Thursday, April 21, 2011

ENOUGH! or...The High Price of False Progress.

While I've certainly had other things on my mind this week, the one image I can't shake loose is that of the so-called Gatsby House (Lands End, properly) being razed on Long Island. If you haven't seen the footage or read the article, here it is... CBS Sunday Morning's "The end of an era for the "Gatsby House." Beyond this single house, though, what does this say about us? About how shabbily we often treat our landmarks and important buildings? We're paying a tremendously high price for what often is the antithesis of progress.

The old Mount Vernon-esque pool houses at Soldier's Field in Rochester. RAZED. 
I'm basically a bleeding heart preservationist at my core and waste of this nature is painful for me to watch. Honestly, I've fought against this kind of thoughtless destruction since before I was even a teenager and it never gets any easier and it seems that so often we fight the same fight over and over. From a seemingly innocent zoning change to barrages of development proposals, it's a street-fight waged daily all over the country.

The former Chateau theatre, now a Barnes & Noble in Rochester. SAVED. 
As I look back over the preservation battles in which I've participated--as well as those I've been on the periphery of--it always seems to come down to money and more often than not, greedy and/or unprincipled land developers. It is seldom about what is actually best for the community, what is best for the landmark or historic structure, but rather about how much more money is to be made by simply knocking down a structure rather than spending any amount of time finding creative and workable outcomes that benefit everyone. Wanton destruction for the sole purpose of lining someone's pockets infuriates me. And when I hear the disingenuous strains of "I'm so sorry this had to happen" spilling from the mouth of a land speculator, my blood absolutely boils...because it so rarely HAS to actually happen.

Why tear down a well-constructed and usable building to quickly slap up one more ubiquitous strip mall? I mean really...why? If the money is to be spent anyway--to tear down and then put up new construction--why not explore and pursue a retrofit or restoration of the extant structure instead? It typically fits better within the character of the neighborhood, to be sure, and still provides numerous construction jobs. And lack of commercial real estate can hardly be raised as a serious issue. Most every road I travel these days has empty storefront upon empty storefront staring out from ugly and nameless plazas and centers with FOR RENT signs plastered all over the windows. It's one of the worst symptoms of sprawl, this proliferation of quickie, unattractive, and often disposable architecture that seems to have invaded almost every corner of the country. If this is allowed to continue, and continue virtually unchecked, we will be a country with far too little left of our architectural past.

It's certainly true that when a building has been abandoned for a long time, either through a campaign of managed neglect or by bad luck and ownership problems, it can be expensive and even almost impossible to restore it, but those cases are fewer and farther between than we're asked to believe. And I don't advocate preservation merely for its own sake or laudatory back-slapping, but some buildings are part of the fabric of a community, others embody an era or bygone way of life and sometimes they need a little TLC in order to rejoin the modern world and resume their rightful place as an integral part of a neighborhood.

And isn't it ironic--and tragic, really--that most of the time people in this country would rather build a replica of something than spend the time, energy, and money to restore the original. And why stop at a replica, if we can build a theme park around it, even better. That way no one has to deal with all the challenges that  are part-and-parcel of caring for older structures. There are, after all, often stockholders who expect a return on their investment and if an extra nickel or dime can be wrung out for them, then what's the harm of razing a building with character, one that is well-built, and putting up an eyesore in its stead? Do I sound bitter? I am. I am bitter and angry at how readily we disregard the importance of our built heritage.

Now and then, someone has to stand up and say ENOUGH. Sometimes it can't be only about the $money$--what is best for the city, community, next generation and history of a place all have to be taken into consideration and the right thing has to be done. Don't we owe both our ancestors and our children at least that?

For a much more level headed take, my friend, Pat Murkland, writes beautifully about a lost landmark in her community here...

With that, I cede my soapbox...for the time being. (And #Go HABS Go)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jailed! And other Thursday morning adventures...

I spent a good amount of my morning in the local jail--in the slammer, the pokey, gaol, the cooler, doin' time--and I enjoyed every minute of it. Sadly, there's no daring tale of escape and I can't even claim that I waved my favorite Liberty scarf out of a barred window to attract a rescuer.

The old Danbury jail
I was, this morning, while checking out a minor (and wholly unexpected) holy grail for my research, presented with the opportunity to spend some time in the old Danbury jail. A building I'd driven by umpteen times, I never expected I'd get to actually see the interior. They're doing a lot of work and it will, I think, house the local WIC program, but it was still pretty fabulous to see the interior details up close and personal. There are many layers of paint over the beautiful mouldings and some of the once elegant hardwood floors show their age, but what a great building it is and I was thrilled to be able to see that they'll really be making good use of it. The elegant long windows--even those that are still barred--let in a surprising amount of light and made the room we were working in quite sunny. Oh, and while I didn't see any of the men's area, I did peek into the eerie bricked and barred walls of the women's cells--not somewhere you'd want to spend any time. Typically not someplace you want to start your day, but in this case it was far too much fun! 

