The Unstuck Generation: Preserving our shot at a future

I could say that the nine months since I last posted to this blog have been the gestational period for a very new life. It’s about time to process this change in a way that might benefit others, as well as my own understanding. 

To begin with, I wrote what follows, a somewhat sentimental plea on behalf of my preservation peers, at the end of June. A few days later, I took a trip to Toronto to celebrate my birthday and interview for a summer position at the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. I ate cake, I interviewed, I answered the phone, I cried, I canceled my bus back to New York. A week later, I was at work. Two months later, I was in a U-Haul, moving for real, and starting a new, long-term job at my dream firm here in the Great White North. I am now exactly where I want to be. But my experience should not negate this post. I got lucky; someone gave me my shot. There should be enough of that luck to go around. 

the Owens-Thomas House and me, instagrammed

“You are all a lost generation.”

Coined by a car mechanic, reported by Gertrude Stein, and published by Ernest Hemingway, this term labeled the youth who entered adulthood while the world entered the Great War. If they survived the fighting, they found themselves disillusioned, distraught, disconnected.

Today, my age group has inherited the honor. Our elders lay it upon us like a shroud, as if it is a fact, as if we have no choice: “You are.”

After the Second World War, Kurt Vonnegut described young postwar bewilderment with an ultimately different declaration: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.” Billy follows the nonlinear path of Slaughterhouse-Five because, again, he has no choice. But Billy is not lost: although he experiences events–birth, death, war, alien abduction–out of chronological order, he stays within the boundaries of his life. He is merely unstuck.

As a recently tassel-wearing, diploma-bearing Master of Historic Preservation, I spend a lot of time thinking about time. I do not always get paid to do this, but I do it anyway.

When we graduated this spring, most of my class was charged with potential energy but without prospects. Some of us live in our parents’ homes, or on friends’ couches. Some of us tend bars, but still attend ceremonies to celebrate the victors in our field. Others stare at windows and wrought-iron railings, and write and write. We pine for the positions our forebears will never abdicate, and then for the chance to do something–anything–to help them, and not starve in the process.

They never told us we would find jobs. They never told us we would not. Now they ask how we are doing, and shrug knowingly. “It’s a difficult time,” they say, “but something will come.”

***

On my recent school-sponsored pilgrimage to the house museums of Savannah, a staircase made me weep. I had climbed to the top of the Owens-Thomas House, where the double-return stair divides in two like a wishbone, then rejoins as a heart pine bridge between front and back landings. Stunned, I stood at the end of that roped-off bridge–crossing the house, like a river of wood and glass–until I had to go back down.

William Jay designed it all in 1816 at twenty-four years old: my age. What have I accomplished in the same amount of time? A laptop full of stories, two degrees, unconquerable student loan debt. Commence weeping for a very different reason.

I entered the next house along with a couple in their fifties. “Sorry,” the tour guide informed them, “your daughter isn’t twelve, is she? Under twelve is free.” I quickly passed him cash and clarified that I was alone.

Behind his back, my would-be parents scoffed. “Twelve! How old are you actually?” I was flattered they thought twelve to be a hilarious underestimate–the average guess is sixteen–and answered them: “Twice that.”

“So is our daughter,” the wife said. “We didn’t bring her because there’s nothing but old buildings on our agenda.”

They were baffled to hear that old buildings are the basis of my fledgling career. Their peers whom I encountered throughout my trip expressed similar surprise. “Old head on a young body,” one woman told me twice, nodding.

For all their good will, they, too, underestimate my generation.

***

My class of preservationists was the largest in decades. And we aren’t the only ones finding comfort in old things. Appreciation of age has even blossomed in popular culture, which has always been symptomatic of underlying forces. At a time of ever-evolving technology, vintage is the equivalent of chic. Hipsterdom thrives on the antique–fashions, furnishings, books, music–or else the fake antique. Instagram, the mobile application that applies filters to photographs to produce vintage effects, recently made headlines when Facebook acquired it for $1 billion. I Instagrammed my photos of Savannah, rendering old buildings older, turning my days to sepia.

More than ever, we are seeking roots within a world in flux, trying to stick ourselves within a chronology that has evicted us. We are looking forward by looking back. This doesn’t have to be a contradiction.

