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.

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.

 

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?