Tag Archives: Tom Thompson

Reflections: The Future of Public Building Preservation

6 May

by Tom Thompson-

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of final course reflections from graduate students.

During the semester we met numerous people who are passionate about history and present it to the public in many different ways.  That passion rubs off on us as students and makes us want to continue their legacy of preservation.  However, I am concerned whether major historic preservation projects, of the type we learned about, will be completed in the future.

When I look at the old YMCA in Belleville as a public historian I see the architecture and the role the building played in improving lives of city residents.  But as a taxpayer and realist I just see a stalemate.  The building is too expensive to repair and the city does not have the money to tear it down.  So it continues to be exposed to the elements and become harder to restore.  Even if the economic environment improves, will the funding come forward to rebuild such a large building?

We’ve seen that cities like Lowell, Mass., have been able to use their historical past to lead preservation efforts for the city as a whole.  But Lowell’s experience was driven by a few people with vision, federal funding, and the continuing support of the National Park Service. What is to happen to our local cities with much smaller populations and no driving force for change?  I am normally a positive person but I have to say that I am not optimistic about the future of these large-scale projects.

The fiscal future points to reduced federal funding across the board and likely further reduction in the arts and state historical projects. Certainly in the short run it appears that the State of Illinois will have to fund people and infrastructure projects at the expense of the arts. What will happen to the smaller cities that want to preserve their inner core like Belleville and Granite City? Even a large project like Old North St. Louis has huge financial challenges. How will they find the funding to preserve significant buildings or historic areas?

Many cities we have learned about are considering converting these areas to an “arts” center. We’ve heard this in Belleville and Granite City. Other mid-size American cities like Reading, PA are going this route to save their inner core and reduce flight of younger residents from the city.  Reading has a head start with the drive of millionaire Albert Boscov, but what are the rest of us to do?  Can the arts attract enough businesses to save all of these cities?  Again I am skeptical.

So, rather than a call to action, I just want to point out to my fellow public historians that we are in an era where we may have to pick our small battles rather than win the whole war. So, in Belleville, the Historical Society is preserving a small old saloon while keeping an eye on the larger YMCA.  A manageable project with, perhaps, a manageable budget.  The way of the future.


Preserving Memory in the Netherlands

28 Mar

by Tom Thompson-

During our Spring Break I went to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, for work. I normally do not get this lucky, but sometimes things go your way.  There was a little spare time, so I decided to go to a few museums and see if they were similar to what we have in the United States.

First, the city of Rotterdam is a major business center and has some beautiful high-rise buildings and bridges. The city was all but leveled by the Germans in World War II and so nearly the whole city is relatively new. It has wide boulevards with trams running down the middle and curbed-off bicycle lanes for the zillions of riders. One of the locals told me they were tearing down a building from 1953 because it was so old. Since they had to start from nothing in 1945, his comment left me wondering if building preservation is important in Rotterdam. Even though this is a very old country, perhaps the residents of Rotterdam are not emotional about building preservation because it does not represent a distant past?

Haven Museum

Rotterdam's Haven Museum

I walked around the city, but bad luck, I was free on Monday when all museums are closed. However, I was able to walk around the outside of the Haven (Harbor) Museum, which has numerous boats of various types but primarily those that brought cargo into the town. There are also cranes and other equipment used to load them. There were no outside plaques, so maybe you need a guided tour or audio tour to find out more information. I found one small museum area that was open as there were a few students (history majors?) working. They let me walk around but all of the

Museum Display

A small display at the Haven Museum

plaques were in Dutch. The exhibits displayed the workings of the modern harbor in terms of traffic control of the huge container ships that make this the largest port in Europe. I did take a picture of one display describing a past era when a small variety shop was contained on a boat and the proprietor moved on the canals to get to his customers.

Walking on, I found this monument to those who lost their lives in World War Two.  The monument is called “De Boeg” or “The Bow” in English. The plaque attached translates to: “National Monument The Bow to the memory of the seafarers who have died in the Dutch Navy during the Second World War 1939-1945.” In the same way that we honor the memory of our military dead, the Dutch have placed this monument.  It is the only one that I saw in the harbor area.

