Date of Award

Summer 2019

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Department

History

First Advisor

Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff

Abstract

In the 1930s, when the United States was in the throes of the greatest economic depression it had ever experienced, politicians, architects, and preservationists – both professionals and amateurs – engaged in the process of defining what it meant to be American by restoring historic landmarks across the nation. The Works Progress Administration (WPA)’s historic shrine restoration program is a significant, yet overlooked, part of the New Deal’s cultural agenda. A “restored” nation – as evinced through its preserved historic architecture – celebrated past American achievements, ingenuity, and diverse local histories that gave the nation its distinctive multicultural character.

During the Depression years, historic preservation became a materialized method of cultural production and national recovery. This work examines why the federal government and local political and art leaders engaged in preservation activity as a method of rebuilding America, positioning architecture and material culture as cultural agents. This dissertation focuses on three WPA historic shrine restorations completed between the years 1935 and 1937: the Henry Whitfield State Museum in Guilford, Connecticut; the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, South Carolina; and the Charles A. Lindbergh Boyhood Home and State Park in Little Falls, Minnesota. Each of these projects arose from local claims to distinct histories and myths which Americans employed to reconstruct the cultural underpinnings of the nation. The three projects revived the Puritan legacy in small-town Connecticut, resurrected a theatre that was the cultural heart of colonial Charleston, and cultivated the pioneers’ landscape of the central Minnesota frontier. From a seventeenth-century stone house in New England, to an eighteenth-century theatre in the Deep South, to a modest farmhouse and surrounding lands in the Upper Midwest, these particular historic shrines reflected the multifaceted nature of the nation’s historic built environment through which Americans chose to mediate modern changes.

Included in

History Commons

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