Fiske Kimball’s National Park Service Memoir 1
by John H. Sprinkle, Jr.
Fiske Kimball (1888-1955) is well-recognized as one of the founders of American architectural history.2 His Thomas Jefferson, Architect (1916); Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic (1922); and, American Architecture (1928) remain landmarks in the history of American architecture.3 From 1924 until 1955, he was the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art where he was widely acknowledged as a highly skilled curator and administrator.
Kimball is equally significant in the story of American historic preservation. His 1941 essay in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians defined the “The Preservation Movement” during the period prior to World War II.4 Kimball served as one of the founding members of the National Park System Advisory Board, which was created by the Historic Sites Act of 1935 to advise the Secretary of the Interior regarding the identification and evaluation of nationally significant historic properties. As such, he played a highly important role in the establishment of National Park Service historic preservation policy.5
During World War II, Kimball drafted an essay entitled “Historic Monuments,” which outlined his reminiscences regarding the wide range of historic preservation projects and personalities he had known through his career. Comprising one chapter of his proposed memoirs, the manuscript is maintained among Kimball’s voluminous records at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 6 The following excerpt from Kimball’s memoirs describes his involvement with the National Park Service.
Already at Harvard I had been unimpressed with the great series of inventories of historic monuments listed in Lauglois’ Manual7 and shelved at the college’s library—covering in topographic order, especially in the Teutonic countries, every surviving work of any importance. As I worked on American colonial subjects I hoped that something similar could be undertaken here.
When I organized, in the Archaeological Institute, the Committee on Colonial and National Art, it occurred to me that such inventory of monuments might [need] to [be] undertaken through the Federal Bureau of American Ethnology, but I learned that its scope was limited by statute to aboriginal inhabitants of the United States. 8 Americanists in the Southwest were extending this interest to the Spanish colonial monuments, some of which, if on public land, had been declared National Monuments under the control of the National Park Service. I sounded these men as to such an extension of the scope of Federal interests as would include Eastern, Anglo-colonial works. Buildings had been excavated at Jamestown; why should we not consider archaeology to include works of our own ancestors on this continent? They agreed in principle but begged me not to raise this problem to the Park Service until the problems then existing there as to the West could be straightened out. It was many years before circumstances became really favorable for the effort I had in mind.
Simultaneously with the Rockefeller work at Williamsburg, went forward nearby under the National Park Service, the development of Colonial National Park at Jamestown and Yorktown. Its landscape architect was Charles Peterson, a young man from Cornell, very self-confident, fertile in ideas and, as want proved, a genius for organization. I had been warned against him by the Williamsburg architects, but when he sought me out and showed me all he was doing, I was much impressed by his abilities and we became good friends. Early in 1934 he came forward in the conception of the Historic American Buildings Survey, by which, as a measure of unemployment relief, the buildings of historic and architectural importance throughout the country would be measured and photographed.9 He engineered an effective collaboration of the Park Service, of the Works Progress Administration, which provided the funds, and the Library of Congress, which preserved the results. Though early taken into confidence, I had no part in the early organization of the enterprise, which was in excellent hands, and realized one of my long cherished dreams.10 Later I did have a chance to help in its continuance at a crucial moment, and to protect and encourage Tom Waterman11 and Stuart Barnette,12 the aces of the headquarters staff in the Park Service.
The Park Service had had for some years an advisory committee on which Herman Carey Bumpus, retired director of the American Museum of Natural History, and Waldo Leland, the historian, founder and director of the American Council of Learned Societies were mainstays.13 In 1935 Congress passed, on the initiative of the Service, The Historic Sites Act, establishing for the first time in America something which might become analogous to the service of monuments in foreign nations.
I was appointed on its Advisory Board, along with Bumpus and Leland, with the Harvard Americanist Alfred Vincent Kidder14, the California historian Herbert Bolton15, and with several laymen active in their patriotic societies and in local preservation work, such as George de Benneville Keim of New Jersey,16 Edward Abrahams of Savannah, and Archibald McCrea, who had restored and garbled Carter’s Grove near Williamsburg.17
The Board was intended to act as a buffer between the Department of the Interior and its Park Service and Congress, members of which were always promising the acquisition of sites of merely local importance. There as a sheaf of such proposals awaiting us at our first meeting. We organized with sub-committees on scenic sites, archaeological sites, and historic sites, the last of these, under the chairmanship of McCrea, a personal friend of Secretary Ickes, being my interest. There was a great contrast between the inconsequent opportunism of the lay members and the long-range views of the professionals, but we managed to work in harmony with each other and with the officials of the Service, who also hoped for a long-range view: Arno [B.] Camerer, its Director; [Arthur E.] Demaray, the Deputy Director, and Verne Chatelain, who at first was chief of the Historic Sites Branch—a disciple of the historian Charles Merriman, then head of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.18 Chatelain elaborated a broad series of themes such as under which the important sites and monuments could be designated. As the small staff of the Branch were kept too busy reporting on single sites currently in question, certain of us in the Board took the initiative in bring[ing] in comprehensive lists of the most important ones in different fields. Thus Kidder was primarily responsible for a list of eligible archaeologic sites, Bolton for one of mostly Spanish sites—both largely of a nature to call for ultimate excavation. I undertook a list of surviving buildings which could be regarded as of national significance—not only for events which took place there but equally for their artistic importance. Thus, we ruled in advance, with some consistency, on the eligibility of sites and monuments irrespective of whether emergencies regarding them had arisen calling for legal action.