The Bow Plaque

The Bow Plaque

My last memory preservation find on this day was a Walk of Fame.  There were handprints, footprints, and signatures in cement, just like in the U.S.  Mostly European singers and rock bands were represented, as well as Americans, most of whom I would rate as mid-level U.S. pop music stars. A few brief examples for music fans; UB40, Golden Earing, David Lee Roth, and La Toya Jackson.


La Toya Jackson's square on the Rotterdam Walk of Fame

I finished the day thinking that our preservation of the past in the United States is not that different from the Netherlands and my other travel in Europe. Maybe this is because most of our American heritage was developed from the European cultures. Now it appears that we are exporting one way of memorializing people; did the Walk of Fame in Rotterdam have its roots in the Hollywood Walk of Fame?  My experiences this week lead me to believe that we are not very different. In their own way, all countries preserve the memory of people, objects, and events to remember and honor the past.

Review of “Digital History”

21 Mar

by Tom Thompson-

Review of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

I saw that this book was part of our curriculum as we are to read an excerpt for a class later in the semester.  When I looked into it, I decided to read the book since it is a subject that interests me.  The book is a good, practical introduction to presenting historical content via the various mediums available on the Internet.

The book begins with a description of how history is presented on the web. In some cases the presentation of history is just normal scholarly work displayed online. However, as the web has become more sophisticated entire collections have been converted to digital and available to all. Digitizing of materials makes searching faster and speeds up academic research. At first this was accomplished so that the information was available to more researchers but publishers of these sites have found that the general public drives more views than were first expected.

The authors continue with a discussion of the technologies available to the digital historian. Decisions need to be made early in the process with respect to storage and presentation. Domain names are discussed next in terms of their acquisition, web-hosting locations, and the costs involved. Cost considerations continue in a discussion of the process of actually digitizing different types of media. There are different technologies available depending on the types of artifacts that the web site will display. For instance, photos and other types of visual art require more technology to digitize in high quality than printed word material. In addition, the storage capacity required to store digital graphics (in high quality) versus printed material is exponentially higher. Here the authors bring up a valid point about the administration of such materials. At the beginning of site development the authors point out that organizations underestimate the “administrative and intellectual” costs of reviewing collections and selecting the specific artifacts for display. The next discussion is about building an audience for your site. Again, the amount of time required to introduce and market your site is significant.  The process to measure “clicks” or “views” is more difficult than I would have thought.

The chapter “Owning the Past” covers copyright law, its application for historians, and its importance to web publishing.  As legal rulings and federal laws have developed over time, the calculation of copyright expiration has become more difficult and a reference table is provided.  There are also some thoughts on intellectual property rights of your own content.  Although the authors advocate an open Internet, they offer some steps to keep the web historian out of trouble with those who are not so generous.

I found this book a good introduction to the topic of presenting and collecting digital materials on the web.  The book does not offer technical solutions.  Expertise in writing, hosting, and maintaining web sites is required to complement the skills of the historian. I liked the format in which each chapter introduction includes what the reader will learn there. This makes the book a better reference in which your question can be found easily. Since the book was published in 2005 there is no discussion of social networking capabilities such as Facebook and Twitter. This book is published for free online.  Unfortunately it has not been updated to add the latest methods for the public historian to implement.

St. Louis Air and Space Museum

14 Mar

by Tom Thompson-

The Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum is another of the small museums in the St. Louis area that most people have never heard of.  The museum is located on the grounds of the St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, IL.  I visited the museum several months ago to research a newsletter article for the Labor and Industry Museum at Belleville.

