When Universities Really Do Destroy the Past, We Don’t Care

Fifteen years ago, NYU announced a plan to expand its law school by tearing down Edgar Allan Poe’s home on West Third Street, where Poe wrote “The Cask of Amontillado,” revised “The Raven,” and acquired his own literary magazine. The announcement provoked some resistance; 70 scholars signed a letter in protest. They lost. Four years later, a nine-story, 170,000 square-foot Furman Hall was formerly opened. The Poe House was completely gone; a version of its facade was reconstructed a half-block away. According to a historical preservationist:

Walking by, you would never know this was supposed to be the actual remnant of a 19th-century house. It looks tacked on. It’s a facade, literally and figuratively.

Like the capitalist society they serve, universities erase the past all the time. Most of the time we don’t care. For the sake of progress or real estate values, we live with it. Or embrace it.

When politicized university students ask that we revisit the nation’s racial past, however, that we rename buildings not to remove memory but to revise it, we become the most ardent preservationists. Even law professors who said not a word about the destruction of the Poe House.

If the revision in question is for the sake of capitalism, we sigh, whisper an All That’s Solid Melts Into Air, and move on. If it is for the sake of knowledge and anti-racism, we say no, in thunder.


  1. xenon2 November 22, 2015 at 10:56 pm | #

    I remember reading it, but I didn’t think it 15 years ago.I don’t particularly care if no one important lived in it–the National Trust does.And St.Vincent’s closed in 2010.In its place, I imagine, are condo’s for the rich.I thought when they dismantled Penn Station, there was a new world order, no more of tearing down old things.Apparently not.

  2. Russell S. Day (@Transcendian) November 23, 2015 at 11:56 am | #

    Modern horrors of change tear at the souls of the old. The book covers are torn off, but the books are not burned.

  3. Dan Phillips November 23, 2015 at 12:17 pm | #

    Did you mean “formally” instead of “formerly?”

  4. glinka21 November 26, 2015 at 5:32 am | #

    I think you’re being unnecessarily narrow, here. Destroying the past without regard to its content is a national tradition. For example, the city of Philadelphia tore down in the early 20th century a 19th century architectural unicum by a remarkable American architect, to replace it with one of those 18th century box houses that Paul Revere happened to live in. I do not expect universities to exhibit any more regard for the past in this country than any other group; and the US in general has scant concern for the ties it has to the past, reinventing itself endlessly instead into an ever-new efflorescence that will fade before that yet another before the week has passed. I can’t speak to the virtues or vices of capitalism, but USia lives on reinventing itself to avoid any consideration of its past. Learning from past mistakes? Who needs any steenkin’ learning from past mistakes?

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