The Building Detective

Gwendolyn Wright takes PBS viewers on a search for America’s secret architectural history.

This month PBS premieres a new show called History Detectives. A press release describes the ten-part series as “Antiques Roadshow meets CSI,” which may tell us more about the motivations of its producers than it does the content of the show. Set in a different part of the country each week, the series will explore a question about a building, object, or artifact as a way of looking at a particular time and place. In one segment a man from Atlantic City, New Jersey, wonders why a local baseball stadium, built in the late 1940s, was named after a famous Negro Leagues star. The same episode explores the mystery of a guest book found in a New Jersey fire station and signed by Ulysses S. Grant: did the president actually visit this small town on the country’s centennial?

The four hosts of the series are professional historians who specialize in different subjects. One of them is Gwendolyn Wright, a professor of architecture, preservation, and planning at Columbia University and the author of five books exploring the way architecture and urban design have intersected with culture and politics. As finishing touches were put on the first batch of shows, Wright spoke to Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen about her foray into the world of popular culture, the process of uncovering history, and the challenge of discussing architecture on TV.

What’s the premise behind the show?
The idea is to look at objects, buildings, and houses, and through them try to show the complexity of American history. We want to give people a sense of how historians work. At first I thought, “History Detectives? God, it’s so gimmicky.” But as we got going I realized it was a very good metaphor for what we do as historians. The show is also an effort to rethink how people can look at history, to give them strategies for how you go about finding something out.

Had you ever done television before?
I’d done a couple of interviews but never on a regular basis. They chose four hosts who are all various kinds of historians. The notion was not to have anchors or actors but to use people who would go through this process of literally looking for clues. Again it started off seeming like it was “television” in the awful sense, but it became an interesting way to think about what I do as a historian.

What kinds of buildings have you looked at for the show?
It’s a wonderful, eclectic range. We did one story on this gem of a movie theater in Baraboo, Wisconsin, built in 1915, designed by Rapp & Rapp, the famous theater architects in Chicago. The question the manager wanted answered was: was this the first movie palace? We began by tracing through the various definitions. Of course historians can’t agree on exactly what a movie palace is. So we took the definition of the Movie Palace Association of America, which makes a convincing case that it has to be really grand. I visited the Rapp & Rapp archives, tracked down the history of the firm, and looked at the history of early movies. I went to the Chicago Theater—a larger, later palace by Rapp & Rapp—and explored how some of those ideas might have came from this theater in Baraboo. In the end, though, we realized that there wasn’t complete agreement about when the first movie palace was built. And that’s another aspect that I want the show to get across: experts often don’t agree about why certain things are important. History is more up in the air than the public is led to think.

How is the process of doing the show similar to the work you do as an architectural historian?
It’s very similar in that I get to muck around through archives. It’s quite fun to have the director, camera people, and the sound guy saying, “We want to capture the sound of turning pages in old newspapers.” Part of the challenge is showing people why historians love doing this: what’s it like to go through ten years of a newspaper—seeing the crazy ads and funny stories—and not turn up what you’re looking for? The ways that you keep going, what you make of something not being there—these are part of the process. The show is similar. We’re not always looking to find definitive truth, as much as looking to put things into probabilities. Professional historians love something murky, where they can find something that hasn’t been seen before. It’s often like the dog that didn’t bark. It was right there in front of you. The show looks for ways of getting that across to people.

Do you have to adjust your approach for television? Is that a relief or a burden?
It’s actually much harder because you have to figure out what your abstractions mean. Among scholars there is always shorthand and jargon. On TV you can’t fall back on them. You have to ask yourself, “Well, what do I mean by the ideals of architecture?” It makes you think about how you question yourself, as opposed to how you command authority. Academics, like journalists, love to chip away at one another’s authority, but we have a harder time doing it to ourselves. So for me the show becomes a way to ask, “Why is this the case? Why did it happen this way?” I’ve always liked looking at things that were dumb and ordinary, in the Venturi sense, because often you can see things coming together by getting outside of the standard canonical history, which always tends to reinforce our idea of who’s great and what’s great about their work. I think the only way we’re going to have more consciousness about architecture and design is to get past simply telling people what they ought to like.

How do you conduct your research on camera?
Usually a researcher has gone to an archive beforehand. They’ll say to me, “There’s something there…” but they won’t tell me what. They might say, “There are some doors, take a look inside them.” That way they’ll get my response to looking at them for the first time. But as a historian I also feel that I need to prove my mettle. It becomes this competition that all scholars and designers love. I want to find something better than what the researcher has found. It becomes a way of really challenging my skills, because it’s hard having a camera on you. They’ll say, “Are you finding what we know is there?” And I’m thinking, “God, what if I miss it?” So I feel a kind of nervousness, but that’s good. It suggests that nobody is the definitive expert. In an archive everybody has to rely on people, because it depends on what they’re going to show you. Every archive has secret files.

Part of the process of historical research involves exploring dead ends. Have you set out to prove something you were unable to yet?
We generally try to take on things in which the accepted story is wrong. Falsehoods are as much a part of American history as they are anywhere in the world. Stories have a certain truth. Sometimes I have to argue with people and say, “History is not just separating fact from fiction.” But it’s about looking at how people operate among fictions. In the show we debunk a lot of historical markers. There are going to be a lot of historical societies that will be upset with us because they have markers for events that didn’t happen.

For instance?
This purported witch’s house in Massachusetts. The local historical society had said it was built in 1685 and that it had belonged to one of the accused witches in Andover, which had, actually, more accusations than Salem. They also said that the accuser had gotten the house because of the accusations. All of that turned out to be totally false. So the 1685 sign that they had put up outside the house goes out the window. Here’s where we actually brought in high-tech history. In addition to my work in the archives, which were fascinating, we hired a specialist who took wood samples. He was able to determine that this house was built in the spring of 1711 and the second room was added the next year. He took ten separate plugs from the house. That way if one piece seemed totally off, it got dropped out of the sample; it didn’t skew the result.

It’s almost like polling.
Exactly. They take out the one that’s strange and find what tends to be the common pattern for nine out of the ten. So the story, even though untrue, became an opportunity to look at old tools and technologies and materials. We learned that the accuser’s son had actually built the house. And yet there are still people who declare that there are ghosts present. So the story was a way of also asking: what do we mean when we talk about ghosts? Why do we have this fascination with places where something awful happened?

What have you learned about architecture in doing this show? And I don’t mean what have you learned about specific buildings but what have you learned about what architecture is to a culture?
In a sense it’s reinforced my long-term belief that architecture has an extraordinary ability to allow people to see complexities. As an architectural historian, you look at economic, political, social, and intellectual histories. You also look at the histories of different groups: Where was something placed? Who was allowed to be there? Who wasn’t? I think a lot of architectural history is much too narrow. The show has allowed me to think about the kinds of choices I make. How do you achieve this complexity? What do you choose to focus on? As historians we tend to say, “This is what matters” or, “This is who matters.” And we just push the other stuff off the radar screen.

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