And my little photographic grail? Even better than I'd allowed myself to hope for. The photo taken with my BlackBerry can't possibly do the real image justice, but it gives you a good idea. Photo is ca.1899 of the old Gregory place, located in Brookfield, CT, just over the Danbury border. The structure itself is ca.1760, but it looks fabulous for being more than 130 years old back in 1899, don't you think? And notice the 12 over 12 windows--wonderful.

The house on the old Gregory place, ca1899. 

I also wanted to give a little plug for the folks at the Danbury Museum and Historical Society. They've been beyond swell and helpful. Danbury was, of course, the hat mecca of the US for many years and this summer DMHS will be showcasing some really incredible hats, fascinators and beyond. I was lucky enough to catch a sneak preview of some of the exhibit and could've spent a day just looking at all the styles on offer--from the most delicate of hats to sturdy quilted velvet bonnets--spanning much of the long history of the millinery trade. The grand opening of the Magnificent Millinery exhibit is in June, plan to stop in if you're in the area! Info:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

All in Good Time

NC Wyeth's title page illustration from The Boy's King Arthur

After a weekend where I just couldn’t make the words fit and every piece I started was unfinishable--not to mention unreadable--what a pleasure it was to break out of my slump today. Now if my beloved Red Sox could do the same…**deep sigh**

As is well documented here, I love the digging and research involved in a good story. I could sit (and let’s be honest, I have done) locked up in an archive with old newspapers, documents and books and be completely happy. While I’ll admit to a wandering eye whilst browsing old newspapers in particular, I’m very content settling into the written records of our collected past. (I am slightly less inclined towards actual person-to-person interviews, but I'm getting over that!) Happily, today's breakthrough was the result not of my nose being buried in a bound volume of land use documents or property transactions, but rather because of a delightful conversation I had over the telephone.

It should be noted here that I’m not generally a big fan of the phone these days, I’d rather take care of most of my work via email, especially when it comes to people whom I don’t know all that well. Email is efficient and you needn’t worry about catching someone at a bad time or sounding over/under enthusiastic--business can be taken care of and both parties get their needs and positions heard.

To every rule or preference, though, there is an exception. In my previous blog entry I wrote about finding a relative of an artist I’d been researching, George E. Porter. The artist’s niece, who has been wonderfully helpful, was kind enough to also put me in touch with his widow who lives in Pennsylvania.

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to have two productive and utterly enjoyable discussions with this witty and charming woman. She’s lived an incredibly interesting life in her own right and her pride in her late husband’s art is evident as she speaks of his work, commissions, and catalogue. During our chat today we discussed the Society of Illustrators which is located on E 63rd Street in New York City. I shared with her that I’ve grown up with a father who has always had the utmost respect for illustrators, especially when it came to those featured in his favorite childhood books--artists like Howard Pyle and NC Wyeth--and how he’d shared that with me. (I’m one of those people who will argue passionately for holding illustrators and commercial artists in high esteem.) As we spoke, I told her I’d not been in the Society’s museum (though I’d lived on E 63rd Street for a time and tried in vain to attend an exhibit there once) but I’d admired many of its artists. She proceeded to tell me that an original oil painting that George Porter had done hung (and maybe still hangs) in one of the lobbies. I literally laughed out loud at the possible what ifs.

If I had made it to that show I’d missed at the Society in the late 90s, and seen the Porter painting, would I have made the connection? I’d like to think I would have, and that maybe I’d have pulled a staffer aside and found out more information on him then rather than now. His work is compelling and I imagine I’d have been naturally drawn to it, but who can say?

Silly to look back, of course, at roads not taken and connections missed, but it’s amusing to think of the random possibilities--the hits and misses--that we encounter on a daily basis. The truth is that even if I had touched all those bases back then, I wouldn’t have been motivated to write about it. I was too busy finessing and rearranging the words of others to even consider much of my own work at that time, so maybe, on occasion, we’re also given the chance to connect the right dots at the right time--we get the gifts when we’re ready to receive and make the best use of them.

I’m not exactly sure where all this dot connecting will lead, but I am LOVING the journey thus far. What I do know is that I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to correspond with and speak to people who knew and loved George E. Porter--and his work, obviously--and are willing to share that with me. I have a lunch date for when I next find myself in the area of West Chester, Pennsylvania--one appointment I’m very much looking forward to keeping.