Over the past almost four years, one historic building has been an obsession: the Tangier American Legation. My wife and I live there, and spend our working days and weekends there. Even during trips away from Morocco, like now, I find myself writing about it.
Its story is one that I never tire of telling: America's first diplomatic property, which happens to be on the African continent, at the Western edge of the Arab world, and in a country which practices a tolerant interpretation of Islam. It's a big story, and it began in 1777. And it's why the Tangier American Legation is the only US National Historic Landmark located in a foreign country.
Yesterday I received a message in my email inbox from the Washington-based private American heritage group, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, about another endangered edifice:
Last week, we shared the great news that the Astrodome was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The designation speaks volumes about the Dome’s significance — but it does not protect it from demolition.
We need your help to keep the iconic stadium standing. So, we’re asking [readers to contact local authorities in Houston]. It’s one click, one minute, one action that can make a world of difference for this striking part of America’s cultural history.
I have nothing against football, and I don't begrudge adding to the National Register of Historic Places a 1965 building that gave the world Astroturf® and other icons of commercial culture.
But in the struggle to keep historic buildings not only standing but thriving, we need perhaps a bit of prioritization. I have no dog in the fight over the Astrodome. But I do know this: the Legation, with its door open to showcase more than two centuries of American engagement with Morocco, is a powerful symbol at a time when American diplomacy is increasingly required to wall itself behind security barriers.
The Tangier American Legation deserves preservation, yes. Public money for a government-owned building, yes, and private philanthropy too.
But it also deserves publicity, getting coverage for a story that begins with an 18th century Sultan reaching out to a new country fighting its Revolution. And a Sultan who gives the US a building in the twisting streets of Tangier's medina, when American diplomacy was still exclusively in temporary rental quarters everywhere else.
And now, permit me a brief digression into the world of film review.
In Washington for meetings (and my ceaseless lobbying-for-the-Legation), we took a break to see George Clooney's directorial effort, The Monuments Men. Having read Robert Edsel's excellent book about Allied soldiers and civilians who risked their lives to save and retrieve European art stolen on a massive scale by the Nazis, I looked forward to seeing the film treatment. Luckily, I hadn't read Philip Kennicott's Washington Post review, or I might have stayed home. The film does have some redeeming qualities, and the rough outlines of the historical story are there. Roughly.
Unfortunately, I have to report that the film is to World War II art rescue what The Wind and the Lion is to the 1904 Perdicaris kidnapping in Tangier that triggered Teddy Roosevelt's gunboat diplomacy. In other words: history, mangled. Both cases involve Hollywood casting a beautiful blond actress where none existed in the historical incident: Cate Blanchett's "Claire Simone," despite the little wire-rim glasses, is still a glamorous Parisienne. The real-life Rose Valland, who didn't look much like Cate Blanchett but whose efforts to save the masterpieces led her to join the French army and made her France's most decorated woman, is reduced to trying to vamp the Matt Damon character…
Back to our endangered monument, the Tangier American Legation. Endangered? Just check out the structural cracks in the above photo. We're resting on rickety foundations, and though help appears to be on the way to shore up the structure, we will need resources to restore the Maghrebi artisanry that has suffered from years of exposure to shifting foundations, leaking roofs, and extreme humidity.
Want to help? Contributions are always welcome (Download TALIM Fundraiser sheet), and our US-based 501(c)(3) charitable foundation will provide an IRS tax-deduction letter.
Speaking of letters, writing to your Congressional representatives or even to the National Trust would be helpful. We need the recognition in historic preservation circles.
And those of you who are writers and perhaps already know the Legation and its unique place in American history might try your hand at getting our story in the media. No American visitor to Morocco (or for that matter, to southern Spain) should miss seeing the Legation.
We can all be Monuments Men – and women.