Furthermore, Wright said, tiki bars were among the original theme restaurants, dating from a time when Americans began to evince an apparently lasting appetite for the artificial over the real. And with Mount Vernon, for example, now sharing space on the National Register with the likes of the Kahiki, it becomes harder for American families to distinguish the genuine from its simulacrum. On a wall near the Kahiki's men's room I found a 1995 article from Fortune in which Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney, who went to college nearby, revealed that he had attended his first drive-in movie in Columbus and enjoyed meals at the Kahiki. If there's a better contemporary version of "George Washington slept here," I don't know it.
That we're now trying to save the very places we once derided is nothing new. Queen Anne-style houses and Craftsman-style bungalows followed similar tracks: they were icons of an era which fell out of fashion and were subject to ridicule and large-scale demolition before being "discovered," dusted off, and placed on pedestals. "I call this the grandmother principle," the architect Robert Venturi has said. "You hate your mother's wedding gown in your parents' wedding photograph, but you love your grandmother's wedding gown in your grandparents' wedding photograph."
Venturi made this observation last October in Philadelphia, at a conference titled "Preserving the Recent Past." The gathering, of some 850 preservationists, engineers, and architects, was largely given over to arcane technical matters—for example, how to maintain glass-curtain walls and acoustic-tile ceilings. But a more philosophical question was on everyone's mind: How do we preserve the past when faced with accelerating cycles of building and demolition? Today we destroy buildings before they've ripened. We don't allow ourselves the luxury of waiting to evaluate their historical importance. If we are to preserve the best, we need somehow to flag our landmarks for exemption from this hasty winnowing.
This is a complicated matter. Not only is it a daunting task to persuade the members of the public that buildings constructed in their lifetime are historic and worth saving, but also it requires that we sort the truly historic from the merely nostalgic.
"There's a real danger that sentiment can overtake rationality, and preservationists can be made to look ridiculous if we're not careful," says David De Long, a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. "All of us have a sentimental attachment to these things. One of the great responsibilities of those of us in preservation is to edit. It's a big responsibility. The easiest way to avoid it is to be against any destruction."
But what to save? Early strip malls? Subdivisions filled with tract homes? Drive-in theaters? White Castle hamburger stands? (One paper presented in Philadelphia was titled "The Ubiquitous Parking Garage: Worthy of Preservation?") After all, these are icons of the twentieth century, much as canals and carriage houses and Richardsonian Romanesque train depots are icons of the nineteenth. Isn't it important to preserve the best architectural examples of our era for our grandchildren? How do we decide which are the best?