The Plains States and America’s Futurernby Anthony HarriganrnThe halls and vast columned spaces of the St. Scholasticarnconvent in Atchison, Kansas, are dark and empty now.rnThe sisters who filled these buildings with busy religious life forrnseveral generations are dead or departed into the secular worldrnwith the virtual demise of convent life as a result of Vatican II.rnI talk quietly in a corner of the chapel with an aged nun whornremains true to her vows and who, after 60 years as a religious,rnis dutiful, obedient, and devoted. The world is full of disappearingrnor vanished eras, and the ordered life of a large convent,rngrounded in the ancient ways of Christendom, is only one ofrnmam forms of existence that have been damaged by time’s relentlessrnflood.rnThe end is all around us in life, as small and large epochs arerneclipsed. In small towns and great cities entire communities liernasleep in graveyards, marked only bv weathering letters onrnmarble markers. l,ife that is so vivid for a little while quickly becomesrnlost from sight. With each generation there is a new, albeitrnephemeral phase of modernity, which in time fades awav.rnCixilized life is periodic in character. In Atchison, London,rnNew York, Mexico City, or wherever, the vibrant structures ofrna decade, generation, or century soon become skeletons. Entirerneras, like individuals, disappear unless uncovered andrnbrought to life by scholars, writers, and moralists.rnOnly in the historical mind’s eye do the human actors andrnpatterns of a past time live in glowing detail. Fragments survive,rnof course, and this is good. French architect Lc Corbusier,rnwriting in When the Cathedrals were White, said that “therernAnthony Harrigan is a former president of the U.S. Businessrnand Industrial Council and a research fellow of the NationalrnHumanities Institute in Washington, D.C.rnare living pasts and dead pasts. Some parts are the liveliest instigatorsrnof the present and the best springboards into the future.”rnBut the corpus of an era, the rich fabric of another age,rnis usually lost from sight. The obliteration of a world is a cruelrnprocess because so much human energy, imagination, belief,rnand effort go into the construction of anv era, no matter howrnbrief. To have a generation’s work covered over so quicklyrnmakes life itself seem terrifyingly transient, and one’s ownrntime seems dangerouslv imperiled even as one lives it. Hencernthe desire on the part of archaeologists to preserve or recoverrnpieces of the fabric of an earlier life, whether public buildingsrnor places of worship. These searchers after a buried past delightrnin comprehending the customs, mores, language, pleasures,rnsorrows, and dreams of people whose epoch has ended. America,rndespite its brief history, has seen an extraordinary numberrnof distinct eras, and despite the fact that America is the land ofrnthe bulldozer, where “progress” has been worshiped and “urbanrnrenewal” has meant the obliteration of handsome, orderedrncommunities, vestiges of other eras remain and are increasinglyrncherished.rnOne such place where a portion of the past survives, a placernoff the beaten track of contemporary life, is Atchison, Kansas.rnHigh on a bluff above the Missouri River stands a remarkablerncollection of homes built by railroad executives, real estaternbarons, and prominent merchants in the late 19th century.rnAmelia Farhart, the pioneer aviatrix, grew up in one of the oldestrnhomes here, a Browning cottage built in 1850. Nearby arernnumerous opulent mansions built in the 1870’s and 1890’s.rnThe stained glass windows, parquet floors, gaslights, Romanesquerncolumns, towers, and turrets testify to the imaginationrnand inventiveness of the original owners who commis-rnDECEMBER 1993/21rnrnrn