Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Would You Save This Building?

Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation

This crumbling WW2 era hanger at Wendover Air Force base is where a select group of B-29 pilots trained for a top secret mission--to drop atomic bombs on Japan. The base retains much of the original historic fabric of that era, not just the Enola Gay hanger but bomb storage facilities, barracks, a period control tower, and today a small museum dedicated to the atomic mission and the larger history of the base. Today, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named this hanger one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. (You can read a story and see a nice video about the hanger here.)

Should we care? There is tension in historic preservation between preserving places where historic events happened and preserving buildings that are themselves historic (it helps if they are architecturally impressive or quaint as well). Over the years preservation efforts have very much tended to preserve the later--the homes of presidents, historic sites of government, exemplary architecture, etc. Undistinguished-looking but important places have fared less well--the great exception being the historic battle fields that are preserved by both federal and state agencies. But there has to have been a battle! Something like the Fishkill Encampment and Supply Depot, "a sprawling military city that became the most important northern supply center during the Revolutionary War," becomes the site of a shopping mall.

So where does this put the Enola Gay hanger? The Wendover site is the scene of historically important events, but is neither impressive nor pretty. Also working against its preservation is that it represents a chapter in American history about which we have at best ambivalent feelings. How would we interpret Wendover Atomic Historical Monument? The current interpretation at the small museum there tends to stay close to the facts and events that led up to and took place at the base, without asking too many uncomfortable questions about the bombing itself. In the post Enola Gay controversy public history world, that is probably the best we can do.

And if we are trying to memorialize the atomic effort, where do we put those memorials? The Manhattan Project and the bombing of Japan has many geographic focuses, and the story changes depending on where you choose to tell it. It is a different story at Wendover than it is at Hiroshima, and still a different story at the University of Chicago where Enrico Fermi worked or at Los Alamos. Add to these places Oak Ridge where the nuclear material was processed, Trinity where the first test bomb was detonated, Tinian Island where the pilots took off to drop the bombs on Japan, or any of the dozens of other sites relevant to the story. Which sites do we interpret? Most of these sites are interpreted right now, from a Henry Moore sculpture in Chicago to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

I could go either way on the Enola Gay hangar. The hangar is huge, and the rest of the site even larger, and it would take millions of dollars just to stabilize, never mind properly interpret, the site. And would anyone visit after all that investment? Located on the Arizona-Utah line, Wendover is far from modern population centers. On the other hand it is along a busy interstate highway, so if you used the hanger to house some of the cool objects that people like to see--some restored a period planes, uniforms and other military objects--it might be fairly popular. If history hadn't missed out on the stimulus money, I would say to go for it.

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