By Steve Schwolert
The people who began the story of Austin knew how to get things done. They must have also believed in progress. If you spend any time at all looking through our archival photographs you will see that ethos on full display. Buildings going up and others coming down. The movement evident in the cityscapes captured over time is a forward motion, and it’s difficult to tell to what degree those future-makers looked backward. Regardless, what we have as a result of all that “advancement” is the city we enjoy today. They built for us a piece of civilization.
Years ago, I took a three-hour night class in history that covered the first century all the way to the present. When we got to the time of the Revolutionary War, our professor told us to get out a dollar bill if we had one (I was a student living in a dorm so I probably didn’t). He too got out a George Washington and had us look at the Great Seal on the back, not the one with the eagle and shield, but the one with the mysterious eye atop a pyramid along with a cryptic Latin saying.
He began by telling us a story about a nearby shopping mall and the reason for its strange architecture. The mall is a tiny, odd little L- shaped place. One bar of the L has an entrance that looks a little mid-century modern - geometric, with white, arching columns reminiscent of the McDonald’s logo, and contrasting red brick walls. The other bar has a plain, non-descript exterior – a steel grid with none of the curves or brick elements, just flat grayish rectangles. It seems that this odd clash of styles is that way because the mall was once hit by a tornado. Half of the mall was destroyed, and when it was rebuilt they did it as quickly and, I assume, as cheaply as possible. No attention to the modernist style that went before, no concern for its architectural past. In other words, no sense of history. It was pure functionality in the most utilitarian way. This replacement section was certainly a lowering of standards. One could get a visceral sense of just how much those standards diminished when passing from one section to the other. The new section was lower, as if sunken into the ground somehow. The floor sloped downward upon entering from the older section. This new space was efficient perhaps, but certainly not aesthetically pleasing. The mall was a dreary place. Something had been lost, so much so that it actually left a hole.
PICA 15521 1890's view of Austin.
If you’ve read this far you’re likely wondering what all this has to do with a dollar bill and the Great Seal. Well, if you look closely at the image of the pyramid, past the thirteen layers of brick representing the thirteen colonies, you’ll see something interesting. Or maybe I should say that you won’t see anything. The area behind the pyramid is a wasteland, a desert where nothing grows. But if you look in front of the pyramid you will see plants just beginning to come up. In a nutshell, as my teacher explained, this is the American view of history, the view the founders had. What came before is of no consequence. What lies ahead is all potential. In America, we worship at the altar of the new. The Latin reads Novus Ordo Seculorum – “A New Order of the Ages.” Or as Henry Ford put it, “history is bunk.” It’s a desolate nothingness. It is useless knowledge that is unnecessary for building a new world. Move on. Create!
Perhaps that’s not exactly what Henry Ford meant. From what I have been able to gather, Henry Ford, smart as he was, didn’t know a whole lot about history. He seems to have confused history with hearsay, folklore and myth. Consequently, history is not to be believed. The idea portrayed on the seal is a blunt statement about the past – it really doesn’t matter. What did matter, both for the Founding Fathers and Henry Ford, was figuring out how to get things done, how to make things, like a country or a car, and make them in a way that no one had quite thought of before. They were true believers in progress with a capital “P.”
To be certain, there are problems with what has been made. We need course corrections to the momentum created when optimism has a free rein. And in turn, those revisions need to be refined further, or even done away with. But at the same time that we place so much hope in our future, rectifying the line from “here” to what we think will be “there,” isn’t it strange how we also long to hold onto our past? With all the pleasures of our American inventiveness and the comforts that come with it, you’d think we wouldn’t care so much about the way things used to be. And yet we do. As our unofficial city motto implies, we often cherish what was. In that sense, “Keep Austin Weird” implores us from a bumper sticker to remember the way things were, saying more than we may realize. For whatever reason, we believe in the value of preserving things that give Austin its style. This makes Austin hip yet nostalgic, cool but quirky, growing but still bucolic, soulful and serious, cutting edge and at the same time laid back. Defining our place seems to hinge, at least to some degree, on what we hang on to. Some (many?) like to boast about how long they’ve lived here, as if being a part of Austin’s history longer than someone else implies something intrinsically valuable. Being part of that Austin identity is very appealing. For all that there is to improve upon and all the progress we dream of making, we are all a little bit “conservative” toward the things we love. We want certain things to remain, and we’ll defend them, even if we can’t quite say why we would ever need them. The reasons for preserving the past seem to transcend the practical and border on the, dare I say it, spiritual.