An advantage and inducement for owners and occupants of sites and buildings which might be designated as of national significance lay in the existence at that time, and potentially in the future, of relief funds such as of the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. These would become available for restoration and development work if cooperative agreements, as provided by the act, could be negotiated with organizations concerned, even without federal ownership of the site. In two notable instances I was so fortunate as to bring about such agreements.
Second Bank of the United States
One of the finest old buildings in the United States is the old Philadelphia Custom House, a masterpiece of our Greek Revival, built in 1819-1824 for the Second Bank of the United States.19 It stood abandoned, in custody of the Treasury Department, on completion of a new Custom House, and was being offered for sale as surplus government property. Its location was in an area depressed by the revival of the financial center of the city, an area in which many buildings had been demolished to save taxes. Miss Frances [Anne] Wister, head of the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, was much exercised at the danger, but her efforts in the matter were unrealistic and ineffectual.20 Even if a purchaser should be found to use the building as it stood, and there were some inquirers, such as the Temple University for its Law School, one would have no assurance against its ultimate resale and demolition. The time to strike for its preservation was when it was still in federal hands and could be transferred to the Park Service merely by executive action.21 It was obvious to me that the easy way to achieve this was to find a tenant who would put up the cash needed as “sponsors contribution” for necessary restorations of the building under WPA, and who would assume the cost of maintenance.22
For some years, initially through Marie’s23 German-American interests, we had been in friendly touch with the major organization in that field, the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation.24 It was well endowed and had large ambitions to assemble a library and museum collections in its field. I attended a meeting of their board and outlined both the financial advantages of the proposed scheme and the perfect adaptability of the building to their needs: headquarters offices in the old officers rooms at the front, editorial offices in the rooms just above, an assembly hall in the main banking room with the museum collections displayed in its aisles, the library and its stack[s] in the large rooms behind.25
The Board visited the building and the deed was done; the building was transferred to the Park Service, or cooperative agreement with the foundation was signed and ample WPA funds for allotted for the restoration. For an ultimate contribution of $28,000 the Foundation secured this beautiful and historic headquarters free of any rent, the building was preserved, doubtless in perpetuity.26
A site of the first importance where conditions were far from ideal was Jamestown. The upper part of the island had long been the possession of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, and its consecrated Virginia ladies deserved much credit for their initiative regarding it, and for their considerable restoration of the old church, behind the ruined tower. On their property also were the foundations of a row of brick buildings including the State House of 169_, [sic] which had been excavated and consolidated by Colonel [Samuel H.]Yonge, of the Army Engineers, when they were encountered in building the sea wall to preserve the island in 1907. The Association had also built a brick rest house; where souvenirs were sold, and Yeardley House, for hospitality, supposedly a reproduction of a seventeenth century type, actually a unmistakable wooden suburban cottage of around 1900.27
The Park Service had lately acquired the rest of the island; its archaeologists were actively at work; helped by men from the Civilian Conservation Corps, in excavating old foundations here, with very interesting, to paraphrase, results and rich finds of objects.28 [Figure 3] They had built a laboratory and museum building, said to be temporary, the museum design of which outraged the ladies of the Association. Relations between the two bodies were very tense. The route of the Colonial Parkway, connecting with Williamsburg and Yorktown, which the Park Service was to build, was still undetermined, and the most desirable possibility for it, by restoring the isthmus from Glass House Point, was blocked by the property of the Association.
The roof of the Association’s rest house was leaking badly and something had to be done there. The Williamsburg Restoration was appealed to for designs to remodel the building into harmony with seventeenth century style, and although these were made on a cost basis, the Association paid considerable sums for them without any satisfactory result. It was then proposed to demolish the rest house and house its facilities in a restoration of the old State House. Herbert Claiborne29 was a member of the board of the Association, they wanted him to do the work, he said I should be called in to design it. I was retained initially for a day’s consultation and we went to Jamestown together to meet some of the ladies, especially Miss Ellen Bagby, the chairman of their Jamestown Committee. She was the daughter of George Bagby, author of “The Old Virginia Gentleman,” and was wholly unreconstructed.