The museum is in an aircraft hanger that is itself a historical artifact.  It is one of two hangers, which date to the 1930s, and are on the List of Registered Historic Places in St. Clair County.  The hangers still display the original exterior artwork from the Curtis-Wright Company who built engines and aircraft here.  Small aviation artifacts are displayed in one large room downstairs.  Upstairs are the aviation archives and aviation artwork.  The artwork is primarily of those military aircraft that were manufactured by McDonnell-Douglas Company, which was headquartered in St. Louis prior to its merger with The Boeing Company. After going through the downstairs exhibits the visitor is escorted through the hanger itself which houses aircraft and training devices, some of which are undergoing extensive restoration.

The museum and its collections suffered considerable damage and losses during the St. Louis floods of 1993.  Then, they were in their original location at Spirit Airport in the Chesterfield Valley west of St. Louis. It is a tribute to the museum’s leaders and members that they were able to reestablish operations in a different location. The docent who led us through explained the various aviation eras that are represented by the artifacts. One is the early aviation era of simple instruments and wicker seats in aircraft (they have one). Another is the multiple regional airlines which were prevalent in the mid to late 20th century.  Former Trans World Airline and Ozark Airline employees have provided artifacts from this era. First generation (Mercury/Gemini) space suits bring visitors into the space age.  These and other “jet age” exhibits come from former McDonnell-Douglas employees.  Because of the limited area, artifacts are small such as aircraft instruments and uniforms from the various eras.

On the day of my visit, I was lucky enough to speak with Mr. Chub Wheeler, age 99, about the early days of the airfield. Mr. Wheeler learned to fly here in 1934 and he and a colleague ran a flying school at the field throughout the 1930s. The price was $2 for a 15-minute lesson. When the Second World War came the Army directed him to stay at the airfield as a civilian and instruct Service pilots rather than joining the fight himself. The contractor who owned this Army flight training operation was Oliver Parks who later donated his air college to Saint Louis University.

On the whole, the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum provides a small but broad review of aviation history.  I’m sure the past loss and move have made the members concentrate more on physical restoration and display rather than a wider mission of interpretation and outreach to the public.  This is evident in the limited collections and reconstruction required on the aircraft.  As an aviation enthusiast, I hope that they are able to improve the infrastructure problems that are evident in the old hanger and continue to provide service to the public.  Because of its location on an active airport there are always pilots stopping in talk aviation, even those who learned to fly in the 1930s.  I recommend this museum to others interested in American aviation, local manufacturing history, or engineering history.

Preserving, Displaying, and Living Military History at Scott AFB

8 Feb
Transportation Plaza

Photo of Transportation Plaza, Scott AFB, IL. These artifacts depict the different transportation modes used to accomplish the mission of the command. Photo courtesy of USTRANSCOM.

by Tom Thompson-

The United States Transportation Command (USTC) at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, is the single manager for all Department of Defense transportation. As such, the organization manages the worldwide day-to-day logistics movement of thousands of military shipments on aircraft, ships, truck, and rail. The USTC Research Center is the corporate memory of the command. I spoke with Dr. Jay H. Smith, Center Director, about the roles of this office. We spoke about three main topics: maintaining and utilizing historical records, historical displays, and leading an annual history study.

The Research Center’s goal is to retain not just the factual history of the organization but also context and the issues that it faced. This is important because there is frequent turnover of people to and from the organization. To solve the corporate memory problem, some military organizations write a unit history periodically. In the case of USTC, oral histories are used for this purpose. For instance, when each commander, who is a four-star general, leaves, an oral interview is recorded.

The organization creates an enormous amount of information in the course of everyday business. How do they know what to keep? Dr. Smith said that he had to develop a feel for it over time. He has to stay in tune with the organization and its activities. When deciding what history to retain he tries to imagine what questions people will ask ten years from now. He tries to eliminate administrative details and concentrate on retaining decision-making and operational information.

The Research Center is also responsible for artwork, artifacts, and displays that depict the command’s mission and history. For instance, throughout the buildings there are photos of past and current military operations that have been supported by USTC. In the common lobby areas there are historical artifacts and timelines of the history of the organization. The goal of these displays is twofold. First, the information educates newcomers or visitors on the history and mission of the organization. Second, the organization is made up of members of all United States services. These people may not have worked outside of their own military service before.  Therefore, the displays accentuate the multi-service mission of the organization and with a goal of building esprit de corps within the command.


