Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Persistence of Memory

The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali. Original at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC

I was just up in the Finger Lakes region again; I seem to be on some sort of quarterly schedule to get up that way. While up there this time, I stopped in Seneca Falls at the Women's Rights National Historical Park, part of the National Park Service (NPS). Work on the rehabilitation of the Wesleyan Chapel, where the first U.S. Women's Rights Convention was held in 1848, is finally underway.

Wesleyan Chapel, undergoing reconstruction. March 18, 2010.

What struck me about this site is the persistence of memory. That this location, in a small town in Upstate New York, has been remembered as the location of Something Important, even though the physical place was almost entirely obliterated.

The Wesleyan Chapel was built in 1843. It went up very quickly; those Wesleyan Methodists didn't waste time on anything. They split from the main body of the Methodist Episcopal Church over irreconcilable differences regarding the abolition of slavery, holding their first formal meeting in February of 1843 in Andover, Massachusetts (Brown 1987; Weber 1985). In March of that same year, the First Wesleyan Methodist Society of Seneca Falls was formally organized; in May they bought a vacant lot; by July construction of the church was underway; and on October 14, 1843, the church was dedicated (Brown 1987). The original structure measured 64 feet by 44 feet, and was built of local brick. A second floor balcony ran around three sides of the interior.

As well as a location for regular services, the church was also the location for several lectures and meetings, ranging from philosophy to politics, abolition, and temperance. The church was made available to these speakers free of charge (Brown 1987; Weber 1985). It was not at all a strange choice of location, therefore, for the first U.S. Women's Rights Convention organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann M'Clintock, and Jane Hunt.

Approximately 300 people attended the two-day convention on July 19 and 20, 1848. Sixty-eight women signed the resulting Declaration of Sentiments; 32 men, including Frederick Douglass, signed their names in support of the women. I was doing the math while I was up there; it would be only barely possible to jam 300 people into the building, assuming each person only required nine square feet (3x3); certainly not everyone would have been in simultaneous attendance, but I can imagine people were also congregating outside the church, conversing and debating along the streets and on the adjacent open lawn.

In 1872, the Wesleyans of Seneca Falls moved to a new church. Their old, 1843 church was sold, and renovated to serve as an entertainment venue, as well as having storefronts along Fall Street. Subsequent owners renovated the building for use as an Opera House, a movie theatre, automobile showroom and repair garage (complete with a ramp to drive vehicles up to the second floor), fire hall, apartment building, and (ironically) a laundromat (Brown 1987). The structure of the Chapel had been virtually obliterated; no one looking at the building, even in the late nineteenth century, would see a church.

The Wesleyan Chapel from 1962-1985. It's in there, really! Image from the Women's Rights NHP website.

In 1932, a commemorative sign was placed by the New York State Education Department at the corner of Fall and Mynderse Streets, reading "First Convention for Woman's Rights Was Held On This Corner in 1848" (you can just make it out in the photo, above). Though this could be read that women met on the corner, as though it was a street protest, it underscores how GONE the chapel was. The sign doesn't commemorate their meeting in the building at the corner (in 1932, it was a car dealership and garage), but at the corner. Despite the disappearance of the chapel, women continued to remember this as the location of the Convention, and continued to meet at the corner, often trying to meet within the building. Some owners let them in; others, including one of the dealership owners, refused.

In 1985, the National Park Service purchased the property (then an apartment complex and laudromat). A national design competition was run to determine how to develop the new park. The winning design included the removal of all building and structural elements not associated with the 1843 church, with a few elements added to keep it standing. The result was essentially a standing ruin.
The Wesleyan Chapel in 2007. Image from the Women's Rights NHP website.
The lighter brick and steel roof are modern materials to keep the structure standing. The darker bricks are original to the 1843 chapel; portions of the original roof and wall plaster are on the interior. Original portions of the foundation survive below grade.

In order to address conservation issues associated with making the former interior of the Wesleyan Chapel exposed to the exterior elements, with vandalism, and with confusion on the part of visitors regarding what they were looking at, the NPS is rehabilitating the Chapel. Using what is known, the Wesleyan Chapel is being reconstructed, incorporating surviving elements, on its original foundations (Orcutt et al 2007).

An artist's rendering of the completed reconstruction of the Wesleyan Chapel. The red brick is original to the 1843 structure; you will be able to tell on sight which are original and which are reconstructed elements. Image from the Women's Rights NHP Website.

The result will be much more legible as the Wesleyan Chapel. But I wonder about this reconstruction. The persistence of the memory of the convention makes it clear that it is not the building that is important, but the place. And I am generally troubled by the sterility of historic reconstructions and many living history museums; they feel like just-so stories. What I hope is that the NPS utilizes the space within the new Chapel building for meetings, conferences, lectures, and other programs associated with women's history, women's rights, and women's experiences. It would be totally consistent with the Wesleyan's use of the building, and would do ongoing honor to those 100 who spoke up in 1848.


Brown, Sharon A. (1987) Historic Structure Report, Historical Data Section, Wesleyan Chapel, Women's Rights National Historical Park, New York. NPS.

Orcutt, Tina, Jennifer McConaghie, Cheryl Sams O'Neill, Christopher Tavner, and Mark Warner (2007) Women's Rights National Historical Park - Wesleyan Chapel, Seneca Falls, New York: Rehabilitation and Preservation of the Wesleyan Chapel Environmental Assessment / Assessment of Effect. NPS.

Weber, Sandra S. (1985) Special History Study, Women's Rights National Historical Park, Seneca Falls, New York. NPS.


RPS77 said...

The odd thing about painstaking historical reconstruction of buildings and sites is that, while it is more authentic in some ways, it can also make history seem more remote and less connected to today if it isn't done carefully. There's also the fact that one has to choose a specific historical moment or at least a period to reconstruct, which tends to erase other historical events and periods even if that wasn't the intention.

Ink said...

I LOVE LOVE LOVE that place. Felt hushed and awed by being on the same place it all began. Thanks so much for posting the pics...brought back memories of my own visit.

Digger said...

RPS77: I totally agree. Reconstructions done with the very best intentions can skew things in surprising and unintended ways. I'm sure in '87 they thought stripping the Chapel of all the "overburden" was an elegant solution. Except inside bricks were never supposed to be exposed to the outside (the chapel walls are three layers of brick thick); the interior bricks are crumbling to dust from the stresses of exposure. The historic fabric is just one simple example. I wonder if the NPS will do more to interpret the Chapel -as- a Chapel as well, in the greater context of the 1848 Convention... why there? Why then?

Inky: I agree, it's a pretty darn powerful place.

Other changes in the reconstruction include getting rid of the stepped seating behind the building, but the water wall is staying. The interior of the reconstructed Chapel will remain un-interpreted; there's just not enough definitive information on the interior to re-make it without guessing. Reading the Declaration @ the wall just about knocked my socks off. A lot has changed, but it's still a radical document.

R Corby said...

I disagree. As a preservation architect I know the ruin left exposed would have eventually been destroyed. The poorly conceived roof structure visually overwhelmed the ruin and certainly confused most about the historic function of the site. The addition is simple, clearly distinguishable from the original. It automatically gives visitors an understanding of how this building fit into downtown Seneca Falls. It does not pretend to be something it is not.

Digger said...

Hi, R. Corby. Thanks for your comment. I wrote this piece before the reconstruction was completed. I've been to the Chapel since, and I think they did a great job. It still has that kind of sterile feel to it, but it DOES fit into the streetscape and is much more intelligible. And it is being used for lots of programming in ways that the previous incarnation couldn't be.