“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.

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.

 

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.

The Packrat Gene: an almost uncanny update

Last month, I speculated that genetics and “packratism” were largely to blame for my becoming a preservationist. Today, I’ve been smiling for hours since I found in my mailbox unexpected and nearly unbelievable proof that I was right.

Since my grandma passed away last year, my aunt has been sifting through the museum of her house in New Braunfels, Texas. It has been a slow job, despite the fact that Grandma left all of her keepsakes sorted in labeled boxes and Ziploc bags—or more accurately, because of it. My aunt and parents have uncovered treasures from Grandma’s past that they didn’t know existed, and might never have found if it hadn’t been for her archival system.

She often mailed notes—always handwritten in cursive—in envelopes thickened with clipped coupons, newspaper articles, and comic strips (a habit my mom has happily since adopted). In the mail this afternoon, I received an envelope from my aunt with a note (handwritten in cursive) explaining that she had found a cartoon, clipped from a newspaper by Grandma, at the bottom of a box, and had immediately remembered my blog post.

I swear that I had never seen this before launching my defense of the archival mindset also known as packrattiness, or even talked to Grandma about the idea. See for yourself; this might look like just a comic strip, but to me, it is part of a continuing confirmation that life is a comedy, and death isn’t much of a separation, after all.

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.