Buildings and sites associated with large administrative institutions present challenges for historical interpretation. Often lacking immediate visual legibility or commonly known histories, these unwieldy places are not only costly to maintain but also confusing to potential visitors. These difficulties are compounded in sites that have been used for a variety of purposes in different eras. In this essay, we argue that the same features that complicate interpretation of such sites also offer exciting possibilities when they are addressed with attention to narrative and emplacement. Using Philadelphia’s Lazaretto quarantine station as an example, we contend that historical interpretation can showcase the contingent social meanings and experiences of place over time. We demonstrate this interpretive strategy by explaining how relatively stable physical features of the Lazaretto took on different meanings and carried different symbolic resonances through the site’s long life—first as a quarantine station, then as a country club, and later as a seaplane base. Exploring a site through its historical stratigraphy can engage visitors by demonstrating sociocultural change over time, stimulating dialogue about issues of contemporary relevance by revealing their roots and resonances in the site.
The full article is available at Project Muse.
Image: Main building. Lazaretto historic site, Essington, Pennsylvania. (Douglas Heller, Independence Hall Association www.ushistory.org)