We have seen everything around us collapse: the dot-com bubble, the housing market, the financial system, the Twin Towers, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers–from the United States, from countries far away–many of them our age. We have seen the fall before we had the chance to rise.

And we need a new moniker. We are the unstuck generation. “Lost” implies action: someone lost us, or we lost ourselves. Unsticking requires no attribution, no causation, no blame. It simply is; like Vonnegut’s refrain for Billy Pilgrim, “so it goes.”

When Billy finds himself kidnapped upon the planet of Tralfamadore, he discovers a new perspective on time. “Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim,” one of his captors tells him, “trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.” And yet, the Tralfamadorians view all of these moments–past, present, and future–as coexisting at once: “The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them.”

My generation has this power.

We are posed to see the past and future at once. We see the history of the battered building you might abandon, and, with our own abandon, we are free to see the wonder it might become.

Facing a reality that no one could predict, we must develop new ways to stake our place in it.  We need our predecessors to develop new ways to make that space. We must bridge the gap between past and future, and with your support, we will.

In the meantime, please, don’t give us sorrowful nicknames. Don’t give us pity. Just tell it like it is, and then give us a shot. Who else will inherit the world you are building and rebuilding? Who else will preserve it, when the time comes?

Marathoners, police chases, bats. . . and the Croton Aqueduct

I can’t believe it’s been exactly a year since I uploaded this audio! Last spring, my second semester preservation studio developed an interpretive plan for the Croton Waterworks, a complex system of historic infrastructure that winds from rural towns north of New York City down into the heart of Manhattan. Our team of twelve researched and documented hundreds of structures, studied existing legal protections and threats, and worked with the many stakeholders along the aqueduct’s path to design signage and collaborate on a comprehensive plan for conveying the often-ignored system’s history and significance to varied audiences.

The Croton Waterworks’ century-and-a-half and forty-one miles have left a trail of not only structures but also stories. Of the many pleasures I experienced in working on the project, my favorite was the privilege to hear and record longtime Westchester residents as they reminisced and discussed their personal views of the aqueduct’s significance. Remnants of the system’s conclusion in Manhattan are quiet: fragments of the Murray Hill Reservoir lie generally unvisited in the New York Public Library, and it is easy to walk past a Croton gatehouse and, without knowing its significance, perceive it as simply one more handsome structure fading into the crowded city’s built landscape. For residents of Westchester County, where the system originates, the aqueduct has a louder presence. We knew that our interpretation would be incomplete without consulting residents, so I took the train up to Westchester to conduct mini-oral histories in Croton and Ossining, two towns where the Waterworks are integrated into everyday life.

One of my gracious subjects was Captain Scott Craven of the Ossining Police Force, who shared his memories of growing up alongside the aqueduct and explained how the police make use of the Croton structures in unexpected ways. My afternoon ended with a tour of the police station, a chat with the Chief of Police and other officers about their own memories of the Aqueduct, and even an escort back to the train station (which I’m pleased to say has been my only experience in a police car). I left Westchester assured that preservation is not only about buildings; it is also very much about people.

I’ll post more Croton oral history clips in the coming weeks; for now, enjoy the tales of Captain Scott!

Learn more about the Aqueduct and our project, and check out the finished product.

“I would not be a biographer for all the tea in China.”

In progress (with chianti)

Bound (and determined)

Tomorrow, I don my preservationist armor and go to the defense of my master’s thesis, that tome which has kept me constant company — and often, kept me from this blog — over the past seven months. Currently titled “Concealed Certainty and Undeniable Conjecture: Placing Marginalized Heritage,” it explores the challenges of interpreting sites related to under-documented community heritage. I suppose I could publish it here as a series of thirty 1000-word posts…but instead, I’ll settle for sharing my epigraph, which in fact isn’t settling at all. This paragraph opens Mary Oliver’s essay “Steepletop,” featured in her collection Blue Pastures. As a young aspiring poet in 1953, Mary wrote to Norma Millay to ask if she could visit Steepletop, the home of the late poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Norma’s sister and Mary’s literary idol. Norma’s consent resulted in a friendship between the two women. Mary lived at Steepletop off and on for seven years—including the period of her schooling at Vassar, Vincent’s alma mater—and helped Norma to organize her sister’s papers. In this essay, Mary directly addresses her experience sorting through the stored papers and stories Norma shared with her: stories that I long to hear, because Steepletop happens to be one of the five case study sites in my thesis. I’ll admit, I grew a bit teary when I came across these lines; as many day-long coffee dates as my thesis and I had shared, I knew that I had reached the heart of it when I read Mary Oliver’s words.

