From museum to stage: Alice Austen’s larky life

courtesy of Sundog Theatre

House museums, the root form of the historic preservation movement in the US, seem often to face questions regarding continued relevance in an ever-evolving field. But for me, house museums have always been a favorite way of engaging with history, and played a significant role in my becoming a preservationist. Since moving to New York, one example I’ve become fond of is Clear Comfort, the home and studio of Alice Austen (1866-1952), who has been called “the earliest American woman of importance in photography.” The house on Staten Island (a c.1700 Dutch farmhouse remodeled as a Gothic Revival cottage) is now a museum under the Historic House Trust.

It’s also the setting of a new musical: Sundog Theatre‘s original production, If You Could See: The Alice Austen Story. I was fortunate to sit in the front row for the musical’s Manhattan opening this week, and it was surreal to watch a house and story I’ve researched and written about, transformed to song and stage. The show spans decades and interweaves the stories of young Alice, living what she called the “larky life” with partner Gertrude Tate at Clear Comfort, and Alice in her late 80s, discovered in a poor farm by Oliver Jensen of LIFE Magazine, who sought permission to print her photographs. Alice’s life, love, and work play out against a backdrop of the arrival of immigrants in New York, the rise of industrialization, and the stock market crash, which ultimately tore Alice and Gertrude from Clear Comfort. Provided by the house museum, the show’s physical backdrop is a series of Alice’s photographs projected on a screen. While I tend to resist the use of digital images in theatre productions, in this case it was one of my favorite elements of the show; the archival photographs bring the house to the stage, and are especially poignant when juxtaposed with the actors’ restagings, little tableaux vivants of Alice’s friends alongside her own own visions of them.

Clear Comfort

The house museum has been criticized in the past (including, admittedly, by me) for its arguably outdated interpretation of Alice’s life, but its story has increasingly emerged to light, and If You Could See represents a renewal of much-deserved appreciation for Alice as a groundbreaking woman and artist. After the show, I overheard audience members expressing eagerness to visit or revisit Clear Comfort. The house museum musical seems to me to be a pretty promising new genre!

As Sundog Theatre says, “Alice’s world is remarkably similar to ours, making If You Could See a musical for our time – celebrating a significant artist and true American iconoclast.” Catch the final performances of If You Could See at Manhattan’s Five Angels Theatre this weekend, and visit Clear Comfort on Staten Island, the actual stage set of a remarkable larky life.

Ship log: interpreting the Lilac

Preservationist Richard Nickel famously said, “Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.” But for my Interpretation of Architecture workshop this semester, we are focusing on a historic structure that has long depended on water for its — or rather, her — livelihood. The U.S. Lighthouse Tender Lilac dates to 1933 and was built to serve and maintain lighthouses, lightships, and buoys on the Delaware River. In 1939, she became a United States Coast Guard vessel, and she spent World War II as an armed member of port security. She was ultimately decommissioned in 1972, acted as a stationary training facility until 1984, and from 1985 to 1999 was a floating office on the James River in Virginia. Today, Lilac is the oldest lighthouse tender in the United States and the only steam-powered tender to survive with steam engines intact. Lilac received National Register listing in 2005 and is currently berthed at Manhattan’s Pier 25 under the care of the non-profit LILAC Preservation Project.

What are the challenges of preserving and interpreting a waterborne structure? What is a ship if not a floating building?


Open House NY: Another haven among headstoneless graves

After Sunday’s tour of “Sacred Havens of the East Village” for Open House New York, I hurried to the New York Marble Cemetery to spend an hour there before it closed. Open to the public only a few days per year, the burial ground sometimes known as the “Second Avenue Cemetery” is the “oldest public non-sectarian cemetery in New York City.” Interments took place in 156 underground, Tuckahoe marble vaults, marked above ground at their entrances by markers prone in the grass, and some by monuments. Without headstones, the cemetery has the initial sense of a private garden, its rows of flat markers resembling hopscotch squares. But after time spent there, the place reveals an air of sanctity that only an historic cemetery can evoke. The first three images below are of a poster, displayed for OHNY, with photos and drawings of the cemetery vaults in plan and section; click to zoom and find out how the site was designed. Scroll down for a slideshow of photos I took in this quiet corner of the city.



