Meet the Blogger: Sabra Smith of “My Own Time Machine”

In a world where heritage values are challenged by the economy yet empowered with new media, blogger Sabra Smith faces these developments head-on and relates her own journey through the blog, “My Own Time Machine.

Sabra Smith

1. How did you begin blogging?

I’ve been blogging elsewhere since 2004 and was amazed at the potential the Internet offers for creating community and making connections. Working as a preservation advocate at a nonprofit, I saw a need for a matchmaking place where people and “buildings in need” could come together. A blog seemed like an ideal way to raise awareness of places to try to keep them from becoming endangered in the first place, or, if need be, alert the cavalry if help was needed. I started “My Own Time Machine” when I was laid off in May 2009 (the economic downturn has hit nonprofits as well as corporations).

2. What do you mean when you describe your blog being a “newfangled time machine?”

Well, I think we’ve seen that history can be compelling and find a place in popular culture – just look at the success of a film like “National Treasure” or Dan Brown’s novels and film adaptations (The DaVinci Code sold 80 million copies worldwide and his new record-breaking book sold 1 million copies in a single day. I predict the D.C. historic sites that are part of the plot will see an increase in visitation!).

Those books and films use history to capture people’s imaginations. History needs to be more than a list of dates and dead people – and this is still the default presentation at too many historic sites. So, in thinking about how to make history more approachable, my idea was to try and demonstrate that “history” is just a term we use for daily living that used to be – if you think about it, we’re living in tomorrow’s history now.

Our world, and the context in which we live, might change, but I think people’s basic hopes and fears don’t change very much. In my graduate thesis, I made this point sharing a portion of a letter written by Elizabeth Willing Powel, a wealthy Philadelphia socialite and confidante of George Washington. Writing to her sister, she described “spasms and pains in my Head,” which she blamed on her husband’s fondness for large fires in the fireplace, but which he dismissed simply as her “bad Nerves.” Though she may have lived long ago and far away in time, it could just as easily be a modern domestic scene of bickering husband and wife.

This sort of time collapse really hit home for me while going through my great-grandfather’s papers. I never met him, but his journals revealed that he dreamed of owning his own business. He studied hard, saved his money and achieved his goal of owning his own mill. But then I found the truth of his dream tucked inside a worn envelope. There were three letters, addressed to his wife, apparently written in case something happened to him. They all basically said the same thing, advice and a sort of apology because life had been hard and he hadn’t been able to provide the things he’d hoped. One of them was so worn it was falling apart along the fold lines. I imagined him carrying it with him every day, tucked in a pocket, just in case. It brings me to tears every time I read it. How is it that a piece of paper from 20 years before I was born can affect me in that way? Because it feels like I am alive in that moment when I read it.

So, when I was thinking of a name for the blog, I wondered how I’d get people to come with me on these journeys. How could I coax them to come meet people that could be their neighbors except for the passage of time? And I thought of H.G. Wells and his time machine. And Sherman and Peabody and the Wayback Machine. And I figured I needed my own time machine. (And I described it using the word “newfangled” because I like the oxymoron of a word some old codger would use – that stereotype of preservation — combined with a futuristic modern tool for meanderings through time.)

3. How can the past be approachable and how is your blog helping make that happen?

I think a great purpose of history is to inform the present. We can make it relevant for people today by connecting it to current events or by capturing modern imaginations. Philadelphia has a wonderful program, aimed at kids, called “Once Upon a Nation” where kids travel to 13 stations around Independence Mall. At each storytelling bench, they hear a tale connected to that location. The experience is interactive, it fires the imagination, it challenges young minds to put a historical event in the context of how they live today. I know it’s a successful program because my own children clamor each summer to make sure I take them! We’ve heard stories about ghost riders, bank robbers, baseball, and eating your vegetables that conveyed lessons about the Revolutionary War, the Constitution or life in Colonial times. I’m trying to do something similar with the blog – make these sorts of connections between past and present, or simply put historical things into modern context. For example, I did a post on the Transformers movie that came out this summer and the Philadelphia-area historical sites it featured – up there on the screen along with the great pyramids and the Temple at Petra. Who’d expect a bunch of robots from outer space to show up on a blog about history and architecture? And that’s sort of my point. There is a connection to be made.

up on the roof

4. How do you define the concepts of history and preservation?

Well, to my kids, I am history. When the elder one was smaller, he asked me what things were like in Colonial Times – there’s a child’s perspective on “history.” And I confess I’ve fallen into the trap of saying things like “well, in my day, we didn’t have ipods — you had to listen to the radio or a record!” (Do you think “history” happens faster now because of technological advances?)