PICA 02476 View down Congress Ave. from the Capitol
One of the progenitors of modern architecture, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, said of his field that it was the “real battleground of the spirit.” Perhaps. As I said, in order for buildings to go up, others must come down. The battle between the old and the new is always being waged in that process, with the new, at least in the United States, taking home most of the medals for bravery and valor. While an old building might induce a bit of curiosity (or maybe only a shrug), a new building has the potential to dazzle. Well, that’s not completely accurate. Have you been inside the Paramount and really looked around? Nothing “new” to see there, but it’s certainly something to see!
I think I would want to rework Van Der Rohe’s sentiment to say that “history is the real battleground of the spirit.” It is where we look for what it is we must bring forward and what we can finally leave behind. It is where we fight for what matters and struggle for a future we can share as citizens. It is where our dead tell their tales so that we may learn what is worth dying for. Our present is encamped within that past, preparing to war with what comes next. And it is where we reconnoiter (I love that word) in order to take on the next adversary. We can’t retreat from the past any more than we can the future. We have to deal with it, take it on, confront it, and if we can’t completely vanquish it (I’m not sure we can) we must make peace with it. Rather than a battle, think of history as a book. We are several chapters in. If this were all we knew of the story it would not only be completely disorienting, our chapter would make no sense whatsoever. It would be, as Macbeth says at the end of the play, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
If we had a special pair of binoculars perhaps we could look off way in the distance past that pyramid on the dollar bill. I have no doubt we’d catch a glimpse of something, and it wouldn’t be just anything. It would be something of great significance to us, and it too would be very much alive, living right up to now.
And what if I told you that we do have those special lenses after all? A bit careworn perhaps, but there for our use nonetheless. In the thousands of photos at the History Center, you can see what others have seen. In thousands of documents, you can explore and study the thoughts, feelings, values and concerns that have shaped our place. What is thrilling to me about archives is that it offers things of splendor disguised in the pedestrian. A singular, very personal moment in time that was captured in the lost art of handwriting found on a letter from 100 years ago. A compelling photographic portrait of someone whose name has been lost. A voice recorded many years ago telling the story of the work they did, places they recall, the people they knew, the fun they had. The value of preserving history is that it graces the way we live now. It’s like a box of old photos found in a dumpster that were saved by someone who recognized that they were living in the same story those images told, if only a little further along. Archives preserve history because history inhabits our place, our lives, our dreams. Likewise, our future will always be nested within our past.
PICA 24888 View down Congress Ave., 1990
Come to the History Center and see what we’ve saved for you. You can see where the storms, both actual and metaphorical, came through and nearly wrecked everything. Like the historical record of a peculiar shopping mall, there are photographs here of tornados and floods and their aftermath that are evidence of how this city was built, rebuilt and built some more. The History Center is where the handiwork of those who gave us this town still touches our time, and you can peer into the eyes of the people who refused to let the story end. Here, if you are willing to look, you can discover the bigger story, the one within which our own stories find their place, something like the “Grand Narrative” that others will say we’ve lost forever. Not here. Not in these files and folders and sleeves and boxes, in these photographs, notes, letters, records, recordings, microfilms, maps, drawings, books, periodicals, albums, log books – layer upon layer, chapter upon chapter in the story of our community, here for you to take in, even as you are taken into the story that is still unfolding. To look into the past is not to turn away from the future. It is to see the whole picture until now. Our moment then becomes the point of departure from which we commence writing the next chapter. All of that can happen here, sometimes in the blink of an eye, in that moment when you see yourself in what has gone before you. The story begins to cohere. The Novus Ordo Seculorum takes shape as you find yourself allied with people you never knew. It is an experience that can be, dare I say it, spiritual.