Building stories

Sunday, November 7, 2010 at 8:00pm
By Joe Nolan,

A new kind of history recorded by a pair of accomplished Middle Tennesseans — Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Robin Hood and James A. Crutchfield, author of 50 books — isn’t a dreary textbook full of forgettable facts, and it doesn’t feature the ponderous tones of an overbearing expert guiding you through predictable, well-worn paths of the Volunteer State’s bygone days.

Historic Tennessee: Photographs by Robin Hood takes readers on a tour through the limestone, brick and lumber of Tennessee’s most compelling historical sites and buildings. Full of freewheeling anecdotes, hair-raising adventures and unforgettable characters, this history book reads like a novel and, thanks to Hood’s striking images, is much more an artsy coffee table volume than a stuffy history tome. It also offers a look at the important work that’s being done to keep these landmarks, and their history, intact for generations to come.

Chapter 16: In the book, you remark on the astonishing pace of architectural preservation in our state.

Robin Hood: I see it more and more. The preservation of buildings goes hand-in-hand with public consciousness of just about everything. We’re building green buildings now. We’re recycling materials that we used to throw away. People are more conscious about the value of the re-use of things, whether it’s a plastic bottle or a remarkable building.

This whole idea of raising the consciousness of the public about preservation of buildings goes right to the heart of the mission of Tennessee Preservation Trust and their desire to get involved with this book project. The books we publish serve two purposes: They raise money for an organization like Tennessee Preservation Trust to continue their mission, but they also raise a clarion call for the public that might not otherwise be engaged in this story. If we did a book that was just a technical book about preservation, we’re preaching to the choir, because the people who are going to read that book are already involved in preservation. What we want to do is reach Tennesseans across the state, both students and adults, about the treasures we have here that we take for granted.

This is certainly not a knock against public education by any means, but when I studied history in school, you memorized dates and names and places and treaties. But the anecdotal stories behind these buildings, these houses and these forts is lost a lot of times [on] school children and adults. I can tell you that people pass the state Capitol every day and they know that that’s our state Capitol, and it’s been there for a long time, and that it’s a pretty significant building. But I bet far less than 50 percent of those people know that it’s the second-oldest state Capitol still in use in the United States, that the architect is buried in its walls, that it was a federal fort during the Civil War, that a U.S. president is buried on its grounds, that the women’s right to vote — in the whole United States — was passed by one vote right there in the halls of the state Capitol. When you bring those stories out, then it ceases to be just a marble building on a hill in the center of our government. It’s an
incredible repository of great stories about our past.

Chapter 16: How can writing bring history to life?

James Crutchfield: Well, the watch-word today to drive these ideas home is to make the presentation of the material — whether it be text, photography, original art, or anything else — contemporary with the ideas and the ideals that readers have. I think that means a lot of color, a lot of anecdotal material, a steering away from the staid history that was written so we could memorize all of those dates and battles that nobody cares about anyway and forgets after they get out of school. The point is, try to make it engaging in all the aspects of presentation. Make it attractive.

Books now are becoming very hard to sell; I don’t care who the writer is. The Internet and the e-book make paper books harder and harder [to sell]. Publishers are having a hard time. Book distributors are having a hard time. Bookstores are having a hard time because the book is not what it was 30, 35 years ago. We’ve got to come up with a way to keep the printed page out there, to make these things survive for centuries.

Chapter 16: The book’s mission statement includes a funny observation: “Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.” What are the biggest challenges facing historic architecture in the state?

Hood: It’s a little like a battle against insurgency in the Middle East: The battle will always be there. There will always be people that won’t have appreciation for a building that’s been around for 150 years. That battle’s not over, and that’s one of the purposes of this book and is certainly one of the purposes of the Tennessee Preservation Trust — which, by the way, is a partner and an affiliate of the National Historic Preservation Trust. All the proceeds from this book go back to Tennessee Preservation Trust and their mission. While that’s very nice, this book will be interesting to people who don’t know a whit about the history of preservation. It’s got some great anecdotal stories, whether it’s about one of our presidents and the way he settled in Middle Tennessee, [or] about a Civil War battle that was fought in Franklin and the thousands of soldiers that died in one particular building, or [about] a little house where a descendant of slaves grew up to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.



To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee


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