Photo of USTRANSCOM Headquarters lobby. This area introduces visitors to the capabilities of the organization. Photo courtesy USTRANSCOM.

The place where Dr. Smith’s work is closest to public history is his role to further the professional development of staff officers in USTC. The primary event is the “Vicksburg Campaign Staff Ride.” This is an annual study of the Civil War Campaign at Vicksburg. This particular event was chosen for several reasons that relate to its similarity to challenges faced by USTC in executing its mission daily:

  • As a campaign, not just a single battle, it involves both strategic and tactical planning
  • The campaign had logistics challenges in terms of moving men and material long distances by several transportation modes
  • There is an expeditionary element since the North was fighting far from its source of supplies
  • Other issues are always in play; politics, economics, technology, and doctrine

Examining this event is broken into three parts; initial study, site visit to walk the grounds, and integration session to close the study. Each participant takes the role of one of the main persons involved in the Vicksburg Campaign. By hosting the Vicksburg Staff Ride the Research Center is working to use the lessons of the past to instruct the logistics leaders of today.

The USTC Research Center has a large role in the preservation, display, and education of history to USTC employees.  Thanks to Dr. Smith for taking time from his busy schedule to talk with me.

Tom Thompson’s Memories of Levittown, PA

17 Jan

By Tom Thompson-

When I introduced myself at the beginning of class on Thursday, Dr. Manuel mentioned that my hometown was the site of a riot in the late 1970s. While this is true, nobody wants that to be the only thing interesting remembered about his or her hometown.

As public historians, I thought you would be interested in where I grew up, Levittown, Pennsylvania. Levittown is famous for being one of the first large communities of tract housing. In the 1950s, William Levitt did for housing production what Henry Ford did for automobile manufacturing.

Levitt first built Levittown, New York, and then Levittown, Pennsylvania. While there were other homebuilders on the East Coast, at the time no one else built on the scale that Levitt did. Levitt built whole planned communities for the World War Two generation of parents who were having children later to be known as the baby boom generation. These families quickly snapped up all of the housing that Levitt could build. Moving from urban New York City or Philadelphia to Levittown promised the American dream of owning a single-family home surrounded by a bright green lawn.

As opposed to current housing developments, there were no options in a Levittown home. All of the houses in one area were completely identical, even down to the landscaping that came with it. I can clearly remember that each backyard had a peach tree, pear tree, and apple tree. All of the inside walls were white and the appliances were all the same. This made for very efficient construction for Mr. Levitt’s builders.

Let me explain what the community was like by describing where I lived. My home was in the Highland Park section of Levittown. The model house was called a “Jubilee” and most of the other houses in this section (maybe 150 homes) were the same model. In Highland Park all of the street names began with “H.” There was a road (Highland Park Drive) that ran all the way around the section. Each road within the section eventually came out to connect to the drive so it was easy to give someone directions. There were many such sections in Levittown, each starting with a different letter. Each section had a green park area to play in and an elementary school. In this way, no children had to cross busy streets to get around the neighborhood.

At the time of construction, sociologists were concerned that such regimented housing would lead to similar cookie-cutter people. I don’t know about the social results, but as time went on, people naturally added to their own houses and they became individualized.  Levittown became a model for other housing developments throughout the country.

Like anywhere else, Levittown does not have a perfect history.  Levittown homes were sold strictly to Caucasians.  It would be years before an African-American family would attempt to move in and the results weren’t good. In this way, it was like many other towns of this era.

And yes, there was a “riot” there in June, 1979. Amid the gas shortage crisis of the time a protest by truckers turned violent. Perhaps it would have been forgotten, but shortly afterward, President Carter alluded to it in his “Crisis of Confidence” address to the American people. But those two days of protest shouldn’t be the only thing that people remember about this prime example of suburbanization of America in the late 50s and 60s.

Please view this 3-minute video, which will give you a quick history of the town.