I could not concur with the desirability of their proposal. Nothing whatever was known of the form of the superstructure of the State House; its design, however plausible, would have to be pure guesswork, and the intended uses would have been very unsuitable for it. I ventured the suggestion that if the Association could come to a cooperative agreement with the Park Service, it would be possible to undertake a larger and wiser program for a harmonious development of the island, restoring the isthmus, placing all modern buildings, both rest house and museum, off the island at Glass House Point, and extending the excavations to the Association’s property.30
To this very radical proposal Miss Bagby and some other conservative figures in the Association were far from favorable, although the Park Service was ready to make any concession to secure its adoption. A meeting of the Association was called at the Jefferson Hotel to consider it.31 Forces on both sides were marshaled. Miss Bagby had secured a letter from Senator [Thomas Ashby] Wickham, of redoubtable influence. The proponents dined before and at the Claiborne’s across the street—they included the President of the Association, Mrs. [Margaret W. Wilmer], and Miss Ellen Harvie Smith, a descendent of John Marshall, one of the most reasonable and self-abnegating women I have ever met, at once firm and gentle. At the meeting we outlined the proposal and spoke favorably. That Claiborne and I were prepared to abjure any personal employment made its due impression. The other side stressed the sacredness of the Confederate Fort, “planned by Robert E. Lee,” which stood directly on the supposed site of the first settlement, the sacrilege of disturbing it by excavation. Officials of the Park Service were heard.32 [Harrington], the archaeologist, handled the matter of excavations at the fort with delicacy;33 [Charles W.] Porter, a Southerner who had luckily married the niece of Senator Wickham, spoke with much effect.34
I then retired with the other outsiders to the balcony of the hotel. There was a long executive session, during which champagne cocktails were the strongest relief Virginia law afforded us. Toward midnight the members emerged and the Claiborne’s took me to their house to report a complete victory. The Association was prepared to place Miss Smith in charge at Jamestown; she stood aside to mollify Miss Bagby, who then promised to cooperate, and any schism in the Association was avoided! 35
Fiske Kimball never published or completed his memoir, although portions of his reflections informed the biography, Triumph on Fairmont: Fiske Kimball and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was published soon after his death in 1955.36 Other sections of the chapter on “Historic Monuments” related stories of his involvement with the restoration of Monticello, Stratford Hall in Virginia, as well as the restoration and adaptive reuse of “The Colonial Chain” of homes located in Fairmont Park.37
In the mid-1940s Kimball would again collaborate with the National Park Service leadership to secure designation of Hampton, an 18th-century mansion located near Baltimore, Maryland, as a National Historic Site. Hampton bears the distinction of being the first historic property recognized as being nationally significant for only its architectural qualities, as an object of beauty, rather than for any historical associations.
For 15 years Kimball served as the National Park System Advisory Board’s expert on American architecture and historic preservation. In fact, at the first meeting of the Advisory Board in February 1936, Kimball laid the foundation of American historic preservation policy by recommending the adoption of the adage: “better to preserve than repair; better to repair than to construct; and better to construct than to destroy the evidences of history.”38
About the Author
John H. Sprinkle, Jr. is a historian with the National Park Service. He can be contacted at John_Sprinkle@nps.gov.
1. The views and conclusions in this essay are those of Fiske Kimball and John Sprinkle and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the National Park Service of the United States Government. John Sprinkle acknowledges the invaluable assistance of Susan K. Anderson, the Martha Hamilton Morris Archivist at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
2. George and Mary Roberts, Triumph on Fairmont: Fiske Kimball and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1959. Hugh Howard, Dr. Kimball and Mr. Jefferson: Rediscovering the Founding Fathers of American Architecture. New York: Bloomsbury, 2006. Lauren Weiss Bricker, “The Writings of Fiske Kimball: A Synthesis of Architectural History, 215-236 in The Architectural Historian in America. Studies in the History of Art 35. Edited by Elisabeth Blair MacDougall, Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1990. Bibliography of the Works of Fiske Kimball. Compiled by Mary Kane. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1959. Joseph Dye Lahendro, “On Kimball as Architect and Historian,” paper presented at “Fiske Kimball: Creator of an American Architecture.” University of Virginia, 1995.
