Although I find it hard to write about buildings without writing about the people who made them, buildings tend to be at the focus of my research and teaching. As my new research project foregrounds the people, I have spent a lot of time in journals and other personal papers. I anticipated learning more of the color of nineteenth-century life, but have run across a few unexpected delights of a different sort. Twice I read messages apparently recorded from the spirit world through séances (one from the deceased German mother of a draughtsman on the Capitol project, the other from Andrew Jackson), which is not a typical kind of thing for an architectural historian to deal with. Those are interesting for what they might reveal about the recipients of the messages, but more compelling (messages from dead presidents notwithstanding), I think, is the excerpt you see above, written in the diary of Benjamin Brown French (1800-70). He’s writing to his son Frank, thinking that the little boy might someday want to read his dad’s diary; why else write, since “no one else, I am certain, will ever waste the time necessary for such an operation…” If that spirit world is active in the way that French and many of his contemporaries thought it was, I hope he sees that he was wrong. I am not the only one who has enjoyed wasting my time with his “journalizing” and am, indeed, so glad that he wasted his time writing it all down for me.
Spirits from the Past