An Old House on a Hill: Continuity and Change in History and the Future

Last week I was on a teaching assignment in Tarrytown, New York, a historic and beautiful area just north of Manhattan on the Hudson River. While there I visited the Lyndhurst Mansion estate. Designed in 1838 by Alexander Jackson Davis in an American Gothic style, the first owner was a former New York City mayor.

The house, with a central tower resembling a castle rampart, then changed hands from the first owner (the Pauldings) to the George Merritt family and finally to the famous (perhaps infamous) railroad tycoon and “robber baron” Jay Gould. After short residences for the first two families, the Goulds had the estate for over 80 years until it passed in 1961 to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Why was I interested in this mansion? Well, the obvious historical nature of it for the whole Hudson River area. But also I must confess a quirky interest in it when I found out that Lyndhurst was the location of filming for the 1970 movie “House of Dark Shadows”. Dark Shadows was on US daily television from 1966-1971   and had a strong following, including me, during some of that time. I would rush home from school every day to watch it at 4 pm. This year is the 50th anniversary of the TV show starting, and just three weeks before I was there was the celebration with some of the surviving cast present.

But as I was on a tour of the house, the guide shared that over the 123 year history, owned by just the three families, very little had changed. Of course each family wanted to change certain styles and furnishings. Some structural additions had been made. But overall quite little change and more continuity.

The struggle between how much continuity and how much change in a nation or family has gone on all through history. Revolutions happen promising cataclysmic change, only to revert to a status quo later. Elites are overthrown only to see the new ruling group become the new elite. Right now the various political parties in the US promise change, yet actually in reality each has its own strong areas of continuity and lust for power.

The Lyndhurst mansion experienced a strong, stable continuity over a long period. Yet changes were able to be made with that continued foundation in place. Both continuity and change are important for all of us as people as well as for nations. Which party in the US election offers the most continuity? Which the most change?

One of the important roles of writing history is to see and record patterns of continuity as well as moments and eras of change. Presently in global history I believe we are at a new beginning of a period of change. This change involves a shift back (or forward) to a similar dynamic as before 1500, when Western colonial powers began to rule in vast parts of Africa and Asia. The rise of Asia and Africa again is a pattern of global change. Yet it is happening in a continuity over many centuries.

Don’t look for sudden changes the next 100 years. The shifts will happen slowly with much continuity, but it will still be change eventually visible to all. None of us can fully predict those changes, but we can work to not be afraid of them or try to block them.What long term changes do you see? Where do you see continuity?

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