Theses Master's

Design as a Vehicle of Memory at Historic Sites: the Case of the Summit Tunnels at Donner Pass

Kumaradjaja, Chris

This thesis explores the role in which design can play in the ultimate goal of serving places of memory. The place of memory explored in the thesis is the Summit Tunnels at Donner Pass. One hundred fifty years ago, my great-great-grandfather immigrated to America and built a section of railroad at Donner Pass, California. This section includes tunnels and retaining walls. This infrastructure is one of the most important sites in American history, as it spurred industrialization, economic development, and expansion of the American West. In the site’s present state, graffiti is covering the retaining wall known as “China Wall,” and concrete snowsheds are obscuring the original tunnels that my own ancestor risked life and limb blasting. This site is under threat.

This design challenge is a curatorial one; currently, artifacts, oral histories, historical and contemporary perspectives, emotions, and explorations of identity serve as building blocks for interpretation on this site. The role of the designer is to identify values to tackle the curatorial challenge of telling a history, raising awareness, and eliciting memory. The masterful work present at the site needs interpretation and awareness. Combining design methodologies applied to other sites, or even other industries, with the challenge presented at Donner Pass would be the crux of my thesis. This thesis outlines and describes the values of the site, its contentions, and express my interpretation process. The Summit Tunnels is a popular area sorely in need of interpretation. As a Chinese-American historical site, it has been subject to neglect and vandalism, even though there are engineering miracles and the earliest site where Asian immigration has left its mark.

If one goes to the sites that were most structurally daring and most perilous to construct today, there is virtually no commemoration or acknowledgment of the toil that went into them. One such site is the Summit Tunnels at Donner Pass, the railroad's highest point. This thesis combines narrative details and offers recommendations for spatializing the narrative on the site. In collecting narratives that occurred on this threatened historic site, the thesis will attempt to establish a methodology that can be applied to other threatened historic sites.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Historic Preservation
Thesis Advisors
Otero-Pailos, Jorge
M. S., Columbia University
Published Here
May 29, 2024