Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Elephant In The Room

In his book City on the Edge (Prometheus Books, 2007), Mark Goldman tells the story of the waning days of the Pan American Exposition of 1901. President McKinley was dead, the Expo was bankrupt and desolate and Buffalonians were, perhaps for the first time in decades, tasting bitter defeat.

Desperate to salvage any remaining patronage, Expo promoters held, on November 1, 1901, a "Buffalo Day" that was intended to rally support for the city and the Expo. Instead, Buffalo Day ended in mayhem, as angry vandals literally tore the house down. Meanwhile, Frank Bostock, the "Animal King" who managed a popular animal exhibit at the Expo, had a disgruntled African elephant on his hands. It seems that "Jumbo", after years of loyal service, first refused to eat and then attacked both Bostock and his elephant keeper. Well, that did it. Bostock, mulling his Jumbo problem, did what any enterprising animal exhibitor would do: he booked Jumbo's live execution. For fifty cents, Bostock guaranteed your satisfaction: "It is likely that Jumbo will be hanged, or choked to death with chains, in which case other elephants will be used." Of course, Expo leaders like John Milburn were appalled: strangle an elephant in front of a live audience? Not in the City of Light! Clearly, electrocution would be more appropriate. And so, reports Goldman, on November 3, 1901, 11,000 people watched Bostock pump 11,000 volts of electricity into Jumbo, the misbehaving African elephant. Perhaps the only saving grace for this horrendous sideshow was that the feisty Jumbo somehow survived the jolt, and even got his old job back.

Beyond the morality tale presented by Jumbo's jump-start, there lies a deeper rub for historic preservationists. I can only imagine the clamor we would make, arms locked defiantly, if someone proposed to demolish an Exposition building that had survived this many years. And yet, what would we preserve in that case? Yes, the coming-out party of an emerging world class city, but also a recreational elephant execution that was attended by 11,000 citizens. But maybe that's the point. When measuring the historic significance of a building, we must take the good with the bad, and hope that the latter, more often than not, is a relic of a bygone age.

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