“When the [stained-glass ceiling] hits your eye…”

I wouldn’t exactly recommend Times Square as a hotbed of preservation architecture. (To be honest, beyond for the occasional caffeinating sojourn, I wouldn’t recommend it at all…jumbo crowds and jumbo trons don’t do a lot for me.) So last night, seeking pizza with my visiting family, I was not expecting the entryway (a skylit bar that apparently was once an alley) of John’s Pizzeria at West 44th and 8th Ave. to open up into the high, stained-glass ceiling of a late 19th-century, formerly abandoned church. This conversion (of the architectural, not religious, variety) by Andrew Tesoro Architects winds diners around a two-tiered balcony, overlooking a grand space that faces a cityscape mural. The side-by-side glows of brick ovens and half-round stained-glass windows are an unusual sight, and one that immerses hundreds of people in the potential of adaptive reuse as they eat beneath slices of lacy light.
Oh, and the pizza is delicious, too…roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, smoky thin crust…but that ceiling!

Tesserae and talking walls

I have a number of favorite places in the Washington, DC, area— the first, naturally, being my family’s home. Not far down on the list is the monumental National Building Museum, where this past weekend I went to see Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière. (The exhibit is up through January 2, 2012; see it for yourself!) Meière was a noted figure in the Art Deco movement who collaborated with architects and craftsmen to create painted murals, wool tapestries, marble floors, and especially glass and marble mosaics. From her initial pencil sketches, full-size studies (“cartoons”), and models that were featured in the exhibit arise, as advertised, several narratives: first, that of Meière’s own life. After studying at an Academy of the Sacred Heart (like me!) in New York, and later in San Francisco, Chicago, and Florence, she worked as a mapmaker and architectural drafts-woman for the navy during World War I. She then made a career of integrating art into built spaces and was the first woman elected to the New York City Arts Commission, as well as the first to receive the Fine Arts Medal from the American Institute of Architects. She served on the boards of various organizations, including the Municipal Art Society, as Vice President of the Architectural League of New York, and as President of the National Society of Mural Painters.

Nebraska State Capitol Ceiling, by Dave Parker, Wikimedia Commons

Acclaimed for the almost exclusively narrative nature of her work, Meière combined material innovation with an affinity (one I would like to call “writerly”) for portraying symbol and story. Her first architectural commission, for the National Academy of Sciences in 1924, was to interpret scientific concepts as imagery, painted over Guastavino’s Akoustolith tile to resemble glazed ceramic. Soon afterward, she completed the work that would endure as her personal favorite: scenes inspired by Hartley Burr Alexander’s iconography, ceramic tile surrounded by Akoustolith in the Nebraska State Capitol. She went on to study and illustrate a wide range of subject matter, from a dome’s worth of apostles and six-winged seraphim, drawn with tiny glass tesserae in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, to her painted mural for Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, with three vignettes celebrating women’s progress from 1833 to 1933. Perhaps most well-known are her iconic roundels on the facade of Radio City Music Hall, which used a new process for exterior mixed metals to depict drama, dance, and song. With paint, metal, and bits of glass, Meière made storytellers of ceilings and walls.

Ultimately, “Walls Speak” refers to, and itself is part of, an overarching preservation narrative, one that pieces together and perpetuates Meière’s life story and the stories contained in her work. The museum walls speak, too—of the need for such history to be valued and maintained. For her last commission, she proposed a series of vignettes for wall niches in the National Cathedral; rejected in favor of a more abstract design, they survive through her saved drawings. Her final commercial commission in 1960, a year before her death, told the legend of Hercules through marble mosaic at Prudential Plaza. The work, irreparably harmed during a 1996 remodeling, now endures through photographs and cartoons. Likewise, Meière’s sculpture on the exterior of the RKO Theater, which showed “talkies” as part of Rockefeller Center, had been destroyed with the building in 1954; her drawings, however, preserve its memory. The exhibit describes her large-scale works for the New York World’s Fair, which now exist only as models: “At the close of the 1939 Fair, all of the art work was destroyed. This did not disturb Meière, who believed that the fun was in creating the objects, whether or not they endured.” (Her attitude sounds rather similar to that of a certain gum-wad painter we know, doesn’t it?) With all due respect to Meière’s beliefs, I will admit to being disturbed, but simultaneously relieved that the narrative art of Hildreth Meière will persist, with some assistance from the narrative art of preservation.