“Biographers, of all writers, have need of prayers, and answered prayers. The graceful angles and sinuations of clean prose may finally be chiseled from the language, but what of the material itself? How can the biographer know when enough is known, and known with sufficient certainty? What about secrets, what about errors, what about the small black holes where there is nothing at all? What about the wranglings among minor characters, the withholding of facts for thoughtful and not-so-thoughtful reasons—or their mishandling—and this not even in the present but in the past, hidden in letters, in remembered conversations, in reams of papers? And what about the waywardness of life itself—the proclivity toward randomness—the sudden meaningless uplift of wind that tosses out one sheet of paper and keeps another? What about the moment that speaks worlds, as the saying goes, but in the middle of the night, and into deaf ears, and so is never heard, or heard of? I would not be a biographer for all the tea in China.”

Mary Oliver walking in the graveyard at Steepletop. Photo by Helen Atwan, http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/05/on-the-road-wit.html

Mary Oliver, “Steepletop,” Blue Pastures, (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1991): 73-74.

Reopening the Close: St. John the Divine unveils latest development proposal

See a version of this article, with images, as it recently appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper.

In the 120 years since its cornerstone was laid, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has gained repute for its exemplary Gothic Revival architecture but also its perpetual state of incompletion. Now, development of the cathedral grounds, called the “close,” is continuing the Cathedral’s association with construction. A deal with the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2003, which led the City Council to overturn the Cathedral’s landmark designation, allowed St. John’s to lease sites on the north and southeast perimeters of the close to developers. A twenty-story residential building on the Southeast Site, at 110th Street and Morningside Drive, opened in 2008 amid criticism of its size and aesthetic. Plans are progressing to break ground in 2013 on the North Site, along 113th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive, for a controversial second residential tower.

At a recent public forum, the Cathedral unveiled initial massing studies to over 60 community members. Cathedral Dean James Kowalski explained that, despite fundraising and efforts to contain administrative costs, the Cathedral operates at a 10% deficit. With ongoing financial obligations, including repairs to the church building, Kowalski asserted that development was necessary to “preserve the economic future of the Cathedral.”

George Kruse, Vice President of Development for Equity Residential, addressed community concerns about including subsidized housing, involving local businesses and consultants, and facilitating local residents’ access to labor union membership. In particular, he noted that of the 400 units in the planned building, 20% will be reserved for affordable housing. Gary Handel of Handel Architects, LLP, most recently known for the World Trade Center Memorial, presented the firm’s massing studies; further details of the building’s design remain in progress.

Several attendees praised efforts to minimize the building’s bulk and to use the site, which currently houses stonecutting sheds from the 1980s, to integrate the close with the surrounding community. Still, many residents of Morningside Heights expressed such concerns as the building’s potential to increase neighborhood crowding, the environmental impact on traffic, noise, and light, and the visual effects on both the exterior and interior of the church. One attendee informed the Cathedral that the North Site had formerly borne the scattered ashes of AIDS patients from St. Luke’s Hospital across the street. Community members also questioned the Cathedral’s claims of financial hardship, given the wealth of the larger Episcopalian diocese.

Michael Henry Adams spoke on behalf of State Senator Bill Perkins, who opposes the construction proposal, and expressed his own conviction that the Cathedral property merits more respect as a world-class landmark. “If we were in Paris, at Notre Dame, would someone propose this?” he said. “The answer, of course, is no… This is not a sustainable proposition, for the Cathedral to keep taking the very thing that makes it so unique and extraordinary and diminishing it.”

After the meeting, Kowalski affirmed that the development plans stem not only from financial hardship but also from a weighing of costs and benefits. “I understand how special this property is, and how people believe that it should be like a park, but you’re talking about almost twelve acres of land, and you’re talking about two perimeter parcels. I actually think this is good stewardship,” he said. “I think you could make a very strong argument that if you didn’t need the money, you should still generate the revenue to fund other missions.”

Gregory Dietrich, a preservation consultant and adviser to the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, was not convinced that the plans respected the Cathedral’s historical legacy and architectural significance. Echoing the requests of a number of attendees, he said, “One of the things I think is really important is that they continue to have meetings with the community. This certainly doesn’t satisfy anybody, just to see massing studies.”

