Sunday 13 September 2015

Heritage Sites - All In The Mind

The annual Heritage Open Days are taking place in the UK this weekend. This is when thousands of heritage sites, historic buildings and museums open their doors free to the public, many of them private homes of special historical interest don’t admit the public any other day.

There are hundreds of sites I’d like to visit, but today lets think about several historical sites of lgbt heritage that have long since disappeared. Recent coverage of the destruction of sites in Syria have outraged archaeologists, but ISIL are not the first people to deliberately destroy historic buildings and they won’t be the last. Some people may say it doesn’t matter, but try telling that to the lgbt community in New York if a property developer suddenly announces the demolition of the Stonewall Inn. Most buildings means something to someone, even if they mean nothing to you.

The article I wrote back in July about the possible threat to the ancient sites of Turkey get me thinking about other sites and buildings that we can no longer see. What locations can we visit – all in the mind? I’m going to take three heritage sites from three different periods which I would like to visit if they still existed.

We’ll start in the ancient world.

Alexander the Great founded several cities which he named after himself. The most easterly of these was called Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus in what is now Afghanistan, just 65 kilometres north-west of Kabul. This was at a period when Alexander was pushing eastward to expand his empire into India. His new city was at a crossroads of routes through the wilderness and mountains.

On Alexander’s death his empire was divided between his generals and the eastern half became ruled by Seleucos I Nikator and was, hence, afterwards called the Seleucid Empire. Twenty years later Emperor Seleucos swapped the city of Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus for 500 elephants and it came into the possession of the Maurya Empire of the Indian subcontinent. Several changes of ownership over the next centuries led to its gradual decline and eventually the buildings crumbled away.

Archaeological digs on the site began in 1833. Thousands of artefacts and coins were found but we can only imagine the splendour of the lost buildings.

The next site of lgbt interest in one which I’ve visited many times. It was popular place for a day trip when I was young, and my sister actually worked there for a while. It’s called Clumber Park and it is the site of a stately home that was demolished in 1938.

Clumber Park is significant to lgbt heritage because it was the home of the Pelham-Clinton family. The land was bought in 1707 by Henry Pelham-Clinton, 2nd Duke of Newcastle (1720-1794). In his teenage years he had a relationship with the writer Horace Walpole. Henry wanted to create a private park “for the better improvement and ornamentation of her Majestyes Forest of Sherwood”, as he wrote in a letter to Queen Anne. In 1770 built the first stately home there as his country residence.

The Duke of Newcastle also owned Nottingham castle, and it was his great-great-grandson, the 6th Duke, who sold the castle to the Corporation of Nottingham. The 6th Duke’s younger brother was Lt.-Col. Arthur Pelham-Clinton, MP, who lived with his brother at Clumber Park.

After a fire gutted most of the state rooms in 1879 they were redesigned in typical Victorian opulence that could outshine “Downton Abbey” or even Buckingham Palace. All of this was lost after 1938 when the then Duke of Newcastle decided to sell everything and demolish the empty shell that was left.

Today only the stables, church, entrance gates and clock tower remain to indicate that there was any stately building there at all. Clumber Park is now owned by the National Trust.

Alexandria-on-the-Caucasus was lost by neglect. Clumber Park House was lost by demolition. Our next heritage site was lost to Hurricane Katrina ten years ago.

Our next building was a private residence, designed by its occupant Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). In June I wrote briefly about Sullivan’s work on skyscrapers, but his lost building we’re looking at today was much more modest, a cottage bungalow.

Although primarily known as a Chicago-based architect, Sullivan built a rural getaway down on the Gulf of Mexico in 1890 in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. He is well-known for his collaborations with Frank Lloyd Wright, who later claimed to have designed the cottage, not Sullivan. Whoever is was, Sullivan lived there for 20 years. Although Wright tolerated gay men in the architectural office he was openly hostile to them outside work. Perhaps this is why Sullivan needed to get out of Chicago, in all probability he was gay himself.

Sullivan’s cottage may have been lost long before 2005. Sullivan had to give to over to another architect to pay some of his debts. During the 1980s it had been derelict and was rescued and renovated by a lawyer from Biloxi.

Hurricane Katrina blasted its way across the Gulf of Mexico in August 2005 leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Louis Sullivan’s cottage was reduced to rubble. Only one chimney remained standing.

However great the loss to world heritage, one consolation is that there are many photographs and images of both Sullivan’s cottage and Clumber Park House. It is possible to reconstruct them virtually, but their personal connections can never be reconstructed. But while we "mourn" the loss of heritage sites we have plenty to look forward to in the future as more ancient and demolished sites are revealed through the work of archaeologists.

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