CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Summer 2010
CRM Journal

Book Review


The Olmsted National Historic Site and the Growth of Historic Landscape Preservation

by David Grayson Allen. Lebanon, NH: Northeastern University Press [University Press of New England], 2007; 332 pp., illustrations; cloth, $50.00.

Fort Stanwix National Monument: Reconstructing the Past and Partnering for the Future

by Joan M. Zenzen, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2009; 310 pp., illustrations, maps; cloth, $75.00

Administrative histories of national parks detail the history of park management and, increasingly, university presses are publishing these heretofore ignored works. While on the surface it might be easy to dismiss them as too narrowly focused, scholars desiring a greater understanding of National Park Service management policies and how they have changed over time cannot ignore these valuable contributions. Administrative histories chronicle the actions of NPS administrators and show how these park sites interact with their surroundings. They provide a glimpse into public engagement with the past and into their interest in history. Such works are invaluable resources for public historians and administrators—something which David Grayson Allen and Joan M. Zenzen have demonstrated in their respective works.

In his book, Allen outlines two objectives supported by evidence gleaned from a number of oral histories, the administrative files of the Olmsted National Historic Site, and NPS publications. The first objective tells the story of the creation of the Olmsted NHS located in Brookline, Massachusetts, and the second explains how the NPS came to embrace the idea of cultural landscapes as cultural resources. In 1883 Frederick Law Olmsted, noted American landscape architect and designer of New York’s Central Park, purchased Fairsted, located in Brookline, to house his growing landscape architecture business. The firm continued to be based at Fairsted long after Olmsted’s death in 1903, when his sons John Charles and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., continued the business until it ceased to operate in 1961. In 1963, Fairsted was designated a National Historic Landmark.

The second chapter describes the controversy between NPS factions who both supported and opposed the addition of the property to the National Park system. Integrity and collection issues caused some NPS professionals to question its inclusion in the system. Others supported the acquisition because of the Olmsted archives, which contained most of the original landscape architectural drawings the firm had completed since 1883. Allen argues that Olmsted is a “nontraditional” park because its integrity derives not from the integrity of Fairsted alone but from the integrity of the archival collection of the landscape drawings as well. Allen refers to Olmstead as a “nontraditional” park on several occasions, but never fully defines what he means by this term. It is unfortunate that he did not do so because he argues that Olmsted’s “nontraditional” status makes it unique. Allen describes how NPS managers faced challenges in trying to curate, preserve, and make available to the public the Olmsted landscape drawings. Allen notes that it was not until 1990, 11 years after the site was established as an NPS unit, that Congress made substantial increases to the park’s base funding, enabling the park to adequately take care of the archival collection and allow access to it.

In Chapters 5 and 8, Allen demonstrates how the NPS came to embrace the preservation of historic landscapes. For Allen, the creation of the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, which opened in 1992, illustrates the NPS commitment to this type of cultural resource. He summarizes his support of this policy by saying “the NPS through its internal and external programs has become the leading institution in the historic landscape preservation movement in this country during the last twenty years” (p. viii). While this is an important transition to note in the NPS management of cultural resources, sandwiching this story in with the administrative history of the Olmsted NHS proves awkward and keeps the narrative from having a clear, chronological focus. As it stands, one of the most important points of the book takes the reader by surprise in the middle of the narrative. Despite this one structural distraction, Allen has still given us much to consider.

Utilizing Fort Stanwix’s administrative records, National Archives records, collections at the Rome Historical Society, and oral histories, Zenzen has crafted a very useful history of how the community of Rome, New York, embraced the reconstruction of Fort Stanwix, where in August 1777 Colonel Peter Gansevoort stopped a British attack on the fort during the American Revolution. The thwarting of that attack allowed the defeat of General John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga. The fort later played a role in mediating the relationship between the United States and the Six Nations Confederacy in the form of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix that was signed at the fort on October 22, 1784; after that, the fort was abandoned.

As Zenzen recounts in the first chapter, the city of Rome was incorporated in 1819 and, in 1857, as the town developed, most of the fort was razed. However, the memory of the fort remained alive in the community’s heritage because in 1877 residents celebrated the centennial of the siege.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Rome Chamber of Commerce supported an effort to designate what little remained of the fort as a national monument. Congress agreed, and in 1935 the Fort Stanwix National Monument was approved by Congress but the designation would not take effect until the land was acquired and donated to the United States government. Years passed, and by the 1960s the town of Rome was struggling. It turned to its history and urban renewal programs to fund a downtown economic revival. As Zenzen notes, “By connecting urban renewal funding to the dream of building a national memorial to the fort, city leaders and history-minded Romans imagined not just a suitable tribute to the city’s past but also a much needed economic boost through increased tourism” (p. 44).

In 1964 NPS agreed to establish a historical park; however, debate raged within the agency about how to interpret the fort site to the public because the fort had been removed from the cultural landscape. Some favored the reconstruction of the fort and others did not; however, by June 1967, NPS agreed to reconstruct the fort in time for the Bicentennial celebration. Reconstructing the fort required the city to remove a significant number of structures, including some considered historically significant, from a 16-acre area located in downtown Rome.

After the buildings were removed, the NPS conducted extensive archeological excavations at the site in order to help with the reconstruction and, as a result, collected a number of artifacts, which became a challenge for the park to curate in subsequent years. In 1973 the city of Rome formally transferred the land to NPS and the reconstructed fort opened to the public in 1976.

Zenzen’s discussion of the relationship between Rome and NPS is strongest in Chapters 3 and 4 and she notes that city officials were optimistic that the reconstructed fort would bring tourists and tourist dollars to the community and would revitalize Rome’s downtown. However, Zenzen reveals that the fort never generated the attendance and tourism dollars that “federal officials and economic researchers predicted” (p. 134). In subsequent chapters, Zenzen’s account focuses primarily on NPS management of the fort and the impact that various superintendents had on the park and one is left to wonder how or if the relationship between the park and the community had changed since the 1970s.

The challenges park managers faced since the 1970s included maintaining the reconstructed fort and its collections as well as broadening the interpretive themes to include not only information about the soldiers who were stationed at the fort but also the role Native Americans played in the region. The problem with the collections was solved in 2005 when the Marinus Willett Collections Management and Education Center opened and in 2002 the park signed an agreement with the Oneida Nation, which Zenzen says represented an important step in permanently incorporating the voice of Native Americans into the historical interpretation at the park.

In conclusion, both Allen and Zenzen give readers important stories to consider regarding the administration of complex historic properties. Allen chronicles how NPS came to see cultural landscapes as important historic resources. However, he neglects to show how the community of Brookline viewed this new historic resource idea and its archives. In contrast, Zenzen crafts a narrative that discusses the interplay between the community of Rome and NPS. She clearly demonstrates community interest in promoting Fort Stanwix for the perceived economic reward of tourist dollars; however, the account left this reader wondering if NPS learned anything from the reconstruction and if NPS has applied any of this acquired knowledge to subsequent management decisions regarding other historical reconstructions.

While these criticisms might sound harsh, few administrative histories currently in the published historical literature have done as much as these two scholarly works. If NPS management of cultural resources is to profit from its own history, it must include a continued commitment to the production of scholarly administrative histories. Allen’s observation of a ”nontraditional park” underscores that park administration is seldom if ever “traditional.” Successful management takes place against a complicated and complex backdrop of both national and local politics, history, and heritage.

Jon E. Taylor
University of Central Missouri