A Brief History of Unsustainable Architecture

Seamen's bethel, or mariners' chapel, New Bedford, Mass. From loc.gov

Seamen's bethel, or mariners' chapel, New Bedford, Mass. From loc.gov

It seems to me there isn't much attention paid to the history of "unsustainable" industries in American history, how they die, the trauma, and the material culture they leave behind.  So this is a brief outline of a bigger subject which deserves more thought and more research.  The American landscape is richly marked by structures which represent industries that died because they were not environmentally sustainable.  These were huge industries, central to the economy, and represented by extensive infrastructures and forms of cultural expression, not just a few quaint obsolete buildings.

Whaling

Left: Houses with Captain's Walks, Nantucket, Mass. From loc.gov Right: Gordon Folger Hotel detail, Nantucket, Mass. From loc.gov

Left: Houses with Captain's Walks, Nantucket, Mass. From loc.gov
Right: Gordon Folger Hotel detail, Nantucket, Mass. From loc.gov

The whaling industry was one of America's major industries in the 18th and early 19th century.  The direct labor force of whalers topped 10,000 at its height.  Whale oil was one of America's most important energy sources, along with wood and draft animals, and wind and water.  Whale oil was the primary fuel for lamps, before gas.  New Bedford, Massachusetts, is known as "The City That Lit the World."  As a widespread commercial activity, American whaling became unsustainable in the late-19th century, due to overfishing and new fuel oils (though it continued internationally).

There is a distinctive architecture of whaling to be found in the New England and Pacific seaports which were home to this industry.  This is most pronounced in Nantucket and New Bedford.  The Captain's Walk (or Widow's Walk) is a distinctive feature of houses in those cities, and became a widely-used representational stylistic feature.

Fur Trading

Fort Vancouver. From wikimedia.org

Fort Vancouver. From wikimedia.org

The Fur Trade was the economic engine of America's westward expansion.  In the 40 years after Lewis & Clark's 1805 expedition, the west was "virtually cleared" of otter and beaver, for example.  John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company became one of the wealthiest companies in the country.  The importance of this industry is also indicated by the fur-related place-names throughout the United States, including my current location---Laramie, Wyoming, named for Jacques La Ramée.  The American fur trade became unsustainable in the 1850s, when fashions changed and global prices collapsed.  (Astor wisely withdrew from the fur trade in 1834 because he foresaw its decline.) 

The architecture of fur trading is most pronounced in the forts and outposts built across the country in the 17th and 18th centuries.  These were multi-purpose establishments, like small cities.  Fort Vancouver, shown above, is an excellent representation.  Here's a brief summary from the National Register of Historic Places:

Despite the 'iconic' character of the image above, American Forts varied widely in terms of construction type and style.  There is not a uniform type or style which can simply be called the architecture of the fur trade.  Stone, brick, and later concrete were also common.  After the decline of the fur trade, Western forts served the great overland migration and most had a military purpose.  So the type can be seen (again like the city) as durable and mutable, at least for an era.

Silver & Gold Mining

Left: Shenandoah-Dives Mill, San Juan County, CO. From loc.gov Right: Standard Gold Mill, Bodie, CA. From loc.gov

Left: Shenandoah-Dives Mill, San Juan County, CO. From loc.gov
Right: Standard Gold Mill, Bodie, CA. From loc.gov

It is easy to overlook how significantly and rapidly the California Gold Rush changed the American West.  About 300,000 people moved to California alone between 1848-55.  Silver Rushes in western states like Colorado and Nevada were also profound.   It took a massive infrastructure to support this migration --- emigrant trails and all kinds of associated structures were developed.  Most people would probably think about Pony Express stations and general stores.  Ships were built on the east coast and harbors were built in San Francisco.  Soon, the ripple effects of this new economy demanded a much more advanced infrastructure, the railroads.  With saloons and brothels and livery stables, mining towns certainly speak to a particular social history.  Gold and Silver mining was found to be unsustainable at different times in different places, but generally by the beginning of the 20th century.

The architecture of mining communities speaks to expedience and commercial utility.  For example, the "false-front" stores were meant for exaggerated signage.  The architecture of mining has a distinctive strain illustrated by the structures shown above, with wood and corrugated tin construction, and additive forms.  This "style" remains intact and prevalent in many Western communities today, though perhaps applied with a postmodern sense of distance.

Slavery

Left: Old slave market, St. Augustine, Fla. From loc.gov Right: Slave quarters, Bourbon County, KY. From loc.gov

Left: Old slave market, St. Augustine, Fla. From loc.gov
Right: Slave quarters, Bourbon County, KY. From loc.gov

Slavery is, of course, the great moral problem of American history.  It can also be viewed as an unsustainable industry in the sense of those above.  This is not to equate humans with whales or beavers; it is to say that all economies, even the worst ones, have an expression in material culture.

The architecture of slavery is especially important to preserve and recognize, because its political content is so powerful.  Again, there is no 'architecture of slavery' in the strict sense of traditional architectural history; it's a category whose coherence is conceptual rather than physical or visual.  However, it does have a fairly robust scholarly record.  In particular, there is John Michael Vlach's excellent book Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (1993).


These stories may help inform the future of communities like Gillette, Wyoming, whose economy is built on coal mining.  That industry is crippled and its future looks bleak, due to regulatory decisions.  The reality is that our social/political systems have effectively decided that coal is unsustainable and should be phased out.  (That reality could change, or not, in November.)

What can a community like Gillette learn from the examples above?  Honestly, I don't know.  Nantucket survived and thrived by developing a lobster industry then a tourist industry, while Bodie became a ghost town.  Some slave-holding regions are quite wealthy today while others remain among the nation's poorest. 

And what kind of architectural legacy did Gillette create during its coal boom?  That too is not clear.  It will likely take historical distance and perspective to discern the answer.  Its charms are not immediately apparent.

More broadly, I sense that the economic lessons are more optimistic.  The nation overcame the loss of these major industries, though some individuals certainly suffered.  Major convulsions are not only survivable, but they are associated with progress.  (The great world cities have major convulsions all the time, in fact it is likely what makes them great.)  During these great shifts, huge amounts of structure and infrastructure, representing massive capital investment, are abandoned.  Whaling villages, trading posts, mining towns, and plantations become historic sites, visited by tourists who may even work in the new industries which supplanted them.


Surely we live among buildings which represent industries whose future sustainability is in doubt.  This is impossible to predict, of course.  Some folks already preserve gas pumps and motor oil signs the way New Englanders preserved their whale-ornamented weather vanes.  Will we have nostalgia for, say, the defunct cruise ship industry someday?  Golf courses?  Or might we tear down our (analogic) medieval walls, like Vienna did?  What is today's equivalent of the fur trading outpost?