In Defense of Disneyland

In Glendenning’s history of the conservation movement, he recalls a period in American history during which heritage was commoditized, privatized, and made into a spectacle. Disneyland, which opened in 1955, serves as an example of this phenomenon.

In Anaheim, California, Walt Disney gathered together animators, set-builders and other Hollywood types to plan a new type of city- one that centered itself around magic and discovery. As this “theme park” was without a predecessor, Walt Disney drew from his own interest in city planning and film to create a false world- one which included the charm of Main Streets across the Midwest ca. 1900, the beauty of European royal castles, the faux-futuristic renderings of the world fairs of New York in 1939 or Brussels in 1958, and a Victorian-era railroad. Later an early spaghetti Western, a generic African Jungle, and the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras would come to join this host of falsities.

Is this against preservation practice? Are these structures ultimately lies? Or are these over-the-top reinterpretations serving a purpose?

As early as the 16th century, taking plaster casts from worldly artworks and architecture was popular. Rather than bringing home Rome’s treasurers, travelers brought home cheaply-made copies. These made it easier to disseminate the knowledge to be gained from world’s treasures to the masses. Into the early 20th century, citizens of industrial Pittsburgh could take a trip to the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture to view North America’s largest collection of plaster casts. In an area where a majority of the population would never be able to see the great Abbey Church of Saint-Gilles or true Roman ruins, having free (thanks to Mr. Carnegie) access to this collection was a valuable, educational experience.

While Southern California is not quite turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh, it is an architectural and cultural wasteland in certain aspects. Largely removed from some of the greater architectural histories of the United States due to its geography and age, scenes of Mark Twain’s steam boat, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, and a soda shop on main street herald a past that isn’t ours — It’s one that we have simply borrowed. It IS a small world, after all.


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