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The house museum has been criticized in the past (including, admittedly, by me) for its arguably outdated interpretation of Alice’s life, but its story has increasingly emerged to light, and If You Could See represents a renewal of much-deserved appreciation for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.

Flower bulbs, light bulbs, and wet paint at Dyckman Farmhouse

Yesterday, I sat in a giant bed of ivy behind Manhattan’s only remaining Dutch colonial farmhouse, digging a trowel between the roots, burying daffodil bulbs, and being grateful that preservationists seem often to find ourselves in such unexpected places. The Dyckman Farmhouse was this year’s location for the annual Fall Work Day sponsored by Preservation Alumni, the nonprofit organization and alumni network supporting my graduate program at Columbia. While some of us planted daffodils, others braved bugs to replace light bulbs, raked leaves, cleaned gutters, and painted fences until the site was looking as good as new — well, preferably, as good as two centuries old.

bulbs and ivy behind the Dyckman Farmhouse

fellow Columbia preservationists working on the building

wet paint, courtesy of Preservation Alumni!

In addition to the chance to spend a lovely November day digging around in some history-rich dirt, we had the privilege of exploring the c. 1784 house and grounds with the museum’s director, Susan De Vries. Since my thesis involves the reinterpretation of house museums, I was especially interested to learn that the Dyckman Farmhouse now presents not one period of significance, but two: 1815-1820, the period in the house’s history about which the most documentation has been found, and 1916, when the house was first interpreted and opened as a museum. While some rooms have been used to convey the realities of farmhouse life in the early 1800s, others have been left to show the 1916 version of a New York interior in 1800, which the building’s first preservationists based on oral tradition and their own imaginings. As such, the museum tells an important story not only about early 19th century New York, but also about the history of preservation itself. Now that it’s had a bit of autumnal cleaning, head to Inwood to see the Dyckman Farmhouse for yourself!

the Military Hut amid the formal garden; reconstructed by an amateur archeologist in 1915 using remnants from British and Hessian occupation of this area during Revolutionary War; bottles left by soldiers are included among original stones in the walls

second-floor bedroom as it would have appeared when museum opened; 1916 depiction of an 1800 interior

first-floor bedroom; current understanding of how an 1815-1820 interior would have actually appeared

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?


National Preservation Conference: Wrapping up, not winding down

My first National Preservation Conference experience has come and gone, and I, like the thousands of other preservationist attendees, have left Buffalo with a bundle of new ideas and a renewed sense of appreciation for having found myself in this field. I try to make sense of it all in my latest post; to read it, hop on over to the PreservationNation blog at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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.

 

Tenement Museum: Telling the many stories of a 5-story building

the Tenement Museum, courtesy of ahistoryofnewyork.com

97 Orchard Street may not have been a model tenement, but its current incarnation as the Tenement Museum serves as a model of responding to challenges in interpretation. First, it has devised a clever solution to the question of encouraging repeat visitors to a historic site, and simultaneously broadening the diversity of that audience. The museum offers eight different guided tours that appeal to a variety of interests, including five tours that explore the building’s physical stories through the lens of historic residents’ life stories, and three walking tours of the neighborhood that set the tenement itself into wider contexts. Using the floors of 97 Orchard as microcosms of the building’s history, and by extension the history of the tenement form in New York City, the five building tours, one hour each, rely largely on visitors’ imagination and sense of empathy to animate the rooms. In one case that is specifically advertised for families, the “Confino Family Living History Program,” a costumed interpreter assists with this animation, demonstrating the museum’s plan of appealing to different audiences through strategic interpretative methods.

As an indecisive person, I was a bit overwhelmed upon first visiting the museum’s website. Which of the tour options would provide me with the best sense of the tenement’s history? After poking around reviews and travel forums to gauge the tours’ popularity, I chose “Getting By.” This tour, which took place on the second floor of the building, visited the restored apartments of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family in the 1870s and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family in the 1930s. While I was initially disappointed that my experience of the building would be limited to one level, and a bit skeptical that an hour-long tour could sustain interest while restricted to two small apartments, I was ultimately impressed with the scope of the experience and saw the benefits of offering multiple tours.

The reason that one floor was sufficient material for an hour was that the interpreter used each apartment as the setting for telling the story of a family who actually lived there, and then generating a discussion of the family’s conditions in relation to a modern context. She interwove the historical accounts with questions designed to help the audience observe certain characteristics of the apartments and to connect with the families, not only by occupying the space they once inhabited but also by considering the emotions and thought processes that might have accompanied certain events in the history. These questions ranged from “What does the word ‘tenement’ make you think of?” to “What would you do if you were Natalie Gumpertz and your husband disappeared?,” from “How does the 1930s apartment look different from the 1870s apartment?” to “How did your own ancestors get by in the Depression?”

