Time Capsules: Perfectly Preserved Sites from American History
Sometimes we're lucky enough to recognize greatness while it's still among us. And when we do, if we're really fortunate, we're also wise enough to preserve history while it's still considered the present. The American travel landscape is scattered with such shrines that were kept untouched so that we can better understand yesterday by seeing it halted. These tourist sites (like Thomas Edison's lab, pictured), which are scattered around the nation, are astounding time capsules of those who came before us. Here you can experience places exactly the way great people did—their pencils still on their desks, notes unfinished, fingerprints left behind—enshrined for as long as we have the sense to protect them.
Lorraine Motel Room 306, Memphis
In 1942, Walter Bailey bought an aging Memphis hotel, named it the Lorraine partly after his wife Loree, and proudly updated it to a modern motel. In a town notorious for segregated lodging, Bailey welcomed jazz musicians and even Dr. Martin Luther King as regular guests. In April of 1968, King came to town to support a garbage workers' strike, sharing room 306 with his closest adviser, Ralph Abernathy. When they stepped onto the balcony to chat with some colleagues in the parking lot, King was killed by a shot in the neck from a distance. As Loree Bailey heard the shot, she had a stroke and died within a week, and the Lorraine Motel became an icon of national shame. Walter Bailey responded to his profound loss by standing still; he never rented 306 again, even as the motel slid into shabbiness and he fell behind on expenses. The Lorraine was saved from demolition at auction (partly funded by the same sanitation workers King had come to assist), and in 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum was carefully built around the historic room. Now you can now look into this sacred spot of American social history from behind plate glass.
Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina
The 250-room Biltmore Estate mansion was opened in 1895 by George Vanderbilt, who died young in 1914. Family left it untouched, per George's explicit preservationist wishes, and lived there until 1956, when what was once the largest home in America was declared a museum. On display: old-fashioned vacuum cleaners, era kitchen products, electric works from the dawn of domestic power. You'll also find this abandoned indoor pool lined with tile arches laid by Raphael Guastavino, who also decorated the New York City subway, Boston Public Library, and Grand Central Terminal before dying in 1908. Now full-time curators make sure the house and grounds (designed by Frederick Law Olmsted) are kept as accurate as possible.
Grant Cottage State Historic Site, Wilton, New York
In the summer of 1885, Ulysses S. Grant, victorious Civil War general and former U.S. president, was in a race against time. He was dying of throat cancer, and fast. Grant was a phenomenal general but not a good president and an even worse businessman, and financial scandals and world tours had left him broke. To avoid leaving his wife Julia penniless—and to cement his legacy before his many detractors could do it for him—he retreated to this borrowed cottage in the Adirondacks to hastily dictate his autobiography before the end came. Soon, he couldn't even speak to his secretary and he resorted to scribbling down notes as the tumor gradually strangled him. His friend Mark Twain visited him here and ultimately published the memoir to enormous success. When Grant died it shook the country—his funeral in New York City attracted a million spectators and the procession stretched for 7 miles. The cottage is just how he left it—down to the clock stopped at 8:08am and the floral palls from that epic funeral that now stand, brown and dry, as a creepy echo of intense national mourning.
César E. Chávez National Monument, Keene, California
A hero to the underclass of immigrants that has long been abused by American business interests, Chávez led his life-changing efforts in farm worker empowerment from this complex 30 miles southeast of Bakersfield. He was buried with full military honors on the grounds in 1993, but his workspace still feels alive with the political tension and high stakes that redeemed countless lives and delivered them the American Dream. The National Park Service, which took control of the space in 2012, is developing the complex into a full-fledged historic site, but its chief priority is preserving Chávez's nerve center precisely as he left it.
Merchant's House Museum, New York City
Everything you see in this prototypical Manhattan townhouse, from furniture to personal possessions, is exactly as it was in 1832—nothing is reconstructed or faked. How? This way: A woman who was born in the home left everything unchanged until her death in the 1930s, when she bequeathed the property to an organization that preserved it as is. Even the delicate original 1832 ornamental plaster is, miraculously, still in place. Sadly, the Merchant's House is under threat by nearby development.
F.D. Roosevelt State Park, Little White House, Warm Springs, Georgia
Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio and lost the ability to walk well after he found success as a politician. It devastated him. But in 1924, he discovered that the therapeutic waters at a resort in Warm Springs, Georgia, helped him partially regain the use of his legs. He built a modest, 700-square-foot vacation residence, now dubbed the Little White House, and he would frequently retreat there to take the waters with fellow sufferers of the disease. On April 12, 1945, just back from a crucial summit with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta, an ailing F.D.R. was sitting for a portrait by artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff when he suffered a massive stroke. He died two hours later in the bedroom nearby. The pools are still in use for medical therapies, and the unfinished portrait remains, too. You can even still see the depression he left in the chair he sat in. (One might even call it great.) Four months later, his successor, Harry S Truman, decided to deploy the atomic bomb on the Japanese. Who can say how history would have been different had F.D.R. not died here?
Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, New Jersey
When Edison died in 1931, his family closed the cover on his roll-top desk and locked it tight. It was only reopened in 1947, on what would have been his 100th birthday, and is protected now by a plastic dome—you can see still cubbies crammed with letters, his inkwell, and his half-smoked cigars just waiting for a Jurassic Park-style resurrection via the DNA in his saliva. Edison's sprawling facility, where his workers did the work that he often got the credit for, was pretty much left to decay as well. Labs with stilll-full beakers, chemical-crusted sinks, mills propelled by long leather straps—it's all intact. The only thing that has changed is perhaps the most ironic: The light bulbs overhead are no longer good old Edison bulbs. They're CFLs.
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Washington, D.C.
Upon the 1895 death of this brilliant former slave, orator, and political powerhouse, his second wife (Helen Pitts Douglass, a white woman who devoted herself to memorializing his legacy) froze their house upon a hill in the Anacostia district. Letters, library, bed, eyeglasses, historical busts, sheets—all obsessively and permanently kept in place. This is what his study looked like in 1962, as the civil rights movement raged outside its walls. Thanks to the National Park Service, it looks precisely the same now.
Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, Flat Rock, North Carolina
As with Douglass, people knew what they had in the poet Sandburg, so when he left us in 1967, they threw a rope around his house and kept everything just as it was. Every single thing, it seems, remains in place. Rooms full of books stuffed with bookmarks (a sample of titles illustrate his curiosity: Minstreslsy, Kept Woman, and The Book of Mormon), awards, furniture, piles of Life and Look magazines with the address stickers still on, bedroom slippers, an era box of Spic N Span waiting forever in the laundry room. It's as if the sage has just stepped out for a minute to fetch another Pulitzer Prize. Even if you care nothing for poetry, the Carl Sandburg Home is a perfect transportation vehicle to the domestic idyll of the 1960s.
Greensboro Sit-In Lunch Counter, North Carolina
The L-shaped Woolworth's lunch counter where the Sit-In Movement was born over six agonizing months in 1960 remained in daily use for another 30 years—in retrospect, that was an act of defiance from the opposing side. But when that ended in 1993, the counter was retained (minus a few U-shaped extensions that had been added to increase capacity after the milestone) as a shrine. You'll find pieces of such lunch counters in a few places in America—the Smithsonian has a four-seat section taken from here—but few are in their original locations, like this one is, and besides, this is where it all began. The International Civil Rights Center & Museum opened in the old Woolworth's store at a cost of $23 million in 2010, and this room is its heart.
Alcatraz Island, San Francisco
They unlocked the doors and threw away the key. Unknown to many, San Francisco's forbidding Alcatraz Island has a lot more past than prisoners. Its strategic importance goes back to its days as a fortress during tense pre-Civil War days. Each successive generation has built on top of the last one's buildings, leaving a pile of ghostly layers. Only in 1934 was the notorious prison opened, and even that only lasted a few decades before the island was occupied by armed Native American protesters to begin a new chapter in history. Today's Alcatraz is maintained by the National Parks, which as a matter of course decrees that nothing gets destroyed or altered. The ruins of time are visible all around (although some are only accessible by guided tour). That means prison cells that were left just exactly as the last inmates vacated them, protest graffiti from 1970, and brick catacombs of 150-year-old military tunnels that still smell like the oil that was stored in them in the late 19th century.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, near Wall, South Dakota
At the height of the Cold War, more than 1,000 Minuteman missiles were stashed in buried silos across the United States, and for every 10 of them, there was a Launch Command Center where teams would monitor classified frequencies and sit ready to obliterate the enemy at a moment's notice. On a ranger tour, you can now enter this time capsule housed 80 feet underground in an impenetrable bunker. Not only the equipment remained untouched after its deactivation in the mid '90s. The real enemy, it turned out, was boredom, so you'll also still find a copy of the oh-so-'80s Byte Magazine in the unrelentingly beige-and-pink staff lounge upstairs, a Mr. Coffee in the kitchen, yellowing copies of Reader's Digest in the guard room—and a hand-painted mock Domino's Pizza ad reading "World-Wide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less Or Your Next One is Free." What a relief that we live in an age when nuclear weapons are no longer a concern and Russia is no longer out to get us.
Gold was discovered in Bodie, 8,000 feet up in the eastern Sierra Nevadas, just before the Civil War broke out. By the 1870s, it was a boom town of 10,000 people; by 1915, it was over. But because Bodie was so hard to reach, when people moved out, they tended to leave everything behind—it was too expensive to haul their stuff over miles of difficult mountain trails. What they abandoned is now the perfect ghost town, which California State Parks has maintained in an arrested state since 1962, not disturbing a thing and intervening only when a roof or wall threatens to cave in. Winter-battered Bodie, still found at the end of 13 miles of unpaved road in the thin mountain air, is the pinnacle of historic authenticity. Peer into windows and you'll see festering feather beds, wallpaper and curtains rotting in sheets, and, in this haunting (and, many say, haunted) saloon, a roulette wheel—including betting chips—caked with several lifetimes' worth of dust. You won't find cheesy souvenir shops or staged shootouts in the streets, just decay and the actual echoes of the Old West.