Kowalski could not confirm whether the Cathedral intends to hold additional community forums, as he expects a short timeframe for the design process. “We’re really excited because the rental market is stronger than we thought it was,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll see people living in the new building for probably a couple of years. But could it be started in six months or a year? I would hope so.”

Sandstorms and birthdays

Soon after the fall that would eventually end her life, my grandma thought of sandstorms in Australia. She spoke of this phenomenon and this place that she had never seen in her ninety years with an urgency and fixation that we could not explain. During my days visiting a Texas hospital, though I did not know they would be my last with her, I scribbled down her words — because she so often recorded mine in her journal when we spoke on the phone, and because she had always spoken in truths, and I knew this riddle must be no different: “Are you familiar with the sandstorms in Australia? They come to take the land, infiltrate everything. I’ve been fighting them all my life. Now the sand has filled my house. Go check on it.”

I would see her house once more, staying there to attend her funeral two months later, and all was still. There was no sand. But now that house, with its grey-blue carpet and its ceiling glitter — like stars, I had always thought, or was it silver-coated sand — belongs to someone else, and I think I know what she meant. As I described when I began this blog in her honor, Grandma had archived her own history, and so mine, too, keeping daily records of her travels and phone calls and meals, of the thank-you notes she received after gift-giving, of the origin of every thimble and china dish in her collections. In our last days together, she was telling me why she lived this way, as if by means of that timeless metaphor, the sands of time: it was time that came to take the land, time she had been fighting, time she feared had finally filled her house. Her crewelwork and photos on the walls, the smell of caramel and cherry and buttermilk pies, the files and boxes of clippings, photos, letters, lists, all of it has been deconstructed now, deaccessioned among her family. We couldn’t save her house from the sandstorms, but they haven’t won.

My grandma, Vera B. Stallcup Taylor, and her beloved sister, Beth Stallcup Young. Grandma loved this photograph that hung in a convex oval frame on her bedroom wall.

Today, on what would have been Grandma’s ninety-second birthday, my sister and I will fool the hourglass, share memories of her, play her favorite card games, fight sandstorms. And eat pie; there will always be pie.

 

The T.S. Eliot model of adaptive reuse (Part II)

Continuing from yesterday’s post

T.S. Eliot, Poet-Preservationist? (Photo from fondazione-delbianco.org)

In much of T.S. Eliot’s work, replete with architectural imagery, he ruminates on ruins, both structural and cultural, and what should become of them. While the Four Quartets, from which Adele Chatfield-Taylor quotes, were written and published during the course of World War II (and at the end of Eliot’s poetic career, with a theme of transcending time and endings evident even in Chatfield-Taylor’s selected lines), Eliot wrote the bulk of his poetic works during the period directly after WWI in England. In such works as The Waste Land (1922) and Ash Wednesday (1930), he observes and questions postwar remnants, viewing Europe as a “Waste Land” scattered with remains of past civilizations and cultures. He alludes to the historical cultures of Greece, Italy, France, England, Israel, and India, and even incorporates passages from their literary canons into his own work, physically reusing lines to reflect his theme of fragmentation and the urge to reunify. In content as in poetic form, his is a voice for adaptive reuse—a reuse that does not de-emphasize meaningful connection to history but rather echoes the past—indeed, a reuse in content as in built form.

Faced with the war’s rubble, Eliot, near the opening of The Waste Land, presents humanity, represented by the reader, with a question to which he presumes a response and precludes an answer: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,/ You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images…” The subject of his musing, then, is the presence of life amid the vestiges of history; he does not suggest that it does not exist but rather that it cannot be found through humankind’s tendency to look at destruction and see only brokenness. Throughout the poem — and elsewhere in his works — he presents these images of postwar Europe, showing them to be broken, yes, but not dead. In the remaining architecture from the past, he hears history resonating in the present: “And upside down in air were towers/ Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours/ And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.”

