Place as Memory

Last week I was in the city all day and walked past the Plaza several times. The castle-like crenelations are a familiar landmark in a landscape perpetually reproduced around the world, and unlike many other buildings, the interior is just as familiar. It seems that, more than almost any other building in New York, the Plaza has special meaning for children–just look at Eloise and Home Alone 2.

As I walked past the Plaza, I found myself thinking about place as memory. The Plaza is the site of many physical memories–afternoon tea in the Palm Court; visiting the hotel with my mother, who supervised the redesign of the hotel in the 1980s; walking by as an adult. But there’s also the overlap of memories in the cultural consciousness–Home Alone 2, Eloise, North by Northwest, and so on.

It’s strange to think how a place can hold so much–every person that you’ve been, parts of your life that you hardly remember–and hold that for others, too. After all, the Plaza is a landmark. It holds stories, so many stories, within its walls. It holds memories of my mother–my mother as my mother, and before she was my mother, too. She had been in every single room of the hotel–every attic, every basement, every guest room and kitchen and public space. It’s hard to believe that she’s gone when the hotel is still there–admittedly having been through many iterations since she was there–and her work is immortalized in film.

The Plaza isn’t even the place I would say holds the most, or the most significant memories for me, but it’s the one I was thinking of last week when I walked through the city–the strange combination of public and private memory, of physical and virtual memory.

Have you had that experience, and if so, which place holds those memories for you?

7 thoughts on “Place as Memory

  1. I can’t think of a place like that at the moment, but especially loved this post. 💙💙💙

  2. I *LOVE* this concept and think about it constantly. I’m an architectural historian and can never escape the feeling of embodied memory of all the people who’ve ever experienced a particular space and will experience it in the future! I feel this personally in my college town of St Andrews, Scotland. A medieval town with one of the oldest universities in Europe, it’s hard to walk the streets without feeling the historical events that shaped the town, and personal events that shaped me. When I am back there with old college friends, we always end up doing what we call a “personal history walking tour” where we informally stroll around town with a coffee and dish on what happened in the flat above the grocery store, the academic building where we bombed a test, or the night someone broke up with their boyfriend in the yard of this or that building, etc. Those old stones have overheard so much, both on a grand scale of historic events and the intimate scale of shared moments. I wish I could just wring the stories out of the stone like water from a sponge!

    What a beautiful and special way to remember your mother. The intersection of place and memory is such a bittersweet thing.

    1. Mel, I love that so much! I haven’t been to St. Andrews but I loved Edinburgh when I visited a few years ago. There is so much history and it’s so amazing to think about all the people who have walked the same steps!

  3. This insightful and moving post was a pleasure to read. I’ve always loved the Plaza hotel and had the good fortune to stay there a few times on family trips as a kid. The fact that your mom played such a role in its history must make the place as much a personal and family treasure as it is a historic and architectural gem in the city.
    That’s another thing I miss about New York: The special and personal and sometimes “only-in-New-York” experiences I had in places around the city, landmark places and mundane places, that multitudes of other people also had such meaningful experiences in. The memories that come from those places are part of the life and energy of the city.

    1. Thank you so much! That is good fortune indeed. It is a splendid hotel and I love having a connection to it. New York is truly special in that way–the monuments become almost familiar because they are just a part of the background, and not inaccessible.

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