Throughout the tour, the interpreter was clear about what facts the museum did and did not know, even passing around the documents that were the basis for the museum’s research. She encouraged visitors to fill in the gaps between these facts with their own conjectures and experiences, as opposed to fabricating a narrative undifferentiated from fact. It was unclear whether the furnishings and objects in the apartments were original artifacts (although the guide later clarified that many were), and these objects were often not identified or interpreted. The goal of the tour was not to experience individual elements of the apartments, which again were quite small, but to experience each space as a whole. The few objects with which visitors interacted—turning the light switch to experience the hallway in historically-accurate darkness, passing around a sad iron to feel its weight—were used to produce the effect of simulation and help visitors to better relate, even at a corporeal level, to the families whose stories they were hearing.

the Baldizzi kitchen, courtesy of the Tenement Museum

This sense of connection reached a climax when the interpreter paused before leaving the Baldizzi apartment to play for us a bit of oral history from the Baldizzi daughter Josephine, now an older woman. As we stood in the kitchen, Josephine described concrete memories of how her family used that space, while the interpreter subtly directed our attention to the objects to which Josephine was referring—Linit Starch, a gas heater, a set of Chinese checkers. Through these multiple means of interaction, interweaving documented facts, visitor-driven speculation, object-based simulation, oral history, and personal reflection, the Tenement Museum has addressed the challenges of engaging visitors, appealing to universal themes and to both emotions and intellects, and guiding visitors to discover their own sense of the significance of this historic place. In the end, the visitors from Texas, California, Australia, and the native New Yorkers on the tour with me could all relate to the families who had lived in the tenement. The comments that I heard afterward multiple times were “great research” and “great story;” I think that both were key to the Tenement Museum’s interpretation plan.

Seeking a white night (and avoiding a dark day) in Toronto

I’m back from a slight blogging respite; the last two weeks have been whirlwindy! This time last week, I was on my way back from Canada after Saturday’s nocturnal wanderings at Nuit Blanche, billed as an annual chance to “experience Toronto transformed by artists” from “6:59 pm to sunrise.” For the past three nuits blanches, I’ve awoken to 3am phone calls from my partner, M, narrating street installations of color and light, with strains in the background of electric sound, or opera, and hanging up has felt like letting some little magical portal fall closed. My expectations, then, were high for our first chance to go together; at the same time, they were vague, the imagining of an energetic blur of color, light, sound. And as such, they were absolutely met.

This year, Nuit Blanche included over 130 projects sprouting from corners and squares throughout the city; buildings and streets became both art and museum, actor and stage. It would have been difficult to predict and plot which sites most merited a visit, and impossible to see them all, so our path was a bit more organic; we used Yonge Street as a spine and wandered from King up to Wellesley. While the projects varied in individual potency—for some, the primary source of magic was surely their setting in the cold midnight city—the overall effect of migrating from light source to sound-and-light source was one of profound and somehow invigorating disorientation. Many of the installations were interactive, reintroducing us to the city by altering our interchange with it.

My first true sense of this effect was the “Soon” installation, which artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard explained as “a materialization, a frozen moment between the before and after. Something above Commerce Court is watching us and an inexplicable encounter unfolds.” As spotlights from a building top scanned the courtyard, filling with people and smoke and nervous, toneless music, we stood dazed. But one couple began to run, chased by the light, and then another, and then people stepped to the rim of the central fountain, their arms outstretched as if in some extraterrestrial gesture. It was unclear whether they were hired to take part in the spectacle or simply responding as they saw others respond, and that was part of the intrigue.
“The Way Up is the Way Down,” by Dennis Hale and Mike Sharpe, was described as “an enigmatic, floating, flashing amber beacon” intended to “transform public space and the meaning of civic engagement.” When we dialed a given number from M’s mobile, this glowing pendulum shook and rang like the possessed dial of a rotary phone suspended above Bay Street and King Street West, then shrank back to silence—the call unanswered, no message left.

“Intensity” by John Notten began with a queue outside a tent, and the enigmatic separation of tall people from short as we were directed through openings. Inside, we were submerged beneath low-hanging cloth; we felt our way along this makeshift ceiling until a hole emerged overhead. Coming up for air, M and I found ourselves in a pocket of space, a little dome of translucent fabric; through it we saw, in a communal, laughing realization with everyone else inside, that our heads were housed in miniature tents pitched on a lit stretch of turf. As the project description explained, “while you may think you’re entering the presentation centre for a new, luxury condominium development, you will find yourself in the middle of a seemingly endless tent city. Occupancy is fleeting, for within minutes you will be evicted.” Indeed, as soon as we had regained our bearings in this strange tent world, a disembodied voice instructed us to leave the premises immediately; we ducked back down, and out, to readjust to the open night.

Nearby in the Bay and Adelaide Center Courtyard, we stood in another line for “FLUXe,” the Scotiabank-sponsored “immersive art experience” that would let us “digitally transform the urban landscape.” At our turn, M and I were given a Blackberry tablet and instructed to select from nine artists whose strokes we could use to draw on the screen. We first chose Nanami Cowdroy, and our fingertips released a stream of etched cranes that were projected on the side of the building in front of us. (We were later able to access our chef d’œuvre online; see below!) City and color and light converged, literally beneath our hands.

our masterpiece

On a significant side note…That this flurry of cultural activity could bring hundreds of thousands of people to shun sleep and huddle in the streets, seemed ironic when four days earlier, Toronto’s City Council had considered the closures of several (unidentified) city-run museums based on low attendance—though, thankfully, voted to postpone them. While the potential cuts will soon be reconsidered, this reprieve allows time to rally the cultural troops and reflect on how to safeguard Toronto’s arts and heritage. The city cannot assume from any quantitative data that its cultural sites lack relevance, or that its citizens lack interest; it should take any numerical declines as simply signs that it should express and foster more pride and delight in its own resources. Nuit Blanche showed in no uncertain terms that energy and curiosity abound in Toronto; when people are beckoned to engage directly with the arts and the built environment, they will do so from 6:59pm to sunrise and leave wanting more.

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.