3. Fiske Kimball, Thomas Jefferson, Architect. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1916. Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922. Reprinted: New York: Dover, 1966. American Architecture, New York: The Bobbs-Merril Company, 1928
4. Fiske Kimball, “The Preservation Movement in America,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol 1, No. 3-4, (July–October, 1941), 16.
5. John H. Sprinkle, Jr., “’History is as History was, and Cannot be Changed,’ Origins of the National Register Criteria Consideration for Religious Properties,” Buildings and Landscapes: The Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Fall 2009), 1–15.
6. Fiske Kimball Papers, Box 159, “Historic Monuments.” MS, ND. Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives. Kimball probably wrote this memoir between 1943, the last date mentioned in the text, and 1945 when he became actively involved in the establishment of Hampton National Historic Site. Kimball’s manuscript has been edited to focus on his relationship with the National Park Service and to remove personal reflections that are not relevant to development of American historic preservation.
7. Charles-Victor Langlois (1863-1929) was an influential French historian. Rolf Torstendahl, “Fact, Truth, and Text: The Quest for a Firm Basis for Historical Knowledge around 1900,” History and Theory, Vol. 42. No. 3 (October 2003), 305–331.
8. Kimball chaired the Committee on Colonial and National Art for the Archaeological Institute of America and served as an editor for its magazine, Art and Archaeology, in 1919-1921.
9. Catherine C. Lavoie, “Architectural Plans and Visions: The Early HABS Program and its Documentation of Vernacular Architecture.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Volume 13, No. 2, Special 25th Anniversary Issue (2006/2007), 15-35.
10. Fiske Kimball, “Introduction,” in John Mead Howells, Lost Examples of Colonial Architecture: Buildings that have Disappeared or been so Altered as to be Denatured. (New York: Dover Publications, 1963; originally published by William Helburn, Inc., 1931).
11. Fay Campbell Kaynor, “Thomas Tileston Waterman: Student of American Colonial Architecture,” Winterthur Portfolio Vol. 20, No. 2/3 (Summer/Autumn 1985), 103-148.
12. NPS Assistant Architect Stuart M. Barnette published “The Old Philadelphia Custom House: An Architectural Monument,” The Regional Review, Volume II, No. 6 (June 1939). A native of Dover, Delaware, Barnette graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Ecole des Beaux Arts Americaine. He joined the National Park Service in 1934 and for a time worked on the Historic Sites Survey.
13. Hermon Carey Bumpus (1862-1943) was director of the American Museum of Natural History. Waldo G. Leland (1879-1966) worked with the Carnegie Institution, the American Historical Association and the American Council of Learned Societies.
14. Robert Wauchope, “Alfred Vincent Kidder, 1885-1963,” and Neil M. Judd, “Alfred Vincent Kidder, A Tribute,” American Antiquity, Volume 31, No. 1, Part 1 (October 1965), 149-171, 272.
15. John Francis Bannon, “Herbert Eugene Bolton - Western Historian” The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jul., 1971), 261-282. George P. Hammond, “In Memoriam: Herbert Eugene Bolton, 1870-1953,” The Americas, Vol. 9, No. 4 (April 1953), 391-398. Albert L. Hurtado, Herbert E. Bolton, Racism, and American History Herbert E. Bolton, Racism, and American History,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 62, No. 2 (May, 1993), 127-142.
16. In 1935, as Chairman of the Commission of Historic Sites in New Jersey, George Keim testified before Congress supporting passage of the Historic Sites Act.
17. For the history of the National Park System Advisory Board see: Barry Mackintosh, The Historic Sites Survey and National Historic Landmarks Program: A History (Washington: National Park Service, 1985).
18. Harlan D. Unrau and G. Frank Williss, Expansion of the National Park Service in the 1930s (Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1983).
19. Bray Hammond, The Second Bank of the United States, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 43, No. 1
(1953), 80-85. 20. The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks was established in 1931 in an effort to preserve the Powel House.
21. On January 21, 1938, Kimball telegraphed NPS Director Arno Cammerer: “Understand fate of Old Philadelphia Custom House which was Bank of the United States during Biddle Jackson struggle is on point of decision and that property would be sold for only seventy five thousand dollars. Building is the masterpiece of the Greek Revival in American. Marble adaptation of the Parthenon. Failing any other public or quasi public use urge propriety of transfer to National Park Service for preservation as a National Monument. Artistic Calamity if this beautiful and historic building were destroyed…. Building admirably adapted to museum purposes of Service in this area.” National Park Service, Park History Program, Independence National Historical Park Files, Washington, DC. In March, the National Park System Advisory Board declared the building to be nationally significant for both its history and architecture.
