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Old Homes, Historic Homes: Why are We Drawn to Them?

My previous post discussed the Ballantine House in Newark, New Jersey and touched upon the fascination and attraction of such spaces. Why do people decide to spend their leisure time or vacations visiting historic neighborhoods and sites, especially houses and homes? Aren’t they just moldy, musty aging places full of shadows of (largely) dead rich white men and their families? Little more than monuments to prejudice, greed, and excess?

In a very narrow and rather sad and cynical way, I suppose that the answers must be: yes and yes. Such places are “old” and they are preserves of past times and possibly lost customs. They were often—yet certainly not always—constructed for Americans of a certain social and economic status. A qualification is necessary: not all historic homes once belonged to robber barons, plantation owners, and other problematic figures from our local, regional, or national history. For instance, the Tenement Museum,  a former … well … tenement, is one of the more visited museums and historic sites in New York City. Tours usually require reservations well in advance.

Tenement Museum

Restored room of an Irish-American family’s apartment, Tenement Museum (Courtesy of The Secret Victorianist).

However, even if such spaces were only former homes of dead white men, would that strip them of all value and educational potential? If we hold culture to such our contemporary political correct standards, won’t we lose most literature, art, and music ensconced in the pantheon of high thought?

Returning to my original question: why are such places popular? Not valuable. Popular. People from different backgrounds and education levels enjoy touring historic houses and homes, watching public television programs about them, and reading books and articles on them. Certain localities or regions, such as Newport, Rhode Island, rely upon history tourists as linchpins of their economy. Anyone who frequently tours historic homes knows that such activity is not merely a pastime of the idle rich.

Historic homes, such as the previously discussed Ballantine House or Washington Irving’s Sunnyside, remind us of past times, habits, figures, and societies. They touch our imaginations and spirits. While touring such sites, we can picture famous (or not-so-famous) men and women strolling through the halls, entertaining guests in the dining rooms, and relaxing on the sumptuous grounds. These homes were often sites of wealth, leisure, and comfort. We may wish to lead such lives. We may wish to meet and talk with such people. What would it be like to hold a conversation—if only a brief one—with a seminal painter, inventor, or philosopher?

Historic artifacts and sites connect us—tactically, immediately, and physically—with the past. For instance, Sunnyside contains furniture and decorative objects from the original Irving estate. A visitor can study from a safe distance the desk actually used by Washington Irving. What stories, essays, or articles did Irving compose at that desk in his quaint home overlooking the Hudson River? All that separates one from the author is the intractable element of time.

Washington Irving's Study

Washington Irving’s Study at Sunnyside, Tarrytown, New York (Courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley).

Historic homes mesmerize us with the same features and powers as costume dramas such as Downtown Abbey or novels of manners by Jane Austen. They are set in a world of clear and certain rituals and expectations. Courage, duty, fidelity, and love are not abstract, fusty concepts to be scoffed at and tossed away. Yes, the world captured by such art is strict, rule-bound, stratified and it can be cruel to those that stray. Nevertheless, viewers of such programs, readers of such books, and visitors of such sites find something soothing and comforting in them. Courtship is defined: both men and women understand the actions and reactions required to approach a romantic interest. Institutions of power and faith can be trusted to be just, fair, and upright. Intellect and wit are respected and revered. The world of one’s parents and grandparents will not be swept away by change and technology in less than a generation.

These past spaces, landscapes, and worlds make sense. They do not confuse and overwhelm us. We know what they desire of us and we know where we fit within them. Admittedly, these statements might ring as patriarchal, narrow, and conservative. However, I believe that they begin to explain why so many people love beautiful, wondrous buildings such as the Ballantine House in Newark, the Breakers in Newport, and so many other spaces in United States.

Maybe one of these places sits in your town. Maybe you find meaning in it, too.

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