Eliot focuses not on the past of these structures but on their interaction with his current reality, history’s presence within the present. As he says in Ash Wednesday (1930), “Because I know that time is always time/ And place is always and only place/ And what is actual is actual only for one time/ And only for one place/ I rejoice that things are as they are/…having to construct something/ Upon which to rejoice.” This construction is made up of his broken images and the continuity of life he sees in them; as Chatfield-Taylor suggests about the power of aged buildings, Eliot finds in ruins the potential to feel connected with a past “continuum” of “fellow-existence” through communal human experience. As he points out in “What the Thunder Said,” the fifth and final section of The Waste Land, “He who was living is now dead/ We who were living are now dying.” For Eliot, the potential of that union is harnessed by incorporating and reinterpreting the ruins in a way that refracts their meaning through a contemporary lens.

The last lines of The Waste Land that are written in his own primary voice, in a final stanza otherwise largely comprised of quotations alluding to Italian, English, and Indian literature, he offers his conclusion to the challenge he initially set, the search for “roots” and “branches”—continuity of life—amid the “stony rubble” the past has left behind: “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down/…/These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”  Taking possession of these ruins, Eliot has gathered images of them—and bits of past cultures’ literature—and propped them up against the past to create a new present. He has thus, in both form and content, illustrated his own perspective of the principles of adaptive reuse.

Eliot, preserved (Photo from bloomsburybytes.wordpress.com)

Although Eliot was writing in England several decades before the emergence of the historic preservation movement in New York City and elsewhere in the United States, his work, as Chatfield-Taylor was right to suggest indirectly, speaks to the ideas that impelled the movement’s evolution. Addressing concerns of what light in which to regard remnants of the past, what place they should have in present-day society, and what should be done to secure that place to them, Eliot essentially arrives at the solution of adaptive reuse. The model of adaptive reuse that he seems to suggest, however, is one that would maintain elements of the meaning of a building’s interior life as well as exterior. Presumably for Eliot, the building should attempt to reflect (or refract) both the original form and original content, while adapting to a present-day community’s interpretation of that content’s meaning—“shor[ing]” the current “fragments” against the “ruins” of a community’s history in order to build a living present that truly registers the continuum of human existence.

The T.S. Eliot model of adaptive reuse (Part I)

The evolution of the historic preservation movement, itself deserving of historic preservation and exemplified by the local movement in New York City, has been marked by ongoing debate over the intentions and priorities that have driven it. Adele Chatfield-Taylor recounted the story of this debate, in a speech called “From Ruskin to Rouse,” at a symposium in 1989 celebrating the twentieth anniversary of my graduate program at Columbia, including ideas she had published under the same title in Canadian Heritage in 1985. In the transcript of this speech (see Historic Preservation: Forging a Discipline, NY: Preservation Alumni, Inc., 1989), Chatfield-Taylor contrasts the economic and artistic motives of the movement’s various supporters. The concerns of business and real estate have sometimes prevailed, she says, particularly after the passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1976 created economic incentives for the preservation of certain properties. This money-minded view of preservation is a necessary one, as preservation is a pricey activity with financial consequences on the value of property.

On the other hand, Chatfield-Taylor herself presents preservation as an art form, viewing historic buildings as “more than beautiful works of architecture. They are vehicles of culture, ‘lyric totals,’ and in their evolved states, whole works of art, in whose intangible elements the true value lies, because it is there that we find the signs of life.” These intangible elements include her appreciation of “buildings that have registered the imprint of the passage of time;” she sees preservation, then, as a way of concretizing the abstract concepts of time and progression of the human race, a means of “connection to a continuum, a fellow-existence.” For her, the drive to preserve buildings “as an aesthetic undertaking is as pressing and as valid as the need to write a poem.”

While advocating this more artistic side of preservation, Chatfield-Taylor recognizes the necessity of the economic side and says, “we must figure out how to have both simultaneously.” In his own history of the preservation movement featured in the oft-referred-to book Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory, Mike Wallace recalls the introduction of the idea seen as a compromise between art and economy: adaptive reuse. He attributes to Ada Louise Huxtable the goal of “‘finding ways to keep those original buildings that provide the city’s character and continuity and of incorporating them into its living mainstream’ — not placing them in ‘sterile isolation.’” According to Wallace, for the advocates of a kind of adaptive reuse that used an old building’s exterior structure to contain an entirely new building, the old “building’s connection to specific people and events, was unimportant. They shifted their emphasis from meaning to ambience.”