Open House NY: Sacred Havens of the East Village

This afternoon, derailed by “necessary track work,” I took a circuitous tour of the underground (subway stations of the cross?) that eventually reached the Open House New York tour of “Sacred Havens of the East Village.” The latter expedition, led by Terri Cook, author of Sacred Havens: A Guide to Manhattan’s Spiritual Places, explored some of the sites that have acted as cultural and spiritual refuges for the various immigrant groups that have populated the East Village throughout its history.

We first gathered outside of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer on E. 3rd Street near Avenue A. Built in 1851-52 and renovated in 1913 by Paul Schulz, the church was established for German immigrants living in the area of the city that was known as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany.” Although the church moved on to serve new immigrant communities, it is still known as the “German Cathedral.”

original stained glass from 1852

The Meseritz Synagogue was founded in 1888 to serve Eastern European Jews. A rare remaining tenement synagogue, squeezed between buildings on a narrow E. 6th Street lot, it has made news in recent years for its resistance to landmark designation.

The Max D. Raiskin Center began as the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark in 1848. Most of the victims of the 1904 General Slocum steamship disaster (the greatest loss of civilian lives in New York City until September 11) were women and children from St. Mark’s congregation. Largely as a result of this tragedy, many of the surviving German men in Kleindeutschland migrated elsewhere in the city, and the area’s Jewish population became more prevalent. The 1940 conversion of St. Mark’s into an Orthodox Jewish synagogue left the building’s interior footprint untouched.

Established in 1628, the Middle Collegiate Church erected its current building in 1892 and served a Dutch congregation. The church apparently houses a dozen Tiffany windows. (I wish I could have seen them; my sole gripe with this Open House NY tour was that only two of the sites we visited were actually “open house.”)

The St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Roman Catholic Church moved into the next building on the tour in 1901 and ministered to the Polish community; it continues to conduct most masses in Polish.

The tour’s last stop was the St. Nicholas of Myra Church of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese, located at E. 10th Street and Avenue A. Designed by the esteemed James Renwick, Jr., the 1883 church’s Renaissance Revival brick exterior opens into what our guide accurately described as a “little jewel box” of bright paint and glass. This haven provided a picturesque setting for her concluding appeal for us to continue supporting NYC’s built heritage. These buildings have survived thus far for a reason, she said, and by preserving the history of the different groups who have passed through them, we are preserving our own history, too.

 

Frederick Law Olmsted’s plant-painting at the Capitol

This weekend kick-started WalkingTown DC, Cultural Tourism DC’s ten-day celebration of city exploration in the capital, including over 175 free tours. It coincided with National Museum Day on Saturday and the National Book Festival all weekend, which meant quite the smorgasbord during a quick trip to visit my parents. Before my bus back to NYC on Sunday, my dad and I took the tour called “Frederick Law Olmsted and the US Capitol Grounds,” led by Steve Livengood, the US Capitol Historical Society’s director of public programs.

As I’ve written previously, I’m not a stranger to the Capitol grounds and Frederick Law Olmsted’s legacy there (especially Summerhouse), but the tour provided me with a lot of new information and an improved sense of the grounds’ cohesive design and the narrative of their development. The grounds, Olmsted’s only landscape meant to enhance an already-existing building, exemplify his origination of landscape architecture. As opposed to landscape gardening, this field entails placing a building within the frame of a landscape, or as our guide put it (paraphrasing Olmsted’s friend David Burnham), “painting with plants.”

The tour began with a historical overview of the building Olmsted intended to put on display. The iconic Capitol was designed by William Thornton, who won the commission through a competition in 1793, and his plan for a new Pantheon with wings was later modified by Henry Latrobe and Charles Bullfinch. The construction of the building, the largest stone building in the US at the time, encountered a number of obstacles, including being burned by the British in 1814. By the time it was completed in 1824, the country had tripled in size, necessitating expansion of the building. In 1850, Thomas Walter added new chambers for the House and Senate, setting these additions perpendicular to the original building to avoid overwhelming it. He replaced Bullfinch’s dome with a cast iron one (cast in Brooklyn) in 1863; the wood of the old dome was burned to feed the steam engine used in constructing the new dome. The Capitol’s expansion included enlarging the grounds from 30 to 59 acres; enter Olmsted.

