Unfamiliar terrain: Reevaluating a landmark’s past (Part 1)

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stone house

Cliveden is best known for its associations with the Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War.

Through the support of the Arts of Citizenship Program at the University of Michigan, I recently found myself, along with my team of colleagues, navigating unfamiliar territory in the form of partnership with Cliveden of the National Trust to update the site’s National Historic Landmark  (NHL) nomination.  The collaboration presented us with many challenges, but two problems we encountered seem particularly relevant to the work of historic sites and historians today. First, could the somewhat bureaucratic process of updating NHL documents be aligned with more public conversations about the meanings of the past? And second, what role could we, as experts but outsiders, play in this process?

As the word “landmark” implies, these sites are thought to be steadfast markers, guiding Americans through a shared understanding of the past. Yet Cliveden was originally designated in 1961, and on the ground its historical meaning as a landmark, both locally and nationally, had changed significantly.  With prior experience researching and writing a NHL nomination for another site, our challenge for this project was to use our expertise to fit these fluid and somewhat contestable meanings into the bureaucratic structures of historic designation, so that the public record of the site would more accurately reflect a complex and rigorous historical narrative.  With a draft of the updated nomination submitted to the NPS, the time seems right to reflect on the project, and what it might mean to practice the “arts of citizenship” as historians.

Cliveden Then and Now

Completed in 1767, Cliveden was built as the summer home for Benjamin Chew, on a site in Germantown, which was then a rural area about 10 miles from central Philadelphia.  (Today, it is an urban space with a distinctive sense of place. Imagine inner-city Baltimore meets Colonial Williamsburg.)  As a part of this colonial-era landscape, Cliveden has primarily been remembered as the site of the Revolutionary era Battle of Germantown, in addition to being a stunning example of late Georgian period architecture in the United States. These two elements were the foundation of the original nomination and much of the site’s interpretation and exhibits. Less acknowledged, until recently, were the slaves, servants, and laborers that made this place and the economic fortunes of the Chew family function on a daily basis.

Cliveden has long had an air of mystery about it, particularly from the perspective of residents in the surrounding community, because it is physically cordoned off from the neighborhood by a stone wall, iron fence, and dense foliage.  It was also intellectually closed to much of its potential audience through narrowly focused interpretation and programs, for instance emphasizing only furniture, design, and other aspects of elite life during the colonial period.  With the goal of changing the site’s image and relevance to people in the local community, as well as creating a more accurate picture of Cliveden’s history, staff began to re-imagine what the site can and should mean in the 21st century through an on-going series of dialogues called “Cliveden Conversations.” The culmination of this work to date was the creation of a new interpretive plan and exhibit for the site that was launched on July 4th, 2012.

The Nomination, Reevaluated

Updating the site’s NHL documentation was intended as part of this on-going reexamination of the site. Yet the process of researching and writing a NHL follows a rigid format. It doesn’t necessarily lend itself to transparency or capturing fluid meanings.  To do this requires the skills of historians to use cutting-edge scholarship to fit the intersecting stories of these people, places, and ideas into the broad criteria (for our project, these were Criterion 1 and Criterion 4) used by the NPS to determine national significance. In this sense our role was to translate the facts underlying Cliveden’s new interpretation into the NHL format.

This required looking more expansively at Cliveden’s history outside of the Battle of Germantown. Of course, the battle remains important, but it is not the only contributing factor to the site’s significance. The revised nomination draft argues the site is also significant as a window into late-eighteenth century domestic life, slavery, and servitude. Grounding some of the new interpretation of the site in contemporary research and literature on slavery, race, domestic life, and architecture, the designation carries with it more expansive, complex, and inclusive meanings that were previously not recognized.

The site also remains significant as an example of Georgian architecture.  However, rather than separate the architectural history from the social history, the revised nomination seeks to make links between the two.  For example, Cliveden’s “hidden” servant staircase, allowing labor to travel between all floors of the house without entering public spaces unless requested, is a design feature that allowed us to illuminate how Georgian architecture and 18th century social life were intimately connected to Cliveden’s significance as a place.

Cliveden’s on-going reinvention as a historic site in the 21st century also means its staff has been actively working to make it a community-focused place, where its “period of significance” is not only past, but also present.  The documentation for historic designation leaves little room for examining this type of long-view history that aims to build audiences and ensuring the importance of the place to future generations. Even interpreting Cliveden’s significance beyond the 1777 battle, a NHL nomination leaves little space for incorporating such meanings that remain important pieces of preservation and museum practice.  Reevaluating Cliveden’s historic landmark designation could have remained as hidden from sight as much of the site’s past, but a community conversation, convened by staff and described in Part 2 of this post, opened the process more fully to public scrutiny.

~ Joseph Cialdella is a PhD Candidate in the Department of American Culture & Museum Studies Program at the University of Michigan.