Monday, June 15, 2015

MS Monday—PPIE Part 8: The Historic American Buildings Survey and the Panama Canal Zone

The recent and fascinating issue of Boom magazine reminds us that the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE) was a celebration of California’s imperial ambitions in the Pacific, marked by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The tiny Isthmus of Panama—at its narrowest point only 30 miles across—has long been the focus of imperial concern and contestation, beginning in the 16th century and continuing until the present day. Throughout the twentieth century, the United States has maintained an active “interest” in Panamanian affairs, exercising sovereignty over the Panama Canal Zone from 1903 to 1979. Ten years after the abolition of the zone, the U.S. invaded Panama, ousting its president Manuel Noriega.

Fort San Lorenzo, main entrance to the port, by M.E. Beatty, 1957 February, Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) records, MS 3980
Geopolitical struggles over the Isthmus of Panama are nothing new. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the isthmus was a major artery in the flow of wealth from the Americas to the coffers of the Spanish empire. Fort San Lorenzo, pictured above and below, was built by the Spanish at the mouth of the Chagres River to protect the isthmus from the depredations of British privateers like Sir Francis Drake. Surprisingly, the California Historical Society’s collections contain photographs of Fort San Lorenzo—created as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, a program of the National Park Service founded during the Great Depression to employ out-of-work architects, photographers, and draftsmen to document the nation’s threatened architectural heritage. As Fort San Lorenzo was part of the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone, HABS recorders traveled to Panama to document the fort and other Spanish colonial structures in the late 1950s. These photos represent a truly odd confluence of historical forces: Spanish colonialism, the U.S. occupation of Panama, and the New Deal.

Fort San Lorenzo, quarry steps on the fort headland, by M.E. Beatty, 1957 February, Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) records, MS 3980
Fort San Lorenzo, the fort from the bank of the Chagres, by M.E. Beatty, 1957 February, Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) records, MS 3980
Marie Silva
Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian

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