Commissioned in 1874, Olmsted worked on the grounds for 15 years. His design capitalizes on the 21 streets and 47 walkways that feed into the square and strategically guides visitors through the site. He was assisted by Thomas Wisedell, who brought a sense of Chinoiserie to the benches and lampposts and helped with the plans for Summerhouse. Speaking of my favorite place in DC, I learned that, although it may be years before Summerhouse is restored because of budget constraints, the historic structures report was recently completed and restoration plans are indeed in the works — most notably including replacement of the concrete floor with brick, as originally intended.

Here is more of what I saw and learned on the tour :

Olmsted wanted to line the path to the east entrance with tulip trees, which were the tallest species in the area and not usually grown near buildings...

...so these squares at each tree's base can be removed to adapt to the tree's growth.

Original red granite lamp piers

Terra cotta benches designed by Wisedell

Olmsted's wrought-iron streetcar shelter; right across from the building, but I'd never noticed it before

Olmsted designed details down to the tree placards. He never used flowering trees that would distract from the building (though some have since been planted).

The subtle approach to Summerhouse

This little replacement tree was recently planted outside of Summerhouse.

I learned that the hooks on the side of the fountain (one is towards the top left in this photo) once held ladles for the drinking water. The newer drinking fountains (bottom right) might be replaced in the restoration with something more historically appropriate.

"Olmsted's most successful tree," a willow oak

Olmsted added terraces to the west entrance, containing storage spaces and topped with palmettos, because he felt the building otherwise appeared top-heavy.

The tour ended at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial with this view of the Capitol amid Olmsted's carefully painted plants.

Joel Sternfeld on photographing the High Line

The High Line, an elevated rail line reincarnated as a park, is a new mecca for historic preservation in New York City, and one of my favorite places on the planet. Climbing up the stairs in the rain felt tonight, as it does every time I visit the park, like ascending to a secret dimension threaded through the top of the city, both suspended in time and crystallizing time’s passage. Joel Sternfeld created a similar effect through his photography of the park before its transformation, an assignment the Friends of the High Line gave him in 2000. Tonight he spoke about the images he captured of the wildflowers and weeds that had claimed the rails after the last train passed through in 1980 (notoriously lugging frozen turkeys). These photos helped to seed the movement that rescued the High Line from demolition.

These days, the High Line is rarely empty, but Sternfeld had the place to himself as he pursued the perfect images to tell the High Line’s story. “It was my own private park for one year,” he said, because “the money shot takes time.” He photographed on days when the sky was “neutral, so that if there were any beauty in the picture, it couldn’t be attributed to my ability as a photographer, or to the day: it was emanating from the High Line itself.” He recalled one day in particular when it seemed to be his personal utopia: “There was no place else on earth that I would rather be…it was exquisite.”

After the High Line’s metamorphosis, Sternfeld felt disoriented in the place he had come to know so intimately; he compared the impression to losing a limb: “Every now and then, I feel a little bit of phantom pain for the old High Line.” In a sense, though, this is a sweet sort of pain that any visitor to the High Line can experience to a degree; the ghost of the High Line’s past life remains in the park by invitation. Sternfeld came to see the power of the rail line’s new form, especially as the product of a passionate group of people overcoming opposition, as well as for its link to his interest in environmental conservation. “The great value of the High Line now is as a symbol,” he said. “This is hope symbolized.” He stressed the importance of completing the park; Section 2 opened in June, but Section 3’s development is pending. “I don’t know which is harder: to solve global warming or to get something done in New York City,” he said, “but I hope that we’ll all join in this fight to truly save the High Line.”

Next week, my architectural photography class is making an excursion to the park. It will probably be a lifetime before I get anything approaching a “money shot,” but I think I will benefit from remembering Sternfeld’s approach: translating the insistent history of the place, but first quietly letting the High Line speak for itself.

Barnhopping: Ontario vernacular

North of Toronto, along the southwest coast of Lake Simcoe, the roads dip through farmland and yellow fields to stop, unexpectedly, at rocky shoreline. As we wandered around the countryside in search of hidden bits of lake, my lovely and patiently obliging partner pulled the car to the shoulder in front of every old barn we passed — some with flaking wooden planks, some green with ivy — so I could snap phone photos of these quiet bearers of Ontario’s history. Here are a few of them:





Dear Signage: the brass tacks of bronze plaques

Recently, my mom and aunt introduced me to a remarkable website called Dear Photograph. You may have already seen this microblog, which has gone viral in the less than three months since it was started by Taylor Jones, a 21-year-old from Kitchener, Ontario. Featuring a daily selection from viewers’ submissions, it is a collection based on the premise of revisiting the site of an old photograph and shooting it again, with the picture held up against its now-modern setting. The product—a past moment superimposed on the present—expands the physical limits of the original photo and the temporal limits of experiencing the place.