But is that shift necessary to the principles of adaptive reuse? Is it not possible for adaptive reuse to be a means of respecting old life and reinterpreting it, neither forcing sterility upon it, as Huxtable fears, nor losing that sense of connection that Chatfield-Taylor values? For adaptive reuse to be a truly balanced approach, it should address both the structure of the building and the inner life the building contains. It should require not living in the past but honoring it as the basis of development—living in the present but realizing it as the product of history.

In explaining the significance of survey and designation in presenting preservation to outsiders, Chatfield-Taylor supports her comparison of preservation and poetry by quoting a poet, T. S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.” Eliot is, in fact, a powerfully relevant poet to include in discussing preservation.

Tune in tomorrow to find out why I think so…

All signs point to a Happy Kansas Day!

I have emerged from my thesis cave to celebrate the first big holiday of the new year. That’s right, folks…Happy Kansas Day!

At my Texan middle school, my math teacher and now dear friend Myron taught me more than how to calculate the slope of a line; he showed me how to take active pride in history. A historian in his spare time who has written about the Texas postal system and his experience flying 0-2B airplanes in the Vietnam War, he is also a dedicated ambassador of his home state of Kansas…which entered the Union on today’s date in 1861. Every year, on January 29, signs would appear around campus—on doors and windows, in the elevator and the pages of library books—bearing wishes for a Happy Kansas Day. Some featured facts about the state of Kansas (the state amphibian of Kansas is the barred tiger salamander), others hand-colored sunflowers (the state flower); all generated a great deal more conversation about Kansas than would normally be heard in a Texas middle school hallway.

He tells me that he started the tradition in hopes of encouraging people to consider and even “advertise” the origins of their own home states. It didn’t quite take off that way; few people seem to have such loyalty for their state, respect for its roots, and initiative for raising awareness. Of all places, this must be especially true in NYC, where notoriously few people are native New Yorkers but many are quick to adopt the New Yorker identity. But that is all the more reason to spread the Kansas Day joy. Last year, I received an envelope full of Myron’s handmade signs from years past, passed along to me with a list of suggested spots to post them (e.g. “side of a bus—don’t get run over”). I relished seeing them pinned up in halls around Columbia and clinging to the glass of NYC bus stops (not the buses themselves—I’m a coward) until the snow took them down. This year, I made photocopies, preserving the remaining originals so that wherever I am on each January 29, I can share with strangers a bit of cheerful curiosity on behalf of the Sunflower State.

Love to Myron, Kansas, and statehood in general, and a very happy Kansas Day to all.

Click to zoom...Columbia and Kansas Day

Dear Barnes & Noble, please don't ban me as a litterer if you see this.

 

It’s Christmastime in the city

I’m back! Admittedly, I haven’t been in the celebrating — or blogging — spirit in the past month; ’tis the season for final papers and presentations (now completed!), and a beloved family member passed away over the Thanksgiving holiday. But I’ve been coerced out of my hermitage by an annual magpie-like weakness against the lure of sparkly things: I’m a bit of a Christmas light enthusiast.

Unlike last year, I didn’t make a trip around town to admire the Rockefeller tree and shop windows, and the circuits in my lovely old apartment don’t take too fondly to overuse. Still, Christmas found its way to me, from the lit display of trees for sale down the road, turning the sidewalk air to pine, to the lights above the supermarket that I found mid-stringing. The light-highlight was another happy accident; on campus, I bumped into a crowd awaiting Columbia’s annual Christmas tree lighting, and shivered along with them until the shapes of trees lining our main walkway appeared, white-dotted and shining. I have a longstanding partiality to lines of lit trees; when I was a child in Houston, the image epitomizing the holidays for me was Post Oak Boulevard. My family would make an outing of driving down the road, under its chrome arches and between its seemingly endless rows of tree-lights. I have always loved how we reinvent places with light, infusing branches, outlining eaves and columns and, especially in NYC, fire escapes, using our built (and planted) environment as a means of expressing this inescapable sense of seasonal joy.

Christmas lights on Post Oak Boulevard in Houston, photo by Brent Allen Thale

Columbia in anticipation of light

Columbia trees lit

College Walk, Columbia

on Broadway, how New Yorkers buy Christmas trees

decking the market

Many Washingtons: “Unbuilt” monuments on display

I’ve written before about my appreciation for the remarkably interdisciplinary nature of the preservation field, but it took a visit to the National Building Museum yesterday to show me that one of those disciplines is quantum mechanics. Wait, what?