I grew up in lots of little towns, mostly in New England. History was all around – I remember analyzing the walls, stairs and space of one 18th century house we rented because I was sure it probably had a secret passageway (none that I ever found) yet that was contrasted with contemporary history in the making, like the moon walk or even an object from my father’s dresser like the radiation exposure meter he wore onboard nuclear submarines (I venture to claim to be one of the few children in the world who celebrated their birthday party aboard a nuclear submarine during the Cold War). Once my father retired and I started helping him research family history, I became very conscious of a timeline of history and my ancestors placed, like little push pins, along that long stretch of time.

Now, as for “preservation” I am still attempting to define that word for myself. Is it about freezing time? Capturing history? Finding stability in a changing world? Collecting mementos of a time past? Is it about art and style (reflected in architecture) and their ability to contribute to the character of a neighborhood? Does it refer to the ability of a building to tell a story about the way things used to be? If the Eskimos can have so many words to refer to “snow” I don’t know why we have only this one inefficient word – “preservation” – that attempts to describe so much.

In some respects, this is probably a culmination of lifelong interests – historical fiction, art books, photography, films with a strong sense of place. When I lived in NYC I found myself studying buildings, looking up at cornices and fenestration patterns more than any tourist. I loved the urban patterns and the way each neighborhood felt like its own place and had its own stories.

Then I moved to Philadelphia and observed its strange dependence on the story of Independence while admiring its remarkable portfolio of buildings of all vintages. When I got divorced there was a moment of “what now?” that forced me to focus on my interests to find a new direction for my life. It seemed logical for a building lover to go back to school for a masters in historic preservation. What bliss to read, write, draw, photograph and study building form, theory and history. And there was a moment when I realized that to get anyone else to care about a building, it wasn’t enough to slap a curatorial label on it – Building x, by Architect z: Note egg and dart molding and fine example of Greek revival pediment – I felt there was a need to put that building in context of who lived there, who walked by and thought of it as a dream house, who worked in it, what happened to it after that person was gone, etc. etc. I’m in this field in a time when the Colonial Dames are dying off, the money is drying up and no one wants to go to a historic house museum that celebrates a doorknob just because it was made in 1767.

5. How else do you use the Internet to communicate your ideas and thoughts on heritage?

I love reading other blogs, I check the National Trust for Historic Preservation site for current issues, see Flickr for photosharing and armchair visiting, and use Facebook for passing along links I like or trying to get people mobilized to support an issue like tax credits for homeowner restorations. I adore that Google books makes it possible for me to browse a 1919 edition of the Architectural Record and seeing what buildings and architects were being reviewed. (It’s fascinating to read a scathing review of an architect we now revere.)

6. How did you first become interested in heritage issues?

I’ve had some funny conversations with colleagues in the field of historic preservation about how we got where we are. As near as I can figure it, it’s our parents’ fault. They dragged us to too many antique shops and odd little historic house museums when we were at an impressionable age. And more than one of us was profoundly affected by those historic sites of our childhood that featured those creepy manikins – you know what I mean, a smiling 1950s plaster model dressed in colonial attire, wig askew on its head, standing in the one room schoolhouse. There was something both sinister and engaging about those stilted displays.

It’s actually hard to say. It may have been the time I spent in a small New England village, with the wonderfully carved gravestones in the picturesque cemetery and the white church towering over the village green, and the aforementioned one-room school house across from the National Historic Landmark prison dating from the 17th century. It may also have been my Seventh grade English teacher, who gave me Jack Finney’s Time & Again to read. In the story, a government program experiments with time travel and the protagonist finds himself in Victorian New York City, climbing the Statue of Liberty torch on display in Central Park and caught up in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. My teacher took the class on its own time travelling trip to a tiny pocket of Victoriana in downtown Honolulu. She and the book both captured my imagination in a way that stayed with me. Now here I am with my own time machine!

7. How do can other people can contribute to your efforts?

Well, I’d really like to see people have conversations in the comments section, sharing experiences and opinions. If I feature a historical site or society archive, it would be great if others would visit and report back what they discovered. I’d love to see the Bulletin Board become a real sort of marketplace, finding owners to adopt sites in need, matching nonprofits who need assistance with someone willing to provide it – and not just for people who might call themselves preservationists, but anyone. So “historic preservation” can become more mainstream – in fact, I’d like people to help come up with a new name that better captures all the wonderful things that “historic preservation” is really about.

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