This concept reminded me of a preservation project I had heard about, one of the winning entries of a 2003 competition called Marking Places that Matter. According to NYC’s Place Matters, the offshoot of City Lore and the Municipal Art Society that sponsored the competition, “The challenge was to create simple, relatively low-cost strategies that would go beyond the traditional bronze plaque for marking and describing places around the city.” In David Provan’s “Historic Overlay” proposal, one of eight winners, he designed viewing stations for significant places where visitors could see an old photograph of a site alongside an empty frame, replicating the borders of the photo to outline their present view. In Provan’s words, “By using archival photographs ‘overlaid’ upon a site, a viewer would have the opportunity to compare and contrast their present moment and location with those of a distant yesterday.”

I will admit to a teary first reaction to Dear Photograph, and although I am known to be a bit of a sap, it seems to have resonated with many people in this way. The site’s popularity suggests that Provan’s comparable signage premise holds a lot of promise, and it supports several generalizations: people love comparisons, they especially love juxtaposition (not just we English majors who obsess over it in papers), and ultimately, they appreciate connection. To me, connections—of people to history via places, and to places via awareness of the past—are the brass tacks of signage. The power of Dear Photograph and “Historic Overlay” lies in their allowing us, in the spirit of the Tralfamadorians, to view the past and present of a place at once.

Spring Grotto, Summerhouse: my little brick secret

Last week, I mentioned that I have a number of beloved places in Washington, DC. One of them I would place among my favorite buildings in the world, right up there with Florence’s Duomo, albeit on a very different scale. Because much of its charm derives from the subtlety of its location, I would hesitate to advertise the secret without a disclaimer: read no further if you’d rather discover this paragon of hexagons on your own.

I first stumbled upon Summerhouse during a family trip to DC, a decade or so ago. On a path just northwest of the Capitol building, we began to pass a little whirlpool of shrubbery, then found ourselves within it, down through an arch, one of three rising from woven brick. Inside, the red room was symmetrical (I’ll admit to a weakness for six-sided spaces) with the green of a courtyard garden and, encircled by stone benches and scrolled niches, the quiet energy of a Gothic church. Bound by a waving roof of Spanish mission tile, the structure’s center opened to a sky of trees and a round fountain. Above one set of seats was a mossy grotto behind a wrought-iron grille, a window to a spring-fed planet buried in the Capitol grounds.

Since my family moved to the area several years ago, I have often returned to Summerhouse and finally sought out its story. Constructed from 1879 to 1881, the building was a featured folly in Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscaping plan for the Capitol grounds. His Riverside and Central Parks here in New York are spectacular, of course, and I frequent them. Still, I tend to prefer paler glimpses of grandeur; Summerhouse is, to me, his most elegant work. He intended to fold within this busy site a source of respite and water for visitors and their horses; what he created was a tiny sunken cathedral. According to the Architect of the Capitol, an intended twin on the Capitol’s south side was never built, due to inevitable “congressional objections.” Olmsted also planned that the fountain’s overflow would play a chiming carillon, but the device didn’t function and wasn’t installed. Both of these exclusions are just as well, I think. The space’s solitary sense probably wouldn’t survive being doubled, and its unnatural calm is, in fact, natural—in this red brick heart of DC, minutes from the National Mall, you hear only water and the occasional bird.

Through my many visits, I’ve become a bit possessive of the building. I’ve taken to perching beneath the grotto, like a scrawny blonde gargoyle, reading or watching the spring, and always looking to the doorways when I hear anything that is not water. Sometimes runners appear through one arch, drink from the fountain, and disappear through another. Sometimes families trickle in, staring, photographing, paraphrasing my family’s own discovery; I am often asked if I “know what this place is,” and giving an answer feels like folklore. Despite its name, I tend to prefer it in winter, when snow makes the grotto seem all the more unreal. The building was stabilized in 2009, including repair of its historic walls, and I hope that it will continue to receive attention in the years to come—but not too much. In a city known for its monuments, Summerhouse is my little brick favorite.

By Chip Somodovilla, Getty Images, for Life Magazine

Spring Grotto, Summerhouse, me in winter