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The West’s Empty Fetish for Ruins

The Ruins at Holliday Park, Indianapolis, June 2016. (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
The Ruins at Holliday Park, Indianapolis, June 2016. (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Bloomington, IN. — If you live in Indianapolis and have a family, you’re probably familiar with Holliday Park, located among the elaborate homes of a wealthy north side neighborhood of the city. The park has more or less typical facilities for children: several playground structures for different ages and a Nature Center, introducing children to the animals, plants, and geography of the area — fulfilling the wishes of John Holliday (the man who originally donated the land for the park in 1916) that the park be “a place for recreation and the study of nature.” But it has something else, something very unnatural: The Ruins, an installation centered on the fragmentary recreation of the façade of a New York City skyscraper demolished in the 1950s. What is this building fragment doing in the middle of a park in Indiana?

The Ruins have their origins in the former St. Paul Building at 220 Broadway in Manhattan, built in the year 1898. The building was set to be demolished in 1958 by the Western Electric Corporation, which then owned the building. But the company wanted to save one element: the three statues over the entrance known as the “Three Races of Man” (“Negroid”, “Caucasian”, and “Mongoloid”) by Karl Bitter, one of the most prominent American sculptors at the turn of the 20th century. To do so, Western Electric held a contest to see who would receive the statues as a gift. Different cities, universities, Idlewild (not yet John F. Kennedy International) Airport, and the United Nations reportedly submitted plans. Indianapolis won. The three 10-ton statues were shipped in crates to Indiana at an estimated cost of $50,000 to Western Electric, to be installed in Holliday Park.

The Ruins at Holliday Park, Indianapolis, June 2016.
The Ruins at Holliday Park, Indianapolis, June 2016.

Artist Elmer Taflinger’s design for the installation centered on a recreation of a fragment of the St. Paul Building’s original façade, including the statues. But the other parts of his plan — and their high cost — were a constant source of friction between him and the city. The result was a mixture of problems, delays, criticism, and plain bewilderment. The statues sat in their crates for two years, as the city balked at Taflinger’s insistence on a pool with jets spraying a 40-minute-long message in Morse code. Shortly after the statues were installed in the façade, a sanitation truck driver reportedly stopped in the park and asked for a job helping tear down “that old ruins”; “[t]old it was just being built, he shook his head unbelievingly, and drove away.”

By 1963, the Indianapolis Star declared the incomplete installation’s loose stones a “potential death trap”: at least two lawsuits were pending against the city after children had fallen from the façade. A Western Electric spokesman said in 1970 that company employees had been told to forget about the gift of the statues, “that it’s just a mistake we made 10 years ago.”

The Ruins at Holliday Park, Indianapolis, June 2016.
The Ruins at Holliday Park, Indianapolis, June 2016.

In the early 1970s the project received a push from Indianapolis mayor Richard Lugar, complete with new funding, including a check from Western Electric. The Ruins were finished and dedicated in 1973. They consisted of the recreated façade as a ruin, with two reflecting pools, colonnades, classicizing capitals and bases, statues of women (one now missing a head), and other pieces scattered around it. Until Taflinger decided to add to the plan: his new idea was to surround The Ruins with a Constitution Mall, an allegory of American history, to be completed for the national bicentennial. The new Constitution Mall was finished in September 1978.

The Ruins at Holliday Park, Indianapolis, June 2016.
The Ruins at Holliday Park, Indianapolis, June 2016.

The problems with setting up the installation foreshadowed events in the decades after. Fundraising for the completion of The Ruins did not include money for their maintenance. Once again neglected, dilapidated, covered in weeds, their reflecting pools leaking, they became “genuine ruins,” as Will Higgins of the Indianapolis Star called them in 2013. Alexander Holliday, the grandson of the original donor, stated publicly that The Ruins reminded him of the “bombing of Dresden” and that his grandfather would have been appalled by them. There was talk of dismantling them in 1992 before a fundraising effort (including a grant from the Lilly Endowment) came to the rescue — temporarily. Now there is a campaign for “Revitalization of the Ruins,” and construction is currently underway.

The Ruins at Holliday Park, Indianapolis, June 2016.
The Ruins at Holliday Park, Indianapolis, June 2016.

The Ruins may not be “genuine ruins,” but such an unusual case can help to draw out themes that may be present even with ancient sites, though less obvious. Three themes in particular come to mind:

1. Ruins are unreal. Ruins seem pristine in some sense, the result of natural decay over hundreds or thousands of years. But, like the Holliday Park Ruins, ancient ruins have been repeatedly altered by human activity. This is especially true of ancient sites that serve as tourist attractions. They are heavily curated and must be continually maintained: weeds cut, weak sections buttressed, repairs made, painted or repainted, etc. Pieces may be moved from their original locations. All of this means that, while we think of ruins as ancient survivals, they are in fact something that never quite existed before. This may be obvious in a case like The Ruins, where they are placed where there never was a building, but still holds for “genuine” ruins as well. Classicist Mary Beard has suggested that Pompeii, and indeed most classical sites, are in fact collaborations between ancients and modern excavators and conservators. At Palmyra, the ruins we knew before ISIS came were only created in their present form in the last 90 years, through excavation, restoration, and demolition of the modern village on the site.

Ellettsville Heritage Trail, Ellettsville, Indiana, June 2016. The column segment alludes to Ellettsville’s important limestone industry and the town’s motto, “Builders of American History”.
Ellettsville Heritage Trail, Ellettsville, Indiana, June 2016. The column segment alludes to Ellettsville’s important limestone industry and the town’s motto, “Builders of American History.”

