Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Chipstone House

Taking a class in another department is always valuable, not only because you get to work on something totally different, but also because it inevitably makes you appreciate your own department all the more. This is being brought home to me again this semester, now that I'm taking a class taught by a folklorist in the Landscape Architecture department on "Cultural Landscape History, Theory, and Preservation." I was sort of hoping for a class about the history of landscape design, featuring the likes of Capability Brown and Frederick Law Olmstead, but mostly what we talk about is the preservation of historic buildings, because for better or worse that's what our preservation programs privilege.

But at least that means I can do a project on architecture, which I get to talk about but rarely. The working title of my final paper is Curating the Cultural Landscape: Chipstone House as Historical Property and it will examine Chipstone House, a 1949 neo-colonial mansion and its surrounding grounds, located in the Milwaukee suburb of Fox Point. The first question I want to raise relates to the discipline of landscape studies, and asks how J.B. Jackson’s definition of landscape as a collection of defined spaces relates landscape to other types of collecting and curatorial practices. J.B. Jackson is a seminal figure for the study of vernacular landscapes, but it feels like his groundbreaking ideas haven't sufficiently carried over to curatorial practice. This is particularly pertinent to Chipstone House since it is now the headquarters of the Chipstone Foundation, which curates the collection of early-American decorative arts begun by the house’s original owners, Stanley and Polly Stone. If we take Jackson's point that the interior and exterior landscapes of Chipstone House are collections, then how have they been curated? And how do these landscape curatorial practices relate to those used to curate what is better known as the “Chipstone Collection” of decorative arts?

My secondary point is about the role historicism played in the cultural landscape of Chipstone House. It was designed by Andrew Hepburn, an architect whose firm had been charged with restoring Colonial Williamsburg, and it's more or less a domestic version of Williamsburg's Governors Palace (above). Chipstone House clearly relates to a wider American interest in an idealized colonial past, but what I want to suggest is that Chipstone’s emulation of the historical properties in Williamsburg constructs history itself as property, as cultural capital or a commodity that can be bought and displayed.