Books

Book review: Preconceptions – and memory – can cloud historic preservation

The challenges and even impossibility of revisiting the past remains a compelling subject for countless writers, artists and filmmakers. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” might well be the text where this theme looms largest in the last century or so, but it’s far from alone. Works ranging from Ian MacEwan’s novel “Atonement” to composer William Basinski’s “The Disintegration Loops” have wrestled with this paradox.

It’s into this particular fray that “The Book of Errors,” a work by Annie Coggan with text by Mark Hage, makes its own impressive argument – ​​turning the anxieties of memory into a physical space to navigate.

Both collaborators have extensive experience in the area of ​​translating design into other mediums. Coggan, who teaches at the Pratt School of Design, is also one-half of Chairs + Buildings, a design practice based in Belfast, Maine and Brooklyn. Hage, for his part, is the author of the 2020 book “Capital,” a survey of retail spaces that closed.

In “The Book of Errors,” Coggan explores three sites: the General Henry Knox Museum, located in Thomaston, Maine; New York City’s Fraunces Tavern; and Philadelphia’s Betsy Ross House. All three buildings were built in the 18th century and reconstructed in the 20th. And it’s through that process that the conflicts and paradoxes at the heart of this book take flight. Coggan opts for an impressionistic approach to these stories; these are not straightforward historical accounts, but instead a work inspired by the buildings’ histories.”

Each of the three buildings is handled somewhat differently in the pages of “The Book of Errors.” The book’s title feels most at home in the first section, about the General Henry Knox Museum. As Brigid Hughes explains in her introduction to the book, June Watts sought to rebuild Montpelier, the home where Knox moved after his time as George Washington’s Secretary of War came to an end. The house had fallen into disrepair and been demolished.

The first section alternates illustrations of the space with Watts’s letters to architect William E. Putnam, including dimensions of Montpelier based on memories from Watts’s childhood. Taken together, they illustrate both the challenges of trying to turn a memory into a physical space and the physical impossibilities of the space that the architects faced.

At times, the absurdity of the gulf between memory and reality evokes the impossible geography of Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel “House of Leaves.” “We cannot understand how the photographs could be so wrong,” the architects write in one 1924 letter.

As for the two other spaces, they are characterized by different gulfs and discontinuities. The section on the Fraunces Tavern juxtaposes stylized illustrations of the space with quotes from eyewitnesses and news reports dating back to the early 20th century.

The section dedicated to the Betsy Ross House is fascinating for other reasons: here, Coggan juxtaposes Ross’s home as it was at the time of the Revolutionary War with the renovations made to coincide with widespread perceptions of how historical events played out. Among other points, Coggan points out that the renovation involved moving an entrance on the ground floor “to create a more befitting entrance for General George Washington.”

Do enough traveling and you’re likely to find yourself visiting a historic building or two as you go. What Coggan’s book reminds us is of all the ways a historic site might not accurately reflect history. The gulf between what is remembered and what really happened is another biding theme throughout a host of artistic mediums. Reading Coggan’s book might remind readers of the line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” from the film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” or it might inspire them to take a closer look the next time they’re in a building with a plaque out front.

“The Book of Errors” isn’t an easy book to summarize, but as a guide to history and perception it’s invaluable.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Sign,” “Reel” and “Transitory.” He has reviewed books for the New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.


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