On the Effects of Collapse: Focusing Ruin Values at Fort Union



            Congress established Fort Union as a National Monument on June 9, 1954. Orme Lewis, Assistant Secretary of the Interior at that time, describes how the, “crumbling ruins of this historic and romantic old fort,” should be, “stabilized and preserved for the public benefit and inspiration.” The idea here is that the preservation of the adobe and brick walls, stone foundations, and portions of the Santa Fe trail will facilitate the edification of American citizenry, and by providing a tangible reminder of the “tradition that bred heroes” such as Kit Carson, U.S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and other such similar great American men. It is unique that the politicians enacting this bill deliberately chose a romantic ruin to be the vehicle of this educational history. The historical antecedents, aesthetic tastes and theories, that lead to this normative inscription likely include Ruskin’s age-value and the picturesque. Support for this is the national monuments listing including Orme’s recommended “scenic easements,” alongside the architectural ruins.

The challenges and realities of preserving an adobe ruin – slender and poorly built, designed to be structurally reinforced by a now absent roof – verges on folly. Currently there are three crews labouring on cyclical shelter coat applications that barely last a year, yet despite their efforts, walls continue to collapse. Collapse is a violent and dramatic event, and the fear of it at Fort Union has resulted in site management policies that focus a majority of its material conservation on the adobe walls. The significance of these adobe walls, a dramatic vertical element in a wide flat prairie landscape, has tacitly evolved to become the most valued fabric on site. Meanwhile, the earthwork remnants of the Vauban-inspired star fort remain neglected and poorly interpreted. Foundation walls, the last remnant of the site plan, are breaking apart and are left to be overgrown. Site integrity, when considering ruin-value, lies in the decay of significant fabric. After all, a ruin is a built environment in the process of decay rather than an idealised platonic historical snapshot in time. A ruin is ruinous, engaged in a relentless process of being ruined.

Preserving a ruin must then be the conservation of its degradation. Unlike Heraculaneum, for instance, Fort Union is not an archaeological site. Undoubtedly it has archaeological resources but it is a ruin by design: interpretation, presentation, and planned interventions. Ruin-values have cultural baggage, a longing for arcadia and a delight in the picturesque, seen in its protected scenic easements. However, if things are allowed to decay the site eventually loses its material integrity. There is a risk in any ruin that it become illegible, for instance overgrown as bumps of archaeological earthworks. A cyclical restoration, or rebuilding, of a ruin would preserve its process of degradation and allow for its picturesque enjoyment, what Orme described as “inspiration,” for “public benefit.” Different preservation treatments operate on different temporal and physical scales. Some treatments are ephemeral while some last for decades or centuries and some treatments operate in millimetres of space while others are beyond horizon. Preservation interventions both involve the introduction or interpretation of foreign materials, they just operate on different scales of time and space.

However, both the dramatic event of adobe collapse and its palpable spectre has so completely reoriented the eyes of Park managers and conservators that the wider site integrity has decayed beyond ruin into the buried archaeological. Foundation walls, the lines of the site plan, are overgrown and are illegible to the viewer, paths are only maintained around the remnant adobes, and the general breadth of the site and its understanding has been diminished as more and more efforts are focused on a doomed method of construction. I propose 2 things, both drastic: 1) a cyclical rebuilding of that which was there before in order to retain that which is extant, 2) or a triage-like strategic demolition to save the site from its limits. There are not enough resources to maintain all of the remaining adobes. Why attempt to save all existing when we know there isn’t enough to do it effectively? Meanwhile, stone foundations are bursting apart and being overgrown because the adobe walls that once bound their shoulders have long since disintegrated. Instead, a concentration of efforts in preserving a strategic selection of vertical adobe would enable rebuilding shorter adobe site wide, making its plan legible once more and increasing the site’s integrity. Probably, a hybrid of both option 1 & 2 would be most desirable or effective considering site and budget realities. This alternative site management approach would serve the antithetical yearnings of both preservation of fabric and its romantic aesthetic enjoyment.

Here I argue that by definition preservation of ruins at Fort Union is actually a cyclical restorative approach by necessity. However, this is predicated on the fact that Fort Union’s primary significance lies in its ruin-ness. In so far as we decide to normatively embrace and support Congress’ construction of the National Monument, we should self-consciously and self-reflectively display Fort Union as a ruin. Here historic preservation has the unique opportunity to be a performative space, a heritage in-action. Viewers could come to draw inspiration from the process of ruin by cerebrally and physically engaging in its construction and interpretation. Imagine groups of visitors being told that this site is a Ruin, and that we are preserving and promoting it as a constant work in progress. Imagine part of the interpretive tour being staged to include visitors making adobe bricks, even laying them! An exciting prospect that would engage and excite visitors and even help the park’s budget as well… A ruin in action, a process of becoming, where it isn’t being presented as an object to be viewed alone.


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