Bringing History Home: Q&A With Author Daniel Bluestone


John Watts Kearney House, built 1909-1910. This historic country house was included as part of a newer subdivision, resulting in what Daniel Bluestone calls “a subdivision with a soul.” Image Source: Holsinger Studio Collection, 1912, Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


Daniel Bluestone, professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia School of Architecture and director of its historic preservation program, is the author of Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory: Case Studies in Historic Preservation (2011) and Constructing Chicago(1991). I spoke with Daniel in fall 2012.

How can development or redevelopment foster attachment to a place and its history?

Daniel Bluestone: Two examples come from my own locality. Eugene Bradbury, a great architect in early 20th-century Charlottesville, Virginia, built houses of stone quarried from the same site. His material palette reflected what you could see in the surrounding landscape.

Just west of town, Bradbury built a country house in the 1910s on a 20- or 30-acre site. Decades later, a developer got hold of the site and created a subdivision with a soul, by including this house in it. In the midst of the more recent houses, this older house speaks to the past of the site.

This seems like a new dimension to historic preservation.

Bluestone: Seeing how people made different decisions in the same landscape jars us out of where we are now, and helps us start thinking critically about today’s choices. It’s a way of using landscape to make you think about it.

A simpler way to accomplish the same goal is to have rain barrels under downspouts – showing that water doesn’t have to be collected elsewhere and cleaned to drinking-water standards and then piped back to water the lawn! Every time you see them, those barrels encourage you to consider your relationship to the environment.

An even simpler way to do this came about after Charlottesville’s huge drought in the early 2000s: the water bills were converted from cubic feet to gallons. We don’t deal with a cubic foot of water, but we can all visualize that long row of gallon jugs! In the same vein, what if showers gave an instant readout of the water consumed? All these design ideas help connect people with vital aspects of their locality.

Another approach happened as part of the Chicago Bungalow Initiative on which I worked. The city’s “bungalow belt” contains 50-75,000 single-family dwellings, but it has always stood well outside the standard narrative of Chicago architectural history of Sullivan, Wright, and van der Rohe.

Today’s inhabitants knew they liked their bungalows. What we needed was a way to let them feel that they too lived in a storied environment. On home visits to the targeted neighborhoods, we’d bring along the original building permit and the 1920 or 1930 manuscript census forms, which have every resident’s name in each house, and their ages, occupations, and places of birth.

People were just fascinated to see their house peopled by earlier generations. “My neighbor’s not home. Do you have this for their house?” You could just see the building up of social capital. Since then, several more neighborhoods have taken this up on their own. That approach has so much potential in developing a sense of place. Depending on what’s available, you can run a chain of title on a particular property, or seek out earlier photographs of it.

What about more recently built neighborhoods?

Bluestone: That kind of historical thinking could happen anywhere. We could tell every resident of Long Island when their place was in agriculture. You could do community garden plots that raised potatoes – develop the potato narrative. We can tell you who the farmer was and where they shipped their produce, sometimes by sail.

I’m still thinking about those bungalows. Surely there were more people living in each one in the 1930s than there are now?

Bluestone: Oh, yes. Most of our spatial concerns are culturally defined. We think, “I just need to have a master bedroom with its own master bath.” But that wasn’t the case then. The average new house built just after World War II was 900-1,000 square feet. Today’s average is 2,900 square feet. Seeing that difference makes you think. Why is it that every child absolutely needs their own bedroom? I suspect the folks in the 1930s felt they were doing just fine in those little Cape Cods.

All this happens because the history is presented personally, as a site biography. There’s nothing abstract. It can play out into different thinking when planning and zoning requirements seek to require certain amounts of space.

Could this work in a business district too, with a door-by-door listing of the businesses on a given street a century or two ago?

Bluestone: Yes, and it would show how many important day-to-day functions were served close at hand – and how many people lived above the stores. Charlottesville is now putting up apartments around the downtown mall, and everyone feels pretty good about it, but we are still about 2/3 below the residential population that was there in 1930.

Looking at commercial strips as part of the residential landscape also opens up the fact that people who did the heavy lifting were able to live in the community. Nowadays people sometimes freak about the prospect of lower-income people living in town. But when you look at it historically, it seems to have worked pretty well.

How would you deal with aspects of the past that people prefer not to remember?

Bluestone: I think Americans are actually pretty open to commemorating less than ideal things. What are two of the most visited venues in Washington, D. C.? The Vietnam War Memorial and the Holocaust Museum. It turns out that people have the ability to deal with sites that are not the standard cheerleading happy history. They take their children along.

The people who decided to make Jefferson’s Monticello a shrine in the 1920s may be turning over in their graves now that visitors there learn about Sally Hemings. There are now historic sites commemorating the Japanese internment camps from World War II. People seek these places out and pay money to attend, and manage to get something out of it. Given that, the contemporary suburb or landfill doesn’t have anything we can’t manage.

So leaving a little section of a demolished freeway might be a good idea?

Bluestone: Yes. It’s a reminder of what we were doing before. Imagine a standard mall parking lot turned to denser use. You could make part of it a community garden – with the individual garden plots divided up into rectangles, just as the earlier parking spaces once were. It would make you think.