Gum-wad paintings and the value of transience

What does chewing gum have to do with historic preservation? No, this is not going to be a request that you refrain from using the walls of ancient monuments as receptacles for spit-sticky globs. (Really, though…please don’t do that.) Last month, I read an article in The New York Times“Whimsical Works of Art, Found Sticking to the Sidewalk,” by Sarah Lyall—about an artist with an unusual taste in canvases. For six years, Ben Wilson has created thousands of miniature paintings on bits of chewed gum dotting London pavements. Now a local celebrity, Wilson maintains a backlog of requests for gum paintings to express a melange of messages, from memorials to marriage proposals. Lyall describes the collection concentrated in Wilson’s community of Muswell Hill as “a chronicle of the neighborhood, a representation of its residents’ whimsies, sorrows and passions.” Meanwhile, borough councils enact street cleaning programs to remove chewing gum, fighting the illegal littering on which Wilson’s art both comments and depends.

By Andrew Testa for The New York Times

In reading about Wilson’s work, I couldn’t help but notice parallels to historic preservation. First, the metamorphosis of masticated, flavor-sapped gum into artwork provides a rather colorful metaphor for tasteful adaptive reuse. The article more directly, albeit briefly, addresses the preservation—or lack thereof—of Wilson’s art itself: “Mr. Wilson said he did not mind if his paintings were washed away or torn up for repaving or ruined by urban grime. ‘Everything is transitory,’ he said. ‘What’s important is the creative process.'”

Wilson’s popularity calls to mind the early success of another British street artist, the ubiquitous yet elusive Banksy, who has since become a global phenomenon. Banksy’s distinctive works of stencil graffiti are highly coveted, largely accepted by the art world he intentionally operates outside of, and in some cases are even conserved by local authorities who otherwise devote blight-fighting resources to graffiti erasure. Inspired by Banksy’s popularity, in May 2008, London’s Tate Modern went so far as to invite six international graffiti artists to participate in an exhibition called ‘Street Art’ by painting on the museum’s brick façade.

Am I suggesting that curators will soon be affixing soggy gum to the walls of MOMA for Ben Wilson to paint? Well, who knows? Regardless, the stories of Wilson and Banksy raise questions about preserving the transient, questions which extend to the preservation of architecture. The same issues of context and original intent that would arise in protecting a Wilson painting or removing it to a gallery, also apply in the case of structures built to be temporary (the Zonnestraal Sanatorium, for example, or postwar prefab houses). In addition, this comparison leads to considering what degree of public appreciation might be needed and what methods might be used to preserve the story of buildings that for some reason can’t be physically safeguarded. Heritage preservation is not always dependent on material perpetuation. The issue of how else to lend permanence to the impermanent, how to save architectural gum wads, is one that I’m hoping to explore.

Literary tidbit: Life is Elsewhere, Milan Kundera

From time to time, I’ll post food for thought that I come across in literary works that I’m reading — works that most likely weren’t intended as manifestos for historic preservation but provide some extra-disciplinary insight into the field. This inaugural morsel is courtesy of Kundera’s account, from birth to death, of Jaromil the poet (Part 3, Section 9).

“You think that just because it’s already happened, the past is finished and unchangeable? Oh no, the past is cloaked in multicolored taffeta and every time we look at it we see a different hue.”

Delicious.

Packrats and preservationists

Since I first found myself in the preservation world a little over a year ago, I have tried to make sense of how I ended up here. I’ve been a fiction writer by instinct since I first held a pen, and more recently by training; I know more about the construction of a sturdy narrative than I do that of a wooden-frame house. So, I’ve been building one out of my memories to assure myself that there are no real holes in the plot of my life (and the very fact that I am doing that, I think, makes me a preservationist).

