Preservation of a 260-Year-Old Stove and Why It Matters
Earlier this month on my trip to Frederick, Maryland, the tourism board had organized wonderful days for me. Among the sites they planned for me to visit was Schifferstadt Museum. The house, now an architecture museum, was built by a German family in 1756 and is one of the oldest houses still standing in Frederick County. The museum’s prized possession is an original jamb oven, which would have provided smoke-free heat to the second-floor bedrooms.
I was a bit puzzled by this stop because my articles generally focus on the last 150 years of American history. But the people organizing my trip had done a remarkable job, so I was open to their suggestions.
As it happened, I learned a great deal from the visit, and in the process, I am reminded of the importance of preservation.
There are three messages I can easily take away from my visit to Schifferstadt:
1. Schifferstadt offers Frederick County the opportunity to “tell an important part of their story.” The German influence in the area was strong. In the 1680s William Penn traveled to southern Germany to encourage Germans to come to the area. German people were viewed as good farmers and hard workers, and they were probably seen as ideal candidates to develop farms and produce food for the region. Penn may have also seen them as good “buffers” between the English and the Indians farther west. All in all, this story is important to Frederick County as well as America at large.
2. The 1756 house had been a rental during most of the 20th century, so when Schifferstadt was taken over by the Frederick County Landmarks Foundation, they had fewer layers of modernization to remove than they might have had if a homeowner had been investing in full modernization. Among their discoveries as they peeled the building back to its original state was an intact five-plate iron stove in the wall between two bedrooms. This would have been a very welcome heating device in the 1750s. The stove is cube-shaped with iron plates on five sides; the sixth side could be opened and accessed from the hallway and its in-the-wall location funneled smoke directly into a chimney. The five iron plates would have radiated heat much the way today’s iron radiators retain heat even after the initial steam comes through. In seeing this stove, we are reminded of what our forefathers went through in coming to this country and having to survive very cold winters. It also reminds us how fortunate we are that we touch a thermostat to heat a room; we don’t have to stoke a fire in a five-plate stove.
3. My final lesson? Actually it’s my favorite. The largest bedroom upstairs was not the master bedroom—it was the guest room. Why? Because in these days, people had no regularly published newspapers, and letters were few and far between. A visitor was a welcome news source, and therefore, there was every reason to give them the best room in the house!
So I am reminded that preservation is important, but of course, I also know that it is problematic. As I watch my own county wrestle with what to preserve and what not to preserve, there are no easy answers. We can’t save everything. Most Americans do want access to a Wal-Mart or a fast-food restaurant now and then, and older buildings are costly to restore and costly to maintain, even if they tell important stories.
As it happens, the most recent issue of Preservation magazine has an interview with Richard Moe, the outgoing president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation who is retiring after 17 years, and Moe suggests the answer. The National Trust is now encouraging communities to look at buildings and consider adaptive re-use. Old buildings are being re-fit to be green, and in the process, an increasing number of communities are taking advantage of the tax breaks on this type of development. This permits communities to maintain the character of a neighborhood while also creating buildings that can be a useful part of 21st century America.
In his remarks in the magazine, Moe states the goal of preservation as this: “To conserve the best of the past, blend it with the new, and provide more livable communities.”
If this can be done, it lets us maintain certain reminders of our past. While the Schifferstadts of the future may also need to be used as community meeting houses or county offices, it’s wonderful if we can maintain some of our country’s character.
Seeing Schifferstadt and the five-plate oven can’t help but elicit comments like, “Can you believe how ingenious this was for their time? Can you believe how far we’ve come?” And most important, “If our forefathers can do that, then just think of all I can do with the resources of today.”
Our country is strong because many individuals have worked hard at figuring out ways to solve difficult issues. So thank you, Frederick, and all communities who preserve some of the past. These are tangible reminders not only of how far we’ve come but also how far we can go.