Today, the past (or at least, our understanding of the past) is now widely understood by historians, archaeologists, and other scholars of the past to be constructed, a product of the present. That is, how we envision the past is about us as well as about the past. Our popular nostalgia industries are rooted in this very concept: “Why can’t we have those times back? Because they never happened. And Happy Days didn’t exist until we invented them.” Ruins are the physical embodiment of this idea, the tangible constructed past. With them we celebrate, or commemorate, or mourn a past that never truly was.

The Columns at the University of Missouri: Row of six Ionic columns from the portico of Academic Hall; the remainder of the building was destroyed by fire in 1892. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
The Columns at the University of Missouri: Row of six Ionic columns from the portico of Academic Hall; the remainder of the building was destroyed by fire in 1892. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

2. If the past is constructed, then there are multitudes of pasts we can and do construct. These may include foreign pasts, but more often they are more familiar ones that we can call our own pasts, typically biological or cultural ones: in America and Western Europe, these may be Arthurian and other medieval pasts, Gaelic, Gallic, Native American, and many more. Yet we keep coming back to the classical pasts of Greece and Rome. From Renaissance Italy to Victorian Britain, the classical past took pride of place. At first, this may seem natural: after all, Greek and Roman civilizations are seen as the cultural cornerstones of modern Western society (as the biblical past is seen as its religious cornerstone). That naturalness is reinforced by the popularity of Neoclassical and Greek Revival architecture around us; or by cities, towns, and villages with classical place names — for instance, there are Palmyras in 19 US states, as well as Palmyra Atoll and Palmyra, Western Australia. But the constant use of the classical past is not inevitable — it is a choice, and on closer look a strange one. The relationship of Britain and especially America to ancient Greece and Rome is a very indirect one; and Syrian Palmyra is not really part of the past of America or Europe at all. Our obsession with Greece and Rome is, again, a construct, a specific way of envisioning the past. Eighteenth-century Britain and France saw themselves as heirs to Palmyra, early Republican America as the new Athens or Rome. We still impute sanity and rationality to classical architecture, as opposed to the madness we see in Gothic. It is a testament to the power of our constructed classical past that we so often accept it without a second thought.

National Capitol Columns: a) 22 of 24 Corinthian columns removed from the United States Capitol in 1958 and set up at the United States National Arboretum, Washington, D.C. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
National Capitol Columns: a) 22 of 24 Corinthian columns removed from the United States Capitol in 1958 and set up at the United States National Arboretum, Washington, D.C. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
One of the two remaining capitals, lying broken in the Arboretum on Mt. Hamilton. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
One of the two remaining capitals, lying broken in the Arboretum on Mt. Hamilton. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Again, ruins make our symbolic attachment to the classical past concrete. In Syria and throughout the Middle East, they are reflected in our hierarchy of favored pasts. The destruction of biblical and ancient Near Eastern ruins, prophets’ graves and monasteries grab our attention more than Islamic shrines and tombs, which are mostly ignored. But classical ruins, epitomized by Palmyra, trump them all. The ease with which we can assume that millennia-old ruins thousands of miles away in Syria are naturally part of our heritage, simply because of their Greek or Roman appearance or because of brief references to them by ancient historians, is remarkable. This attachment to the Greek and Roman pasts even extends to the destruction of later accretions on ruins in order to “restore” their original classical glory. In the 19th century, Greek authorities demolished a mosque in the Parthenon and the Frankish Tower on the Acropolis; in the 20th century, the French demolished the modern village from the Temple of Bel at Palmyra. But, of course, their restored form is one that never fully existed.

National Monument of Scotland on Calton Hill, Edinburgh: an incomplete full-scale replica of the Parthenon, abandoned in 1829 for lack of funds. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
National Monument of Scotland on Calton Hill, Edinburgh: an incomplete full-scale replica of the Parthenon, abandoned in 1829 for lack of funds. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

3. While we love the classical past in many forms, we are continually drawn to that past in ruins: columns that are isolated, decontextualized, cracked or in pieces; capitals and bases lying on the ground; statues without heads. I would suggest that one important reason we love ruins is precisely that they are incomplete. They are symbols of an incomplete past, to be completed by us. (Or, we are their completion.) This idea appears to be a recurring theme in the history of modern Europe and America:

David Lowenthal shows how Renaissance humanists engaged in emulation of the classical past not simply to copy it but to both restore and surpass it. The idea is expressed visually in follies — extravagant garden ornaments in the form of buildings with no practical function — like the 18th-century Temple of Philosophy in the garden (now Parc Jean-Jacques Rousseau) at Ermenonville, France. The structure was purposely left incomplete as an allegory of philosophy; an inscription on a broken column asks, “Who will complete it?”

The Temple of Philosophy at Ermenonville. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
The Temple of Philosophy at Ermenonville. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Even past remains from other parts of the world did not present a problem, as long as we could assimilate them into our past in some way. The incomplete ruins of Palmyra served as one basis of the neoclassical style, incorporated into newly completed buildings in Britain and America. Classical (and biblical) ruins in the Middle East were historically seen as signs of a great and glorious past that has since become desolate; it was the job of European and American imperialists to restore them. Our current-day use of ruins often suggests similar ideas: an American-British venture building a replica of part of a destroyed Roman triumphal arch from Palmyra to tour around the world, before it is to be set up at Palmyra itself; Russia presenting itself as the “liberator” of ancient Palmyra; several countries divvying up the spoils of restoring Palmyra’s damaged ruins. The hope for restoration of ancient ruins, and of the glorious past they represent, springs eternal.

Our interest in ruins is in some sense truly a fetish, an obsession. At best, it can seem cute or silly or self-indulgent. But in contexts like the Syrian war, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, that obsession can be dangerous, even deadly.

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