22. Charles B. Hosmer, Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926-1949 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981), 706-712. The Department of the Interior acquired the Custom House and designated it a National Historic Site in May 1939, almost a decade prior to the establishment of Independence National Historical Park in 1948.
23. While teaching at the University of Illinois, Fiske Kimball married Marie Goebel on June 7, 1913.
24. For example, in 1936 the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation and the Oberlaender Trust sponsored a traveling exhibit of German art that first appeared at the Philadelphia Museum of Art where Kimball was the director. “Art: Retreat.” Time, Monday October 19, 1936.
25. During the summer of 1939, the Department of the Interior solicited proposals for the adaptive use of the Old Custom House by a “reputable organization of sound financial standing.” U.S. Department of the Interior Press Release, July 18, 1939. NPS, Park History Program, Independence National Historical Park Files, Washington, DC. Although both Temple University and the American Philosophical Society expressed interest, the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation presented the most viable plan for adaptively reusing the structure. Reflecting international geopolitical tensions of the time, as negotiations over a cooperative agreement continued into 1940, “serious questions” were raised regarding the possible connections between the Schurz Foundation and the Nazi Party in Germany. Secretary of the Interior Ickes demanded that the foundation publish a “declaration against Hitlerism and a defense of democratic ideas” before he would approve the proposed agreement. Ickes to Ferdinand Thun, Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation, September 20, 1940, Waldo G. Leland Collection, Box 101, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
26. In fact the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation occupied the Old Philadelphia Custom House for two decades. In the late 1950s, the National Park Service developed plans for its own use of the building and took steps to relocate the foundation’s headquarters to the 300 block of Walnut Street as part of the Mission 66 program.
27. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) acquired 22.5 acres of Jamestown Island in 1893. For the history of the APVA see: James M. Lindgren, Preserving the Old Dominion: Historic Preservation and Virginia Traditionalism (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993).
28. In early 1939, the National Park Service was concerned that its ongoing work on Jamestown Island would be compromised by the appearance of Henry Chandlee Forman’s new book, Jamestown and St. Mary’s: Buried Cities of Romance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1938). Because Forman had represented himself as the “Chief Architect” of the project, NPS archeologist J.C. Harrington worried that the public might perceive “the erroneous impression” that the study was “the authoritative, final description and interpretation of the archaeological and documentary research” at Jamestown. J.C. Harrington, Memorandum to the Superintendent, March 16, 1939. National Park Service, Park History Program, Colonial National Historical Park Files, Washington, DC.
29. Claiborne, a Richmond architect and builder, also worked with Fiske Kimball at Stratford Hall and other Virginia restorations.
30. During the spring of 1939 Kimball confidentially asked the National Park Service to draft an agreement that would permit NPS archeological research on APVA property “in return merely for the privilege of conducting” the excavations. Kimball to Herbert Claiborne, March 6, 1939. Fiske Kimball Papers IV, Historic Preservation Projects, National Park Service, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
31. The meeting was held on October 16, 1939, at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia.
32. NPS records reflect that the agency was represented at this meeting by Dr. Francis S. Rolands, Chief, Historic Sites Division; Dr. Charles W. Porter, Chief of the Planning and Interpretation Section; and Dr. J.C. Harrington, Archeologist at Jamestown Island. A.R. Kelly to Ellen Harvie Smith, October 5, 1939, NPS Park History Program, Colonial National Historical Park File.
33. On October 12, 1939, J.C. Harrington prepared “Suggestions for Archaeological Research in the Grounds of The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, Jamestown Island,” which prioritized the excavation of three separate areas within the APVA holdings and that focused on confirming the location of the first settlement, NPS Park History Program, Colonial National Historical Park File.
34. Dr. Charles W. Porter, an NPS historian, married Mrs. Julia Wickham Porter and restored Woodside, the Wickham family home near Richmond, Virginia.
35. NPS moved quickly to confirm the proposed agreement with the APVA and to provide “guarantees regarding the character of archeological studies” proposed for the Association’s property. A.E. Demaray to Mrs. Arthur P. Wilmer, October 18, 1939, NPS Park History Program, Colonial National Historical Park File. Negotiations continued until July 16, 1940, when President Franklin Roosevelt approved the agreement. The Secretary of the Interior designated the APVA’s 22.5 acre portion of Jamestown Island as a National Historic Site on December 18, 1940.
36. George and Mary Roberts, Triumph on Fairmont: Fiske Kimball and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1959).
37. In 1933, Kimball set down his recollections of work with the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. “Williamsburg” Fiske Kimball Papers, Box 159. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives.
38. Minutes of the First Meeting of the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments, Department of the Interior, Washington, DC. February 13-14, 1936, 34. National Park Service, National Historic Landmarks Program.