods – and the social politics and real estate implications that accompanied its growing success.  

2.    What’s your thesis? Story arc? 

The story traces the movement from its origins in Georgetown in the 1920s and 1930s through the urban renewal period and the flourishing of preservation politics and policy in the 1970s and 1980s right up into the twenty-first century when attempts to preserve urban renewal landmarks brought the whole enterprise full circle.

But the bulk of the story focuses on the so-called “heroic period” of preservation, roughly 1960-1985. The book argues that the loosely coordinated effort to define a broad area of historic neighborhoods was inadvertently – and sometimes not so inadvertently – a process of capital accumulation using real estate. I argue that the cultural and social capital needed to define what was historic about the urban fabric was ultimately translatable into actual financial capital. And this was mostly the province of whites. Hence, the racial implications were pretty clear and the real estate logic was loaded in favor of whites as with financing, zoning and all the other keys aspects of urban development in the United States across the period I cover. Hence, the title, Historic Capital, which refers at once to this process and the broadened historic terrain of the city produced by this period of activity.

3.    What are the most important influences?

I took an undergraduate seminar at Monash University given by Professor Margaret Plant back in the 1990s called Venice: The idea of the City. The seminar examined the way in which Venice projected its own image in art and architecture. I found this idea very compelling and it has underpinned the questions I ask about cities ever since. That is, what are the ways that cities represent themselves to themselves and their visitors visually and spatially? It struck me at the time that the historic preservation movement in the late 20th century was exemplary of this process. Of course, the deeper I looked into this the more obvious it became that preservation was other things besides the projection of an idea of a city or neighborhood. Nevertheless, it has remained a key starting point for my thinking. Equally important was the work of my doctoral adviser Richard Longstreth, who has long attended to the intersecting dynamics of real estate and architectural form and taste in the making of urban landscapes.          

4.    What are the myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about this subject?

There are two opposing myths that I want to dispel with this book: The first is an older idea promoted by participants in the preservation movement in the 1960s and 1970s in particular, that their efforts were primarily a civic-minded defence against a state-sponsored attack on cities. This mythology contains a grain of truth but misses the larger drivers for preservation success. The second myth, diametrically opposed to the first, and partly a response to it, is characterized by its presentism. This myth promotes the ideas that the preservation movement was nothing more than an exclusionary land grab that prevented effective redevelopment of strategically important central city locations and deliberately drove the process of gentrification of the city. Again, elements of that critique are valid. But the caricature presented in current planning and housing debates is not that helpful either for contemporary planning and preservation or for our historical understanding of U.S. cities.       

5.    What are the classics in field (if any)? 

If you are talking about histories of preservation in the US the standard works are Charles Hosmer’s The Presence of the Past and Preservation Comes of Age. But Michael Holleran’s Boston’s Changeful Times and Randall Mason’s The Once and Future New York have set the standard for critically informed studies of major cities that use the lens of preservation to understand the subject city. Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn picks up some very similar threads to Historic Capital in connection with Brooklyn, though is less concerned with the preservation movement as such. An absolute favorite of mine, though perhaps we are straying from the field slightly, is Sharon Zukin’s Loft Living, an incredible account of gentrification and real estate politics in New York in the period between the 1950s and the early 1980s.

6.    What challenges did you face in this research?

The major challenge in undertaking this research was defining its scope in such a way that made it manageable and positioned it within an established field of scholarship. That is, the question I faced, and had trouble resolving was which episodes, neighborhood groups and forces were the ones I should include and which should I exclude. This proved very difficult and I’m not sure I succeeded in getting the balance right. Some readers will no doubt find important episodes missing from the book while other readers will not understand why my attention is trained so insistently on the city’s preservation movement when related phenomena connected with housing and neighborhood development or conflict are left out or referred to only obliquely. All I can say to that is that I would like to have done more and different things in this book, but this was the lens I chose.  

7.    What were the most important resources you found (and where)?

Mine was an archivally-based research project and the most complete records of the neighborhood preservation organisations that I looked at were held by the DC Historical Society. The Records of the Dupont Circle Conservancy were especially extensive and illuminating.  I was also luck enough to stumble on a great collection of materials held privately relating to Capitol Hill. These were originally collected by Capitol Hill resident Jessie Stearns Buscher. 

8.    Are there sources you wish existed but don’t?

I hesitate to say they don’t exist as they might well be out there. But I certainly never tracked down any of the local government papers connected with Marion Barry’s decision to restructure the historic preservation system in 1983 by firing the Joint Committee on Landmarks and establishing the Historic Preservation Review Board. I would have been very interested to read these but the DC government records situation was difficult to crack when I was researching the book. The story appeared in the records of other organsiations interested in preservation but the key city government sources eluded me.

9.    Who’s your audience?

I hope that the preservation community in DC and others involved in local politics and community affairs will be interested in the book. But I suppose the primary audience are scholars and students of the American city, especially those interested in the impact preservation has had on the form and social life of cities.

10.Tell us about you.

I was born and bred in Melbourne, Australia and now live with my family (partner Clare, two children and Tinker the cat) in Sydney. I am an urban and architectural historian with a special interest in American cities and historic preservation or what we normally call heritage conservation in Australia. I work at the University of Sydney in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning where I am director of the postgraduate program in heritage conservation. I did my PhD in Washington, DC, at GW, which is how I first got interested in Washington’s history, architecture and preservation movement.

11. What inspired you to write this book?  

The book began life as a doctoral research project and was based on an idea I had tried, with limited success, to address in an earlier research project in the Australian context. That question was, how do efforts to picture a city, and especially define its historic places, contribute to the broader city-making enterprise?  So the idea was to think about how cities are made not just by prospective projects of planning, architecture and landscape design, but also retrospectively through place protection efforts. 

12. What’s unique about your perspective? 

I’m not sure I can claim anything unique or especially innovative.  Perhaps I’ll leave that to the readers to identify. But I do hope that people will recognise just how significant preservation politics has been in the wider city making process and in shaping popular conceptions of the good house and good neighborhood. 

13. What’s your favorite DC history book?  

It’s not a history, but my favorite book that represents DC’s history is Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones.  It contains all the evanescent and human elements of the city that a historian, even one deeply connected to the city in ways that I am obviously not, simply can’t capture. For a genuine history of DC Zach Shrag’s Great Society Subway is a fantastic book and really connects with the public transportation nerd in me.

14. What’s next for you? What are you working on?

I have recently embarked on a history of crowds and crowd venues in American cities focusing in particular on the use of architecture and urban design to enable, suppress and sometimes control crowds. I have done a little bit of research on the long discussion (1920s – 1960s) in DC about the stadium that eventually became RFK. The discarded proposals and politics of the discussion are probably more interesting than the final outcome. But hopefully that project and those debates will form part of something larger in the not-too-distant future. 

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