Friday, September 27, 2013

Heritage "In Bloom": the Case of Cobain's Home

Cobain's Aberdeen home (AP)
A recent headline for many news outlets caught my eye. The mother of the late Kurt Cobain (of Nirvana fame) is selling his childhood home for a hefty sum, in hopes of seeing the modest residence turned into a museum to her son. Behold the quandary of recent heritage.  The significance of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana to the evolution of popular music and culture at the end of the 20th century cannot be overstated. Personally, I think it warrants formal recognition (and not just because I'm a fan).  But is this the place and the way to do it?  Or is the story better represented in exhibits, like this one at EMP in Seattle.

Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses exhibit gallery at EMP
(Photo by Christopher Nelson)
By setting the asking price for this simple house in Aberdeen at half-a-million dollars, the family is clearly hoping to cash in on Cobain's celebrity ~ no judgment here, because really, why wouldn't they if they intend to sell it anyway?  But I have to wonder what this house museum would be like. In 30 more years, would his childhood home be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places? Typically, early homes are not considered eligible, because in most instances they were not where the individual lived a the height of their achievements. From this perspective, some burnt out tiny apartment in Seattle, where the members of Nirvana lived in squalor during the recording of Nevermind would have a better chance at being listed in the National Register.

But really, how important were any of these places to artists like Cobain, who were essentially nomads? Even the home he shared with his wife, Courtney Love, and the site of his death in Seattle would not satisfy National Register Criteria. The couple only acquired the residence a few months before Cobain's death. The first step in evaluating a property for National Register eligibility is to determine whether the place is historic, which is defined as achieving significance no less than 50 years ago. Cobain was born in 1967, so that eliminates any site associated with him, right? Not necessarily. The National Register includes exceptions, referred to as Criteria Considerations, to permit the inclusion of places that meet the Criteria, but would be disqualified for other reasons. Criteria Consideration G permits the inclusion of properties that achieved significance in less than 50 years, if it is of "exceptional importance."   Even if National Register listing is not a goal, most local programs to provide protection and funding are based on National Register Criteria. 

This small outbuilding, the site of Cobain's suicide, has since been razed.
(Photo by Mike Urban, Courtesy of MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection)

Cobain recorded 8-track demos in his homes ~ but were the buildings themselves any more important to his life and work than the hotel rooms and tour buses where he so often lived, worked, and slept?  And does it really matter? In terms of National Register eligibility, yes; but in terms of preservation potential, no.  It only matters to the people who consider it important.  It's the "walk in the footsteps of Jesus" mentality that drives these kinds of preservation efforts.  People want to occupy the same space as their idols ~ to stand where they stood and see what they saw. Whether or not the places Cobain bedded down mattered to him, they matter greatly to his admirers. When a couple learned the home they purchased for just over $42,000 in Montesano, Washington, belonged to Cobain's father and that the artist lived there for a few years in his early teens, they sold it for five times the value they paid. 

Elvis Presley at Graceland in 1957 (AP)
In some forums, the marketing of Cobain's home has been discussed as the start of a new trend in acquiring and preserving celebrity homes, but really, it's the same as it ever was. This is just another verse in a very old song; there are countless examples of similar cases in the past and there will be countless more in the future. What about Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch? The late Jackson was a peculiar fellow to say the least, but his contributions to popular music place him among the likes of Elvis and Dylan in importance. Is it too soon to consider his home, arguably a greater reflection of himself than any of his music, an historic landmark?  

The iconic Graceland was purchased by Elvis Presley in the late 1950s. It was his home for 20 years and the site of his death. It was also listed on the National Register in 1991, when the association with Elvis (what we call the period of significance) was just over 30 years old; however, there was a loophole, in that the house was originally built in 1939. But there is no question, it only became important after 1957, when Presley acquired it and began a series of unmistakably Elvis renovations. But the significance of the building to Presley's active life is unmistakable.  It is now a National Historic Landmark.

John Coltrane's Long Island Home
(Courtesy of The Coltrane Home)
The great John Coltrane has two residences on the National Register: one in Philadelphia (now a National Historic Landmark), where he lived from 1952 to 1958, and a second on Long Island, where he spent the last three years of his life. His Long Island home was saved from the wrecking ball in recent years and listed on the National Register in 2007, when the association with Coltrane was straddling the 50 year mark.

These are examples of proactive preservation and the recognition of important people and places in recent history.  Potential resources of this nature are frequently overlooked.  

The National Register's definition of historic may seem arbitrary (and to an extant, it is) but that 50 year cutoff is intended to provide enough distance between these historic persons, events, or places, and ourselves to ensure objective evaluation based on a proper, historical perspective.  Has enough time passed to gauge the historical import of Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson objectively? 

The Big House (Courtesy of  The Big House Museum)
Perhaps, I'm putting too much emphasis on the National Register. Let's look at the bigger picture. Historic preservation serves many purposes, depending on who you are talking to and why. In my humble opinion, the goal of this field is to retain the historic fabric of our communities in order to foster continuity with the past and communal identity.  When looking at the recent past, the challenge is often to identify places that have potential historic value (and I'm not talking about monetarily).  By and large, the general population will not recognize these places as historic or important.  The role of the preservationist in this scenario is to ensure these places survive intact, long enough for the rest of us to catch up and to objectively evaluate their importance.  So, these grassroots efforts led by local groups and property owners are critical and they often face the steepest of uphill battles that often end in disappointment, as was the case of Jimi Hendrix's childhood home. But sometimes, they succeed. The Big House Museum in Macon, Georgia, was essentially home of the Allman Brothers Band from 1970 to 1973. While not individually-listed on the National Register, the property is managed by a non-profit as a museum that offers event space and educational programming.

As a skinny wallflower that grew up in the 1990s, Nirvana was a fundamental part of my upbringing. Their music influenced how I perceived the world around me, in the same way that Elvis and Coltrane did for their respective generations. But Cobain ended his life only 19 years ago this past April.  My uncle always said no one would be listening to Nirvana in 10 years... let me pause to high-five my twelve year old self in victory (slap!). History has already proven him wrong.  But the question remains: in 30 years, will his contribution to popular music and culture be recognized as ardently as it is today?  Only time can tell. In the meantime, let us hope that preservation-minded individuals continue to take an interest in these potential resources. Regardless, I suspect Cobain's mother will have no trouble selling the house, even at that price. 


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