As I suggested in my previous post, I have identified a preservationist gene bequeathed to me by my grandparents. Another thread in my self-explanation is that I have long suffered from the accusation of being a packrat. While I can’t deny an aversion to spring cleaning, I refuse to admit to rodent tendencies of any variety. What some call packratism, I call preservation, and the essential difference is the act of curating.

I like to think that I approach my own life with an archival mindset, for my own sake. My collection is not nearly as organized as that of my grandmother. Hers is like the archive of a national museum, mine more like a local department of buildings. I keep things that most people might consider garbage (or preferably recycling matter): tickets, receipts, bottles. Contrary to the common belief among my loved ones, however, this collection is not a slovenly compulsion but follows a standard protocol: I keep an item if I associate it with a memory, and if I know that throwing it away will drastically decrease the likelihood that I will ever experience that memory again. Sometimes I wonder if this practice is shamefully materialistic, but what I value is not the material itself so much as the history it represents.

I feel exactly the same way about buildings. James Marston Fitch, who founded my graduate program, referred to historic preservation as “curatorial management of the built world.” The reputation of our field would benefit, I believe, if we could promulgate the understanding that preservationists aren’t just saving buildings because of an inability to throw anything away.

Preservationists are not hoarders; we are curators.

Dates and foundations

Vera Taylor, 1920-2010

I spend quite a lot of time considering what it means to spend time. One conclusion I have reached is that, to me, dates are objective correlatives, talismans of memory. I tend to equate forgottenness with loss; if I will have no way of recalling in exactly a year’s time what I was doing on today’s date, the present seems doomed to oblivion.

Maybe parallel thoughts led my grandmother, Vera Taylor, to begin the journal that she kept for decades. Cursive words and a stack of black, bound volumes hold a daily chronicle of her life: where she went, what she did, and who was there. She held phone conversations at her desk, jotting the news she learned from family and friends; when she would ask for a name to be spelled, I knew what I had said somehow merited recording. She noted special meals, and sometimes seemingly mundane ones; “Don’t you want to remember what you ate for breakfast growing up?” she would ask, enticing me with the threat of lost memories, however small, to start a journal of my own. But I never did for more than a few weeks at a try, and Grandma remained the only diarist in the family. Through the years, we had many evenings of cherry pie and debates over family chronology — attempts at calculating the date when someone’s old friend came to visit, or when someone lost a tooth — that Grandma always concluded with, “Let me check my journal.”

I will never forget what I was doing on this date last year, when I drove with my parents and sister from Grandma’s home in New Braunfels to the town of Uvalde in southwest Texas. I remember the day as a series of passed places: the house where Grandma’s mother lived, where my dad remembered visiting his own grandmother; the singing school where Grandma’s father-in-law, my great-grandfather, taught — now an empty lot; the department store where my grandfather worked long ago; the cemetery where he was buried, and where we lay Grandma beside him, one year ago today. Places are talismans of memory, too.

The last direction my life took that Grandma was aware of, was that I would soon be entering the Historic Preservation program at Columbia’s architecture school. When I told her of my plans, she said that Grandpa, who had owned a lumber yard and was a self-taught architect, would be proud. She insisted that I lay claim to his old drafting table, although I can’t claim a single bit of his design talent, and from a back room she retrieved sets of Grandpa’s blueprints for the houses he designed and built for his (my) family. To the degree that my being a preservationist is genetic, a large portion of those genes come from Grandpa, and an equally large portion from Grandma. I know that she is just as much to blame because of the fact that those blueprints were folded in a box labeled “blueprints,” one of many labeled boxes in her house, and that her immediate response to my announcement was to reach for her journal. Grandma was the archivist of her own history and, therefore, of mine.

Today, then, seems a fitting date on which to begin this blog. storybuilding is not a journal per se, but a means of preserving my own experiences and thoughts, not because I assume their worth to anyone else but because I value them for my time spent. Here is where I will store stories and write about adventures that occur, ideas that occur to me — usually about preservation, and its intersections with literature and art — and perhaps occasionally, just for the record, what I ate for breakfast.