Some physicists believe in Many Worlds, created when the universe splits into branches to accommodate an action’s possible outcomes. (Fuller explanations sail over my head, and often involve Schrödinger’s poor boxed cat; google if you dare.) The National Building Museum’s “Unbuilt Washington” exhibit, which opened this past weekend, provides archival insight into what might be called Many Washingtons, the parallel capital-universes created by the numerous architectural proposals that have gone unrealized in the city’s history.

A palimpsest of sorts: my notes from the exhibition. Another note to self: always take notebook to Building Museum.

Upon entering, I overheard someone who represented the exhibition telling a reporter that its greatest value lies in inspiring “appreciation for what the city looks like.” Indeed, after spending three hours in “Unbuilt Washington,” I felt glad to live in a world where the Lincoln Memorial is not a ziggurat, the Jefferson memorial is not a skinny skyborne spout, and the Old EOB was not replaced with a twin of the Treasury (no offense to ziggurats, fountains, or the Treasury). Moreover, I gained heightened appreciation for the work that went into sculpting the city’s built environment. I hadn’t realized that so many of the capital’s landmarks resulted from design competitions, which were the source of many of the alternative designs featured in the exhibition — not only rejected proposals but also winning entries that never came to fruition. The executed structures resulted from often decades-long efforts to procure funding and finalize designs, including disagreements over which architectural styles would best reflect both the site’s intended symbolic value and the era’s ideals of how to manifest democratic government in the built environment.

James Diamond's Capitol, courtesy of Maryland Historical Society and National Building Museum

Some of the residual designs appear now — and in some cases surely did when first proposed — to be laughably absurd. Interestingly, the easiest laughs perhaps come from much more recent designs: Jim Allegro and Doug Michels’ 1996 “National Sofa” across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, complete with Jumbotron, and their 1989 Dolphin America Hotel, part of an effort to improve dolphin-human relations. Equally entertaining, however, are the otherworldly monuments that could have been. Amateur architect James Diamond appears to have thrown every architectural feature he knew onto the central bay of his Capitol building contest entry — columns, arched entry, Palladian window, round windows, pediment, frieze, balustrade, dome — and the cherry on top is an eagle weather vane that more closely resembles King Kong’s precarious pet pelican (1792). In her entry for completing the Washington Monument, stalled for decades mid-construction, Vinnie Ream Hoxie suggested converting the obelisk stub into a severely distended sculpture base, topping it with a figure of Washington requiring the balance of a pointe dancer (1876-1878). Alexander Esty’s design entry for the Library of Congress took too seriously the suggestion to avoid tall elements that might detract from the Capitol dome; he somehow burdened the Victorian Gothic style with swampy horizontality, picturing an overwrought cathedral sunk neck-deep in quicksand (1880).

Alexander R. Esty's Library of Congress, courtesy of LOC and National Building Museum

Still, other showcased ideas make a lot of sense. For example, the Kennedy Center’s unrealized curvilinear design would have been better integrated with the riverfront than the stark, rectilinear form that replaced it for budgetary reasons. In his review for The Washington Post, Philip Kennicott observes, “Some of the prize pieces in the “Unbuilt Washington” exhibition remind us what could have been if the Mall had been treated as an urban amenity rather than a national symbol.” As he points out, designs for the Mall by Robert Mills and Andrew Jackson Downing would have created pleasure gardens in place of what in recent years has received criticism as a neglected turf of trampled grass.

Vinnie Ream Moxie's Washington Monument, courtesy of LOC and National Building Museum

Kennicott begins his review by predicting that this exhibition is “the National Building Museum’s best chance at drawing blockbuster crowds in years.” I agree. The exhibition’s greatest strengths are its appeal to the imagination and accessibility to anyone who has one. As a preservationist, I especially appreciated it as an example of storytelling through archival material, and I found its stories to be directly related to our field. Preservationists often find ourselves facing multifurcations, standing at the thresholds of diverging options and outcomes. Which alterations and additions would be appropriate? Which structures should be built, kept, razed? Which side of each split will we follow; which world do we prefer? The unbuildings on display at the National Building Museum demonstrate that historical value lies not only in the decisions we convert to reality, but also the alternatives that get left behind, those ideas that slip away to get built in other worlds.