Heritage Tourism and the Creation of New “Old” Buildings

Heritage tourism has become a way for places to bring in revenue and to educate the masses about unique characteristics of an area. On their website, the National Trust for Historic Preservation defines heritage tourism as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past”. Chris Wilson, in Place over Time, highlights the efforts of the city of Santa Fe in creating a unique sense of place by employing a revival of Spanish-Pueblo architecture. I found Wilson’s passage on the paradoxical effect globalization can have on communities particularly interesting. Prior to this article I had thought of globalization as a process that connects regions and contributes to placelessness, not as a motivator in highlighting regional differences. In an effort to highlight these differences, cities and towns use heritage tourism- an aspect of which is the reconstruction and restoration of period specific buildings.

Going back to the NTHP’s definition of heritage tourism, two words that keep drawing my attention are “authentically represent”. Many times the buildings and structures used to create a narrative of pre-industrial life are actually creations of a more recent time. We have seen this in Philadelphia with the demolishment of numerous working-class buildings around Independence National Historical Park in order to create an idealized version of colonial Philadelphia for tourists. This can also be seen in the creation of Colonial Williamsburg in the early 20th century, where many of the buildings had to be reconstructed through historical and archaeological evidence. While good intentioned, the creation of these new “historic” buildings can be viewed as a sort of lie on the urban fabric; they often lead us to believe that these structures have stood for centuries and it also implies that the building and its setting have always appeared in a particular way. This makes me think of Ruskin’s stance and dogma of the anti-scrape movement-how age gives purpose to structures and how restoration can lead to a false image being conveyed.

In spite of the possibility of falsifying the built environment and its history, restorations and reconstructions do serve an important purpose in educating people of the lives and cultures of different time periods. Wilson writes that one of the reasons the civic leaders choose to use the Spanish-Pueblo Revival style was because tourists were looking for an authentic experience. Tourists tend to have preconceived notions on how a location should to appear. When they journey to an area with the purpose of participating in its historical heritage, they typically expect to see buildings/structures reminiscent of that time period. These new “old” buildings create a dynamic and interactive element within heritage tourism. I am not saying that all reconstructions and restorations are good whatever the case. But as with many things that have become a commodity, it is important not to lose sight of its purpose and remain vigilant that we do not contribute to fallacies within the narrative being told.

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