Reflections on a Visit to the ACME Furniture Collection

DAVIS BUTNER (MArch I ’19)

I’ll be the first to admit: the experience of visiting Rob Greenberg’s comprehensive collection of New Haven artifacts and witnessing the series of events that played out there before us as Mr. Greenberg was handed an eviction notice by a New Haven Marshall rocked me to my core and raised a number of poignant questions and concerns.

First off, while I’ve never seen an eviction notice delivered before, I can only imagine that Mr. Greenberg’s demonstration of self-composure and gracious civility in handling the situation in such a public setting was in itself deserving of an Academy Award. Given the pressures he faces as an independent business owner, not to mention the added strain of an internal familial dispute over the future prospects and/or value of a 3rd generation family-owned institution, I can only fathom the deep-seated conviction to his family’s heritage that he holds fast to. The lone crusader in a downhill battle to preserve and restore against all odds, Greenberg’s situation seems like the live re-adaptation of an all-too-familiar American plotline.

Reflecting on the size, complexity, value, and future potential of Mr. Greenberg’s archaeological opus in turn raises two critical concerns:

  1. What is the value of heritage on the scale of the city and what is its significance to architectural design?
    It seems paradoxical that a local figure in historic preservation as notable as Mr. Greenberg would find himself threatened by the current climate of a real estate market, which over the last decade has begun to value historic preservation as a central factor to the development of ‘identity’ and ‘place’ within successful architecture.
  1. Can ‘Heritage’ be valued or commoditized?
    This may be an open ended question, but I can’t help but relate with anecdotes on a personal and recently professional level.  For one, even my own family has struggled to find value in the preservation of artifacts after selling off a fourth generation family-run wholesale foods company. One could say that these labels lost all value after the brand was absorbed by a larger corporation, and yet to our family these items were instantly priceless. I’ve encountered a similar re-valuing of heritage on an urban scale this past year when working to design a mixed-use urban redevelopment in Atlanta on the brownfield site of a since-demolished historic steel mill.  In a sense, the city of Atlanta was resurrecting a once-erased urban infrastructural heritage for the sake of inventing a sense of ‘place’ and ‘historic character’ virtually from scratch. There was even talk of programming a museum of Atlanta Industrial History within the complex as a testimony to the city’s industrial heritage evoked by the design.

In considering my exposure to both sides to the equation in questioning the representational, cultural, commercial, and financial worth of ‘heritage’ in relation to Mr. Greenberg’s present situation, I can’t help but turn to the plot of Arthur Miller’s “The Price.”  A play eerily reflective of the current condition of New Haven’s ACME Furniture, one quote in particular resonates strongly as a cautionary theatrical relic of advice.  “Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value.”