Adam Lloyd and Dr. Kerry Soper, Department of Humanities, Classics and Comparative Literature
On a visit to Denver, Colorado in November 2011, my girlfriend requested that we visit the Molly Brown House Museum as she had grown up watching the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown. As we toured the museum, the architecture and interior design of the house caught my attention as it reminded me of the Gilded Age cottages in New England that I had learned about in my American Humanities class. My project was originally intended to explore the Gilded Age homes of Mining Age Colorado but, as I visited Denver in the summer of 2013, I was intrigued by the various levels of preservation in different houses and noticed a connection that the best preserved ones were those related to Margaret Brown. My research then turned to exploring how the legacy of Margaret influenced the preservation of Denver Gilded Age homes.
It was important for this project to have an interdisciplinary approach when researching how perceptions of Margaret Brown changed over time. In an attempt to understand the legacy of Margaret Brown, I researched different biographies varying in both time period and complexity. I researched 6 different biographies spanning over 70 years. Another element to understanding the legacy of Brown is to include popular culture portrayals. Focusing specifically on the influence of Hollywood films, I focused on The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Titanic, which both utilize her story. These movies and the biographies often were influenced by each other in creating the popular myth of Molly Brown. This popular myth, in turn, affected the preservation of Brown’s Denver homes.
In both exploring the myth and its influence on preservation, it was important to understand how collective memory and history interact. First, it was necessary to explain that history and memory are different. History is focused on establishing facts about the past, often seeking to correct itself while memory is about connecting with the past whether real or perceived1. Using this explanation, I was able to explore how locations can be sites of history and memory.
The connections between history and memory and the interdisciplinary approach to my research provided some useful insights into the life of Margaret Brown. Thanks to cultural representations like that of The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Titanic, Margaret Brown is now remembered as Molly Brown, a flamboyant, uncultured, nouveau riche woman whose life was both eccentric and heroic. While much is based on factual events in her life, much of the memory of Brown is exaggeration built up from early biographies and Hollywood.
This legacy has also been instrumental in preserving Gilded Age architecture and interior design in Denver. Although there are many buildings from the Gilded Age which have been preserved, very few have preserved the interior design of the age. Of the few that have, many are being used for other purposes such as event centers or bed and breakfasts, due to financial needs. The two Denver homes of Molly Brown have are some of the few that have been preserved over time with both of them utilizing the legacy of Molly Brown as opposed to the historical figure of Margaret Brown. However, once tourists and other fans have been drawn to the buildings, both organizations work hard to present a historical portrayal of the life and homes of Margaret Brown. In so doing, the memory, though filled with factual errors, helps to preserve historic buildings and the historic significance of Margaret Brown.
The preservation of urban architecture, while important, is especially challenging since it is challenging to find a balance between preservation and renewal. Architectural structures especially require a lot of money to maintain their condition. As I experienced in Denver, many urban centers are able to preserve some homes, even residential districts, but such locations still require a lot of money to maintain the homes and many are changed to fulfill other purposes. As expressed, the legacy of Margaret Brown provided a way for some of Denver’s homes to maintain both the outside appearance as well as time period specific interior design.
By understanding the value of cultural memory in historic preservation, many more architectural structures, especially homes, can be preserved by maximizing the cultural interest. In so doing, a greater amount of homes can be preserved, providing more examples of different time periods in many locations.
- Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26 (1989): 7-24. JSTOR. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.