Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Night at Madame Tussaud's

(c) 2005 m. wells
Currently working on a graphic novel with Nancy Debretsion, about a Peter Lorre and Miriam Hopkins play by Edwin Justus Mayer which was performed in 1952. The play is "a shocker in the Grand Guignol manner" and the backstory includes Bertolt Brecht and Ronald Reagan, among others. More images will be available soon.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Grosse Point Lighthouse

HABS Documentation of Grosse Point Lighthouse, Evanston, IL, now available at the Historic American Buildings Survey website. The Hinckley House in Hinsdale, IL, will also be up soon.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Eastern State Penitentiary

(c) 2005, m. wells

Eastern State Penitentiary, in the heart of Philadelphia, is a preservation project extraordinaire. Not only that, but it serves as haunted house, filming locale, art gallery, and an excellent Fourth of July diversion. I went there on the fourth with my friends from the Baltimore-area, punk-folk musician Kellee Webb, and Scott (Rooster) from Rooster and the Cocks of the Walk, a psychobilly band.

Anyway, the place is amazing, and highly recommended--especially for preservationists. Have a look, and see what greatness can occur when a building isn't messed with much, but left to decay as it would without intervention. The result is beautiful. It isn't an option for all preservation projects, but it certainly works for this building. I'm not sure what the ultimate intention is, but I hope that at least some wings are left as is, in the process of preservation.

They have made some interesting additions since the 1970s, when the building closed. These include the tidied and furnished cell that held Al Capone, complete with oil painting, desk and lamp, and more; a cell block where the original look of the front of the cells was recaptured (as a penitentiary, the prisoners originally had no contact--not even visual contact--with other prisoners); and a few cells which have been cleaned out and replastered, so that one can see what the place might have looked like when inhabited by regular prisoners.

They have also included art exhibits, which really add to the appeal of the place. If you can make it in time, don't miss the ghost cats. Also, the sound exhibit in one of the cell blocks is chilling. Also, various pipes lead the way to escape routes used over the years.

The building itself is pretty interesting. Opened in 1829, the principles of the building were radical. It called for complete isolation, and a panopticon design--both of which hindered escape, and were essential to futhering the Quaker philosophy of the place. The idea was to truly reform criminals, and to return them to society without anyone knowing they had been imprisoned. Also interesting was the inclusion of indoor plumbing--not just in some locations, but in every cell! The stories of Willie Sutton, Al Capone, the tunnel escape, the cat-inhabitants and much more, are told here. It's worth a trip.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Rio Sombrero

(c) 2005, m. wells

The last one in the Idaho Falls series (for now). This little row of storefronts was in perfect shape, each with its color-block of siding, and the neon design for the Rio, meant to be quite eye-catching. I wish I had taken a picture at night, actually--but I'm not entirely sure it would have been lit-up. Though the sign says "open," I didn't detect a lot of activity around the building.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Idaho Falls City Building

(c) 2005, m.wells

The City-Building of Idaho Falls would look a lot bigger if that truck wasn't sitting there. The architect seems to have gone to great lengths to give the illusion of size--including the hefty columns, the tripartite design, and the dark brick. All undone.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Nick's Trading Company and Lottery

(c) 2005, m. wells

One of the many older storefronts in downtown Idaho Falls. I especially like how "Nick's" is spelled with five different typefaces.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Idaho Falls Downtown

(c) 2005, m. wells

Idaho Falls, readily identifiable from afar by the gleaming white spire of the Latter Day Saints Temple on the falls, is a small town that boomed in the early 1950s, due to the precursor of INL, the NRTS. NRTS, and Argonne National Laboratory-West brought scientific and engineering talent to the area, and created work in the Idaho desert. The people I met in Idaho Falls were modest about their small city, and particularly about their downtown, which admittedly was like many towns you see across the United States--but I liked it.

I set out early in the morning, crossed the falls from the Red Lion Hotel, walking towards the Museum of Idaho. There are about six intersections of interest in the downtown, and unless you're heading out to the strip for some shopping sprawl, everything is quite walkable. While many of the old storefronts are closed (including this Chinese restaurant, seen above) the bakeries and antique stores appear to get a lot of business. There is poverty and grit, as in all small cities, but I was pleased to see the local police force treating the homeless population with respect.

The downtown has perfectly preserved (probably by virtue of the fact that they have been empty all this time) its 1920s-1960s storefronts. There is a melange of style, from the more ornate eclectic period, to Moderne (that is, Art Deco in a more horizontal style), to the permastone and colored siding applied to buildings in the modern era. Some of these buildings, modified in the 1950s and 60s, are, I think, superior examples of the style. After all, as these modifications age, and no longer look contemporary, they are often dismantled. While they look bad to us now, we may regret the wholesale destruction of them later on. I will be posting a few photographs of these "modern" storefronts shortly.

At the edge of the downtown is a wide, dusty strip of railroad tracks (about six tracks, I think). Across the tracks is the Museum of Idaho, a partially historic, partially modern building which was previously a library. The nose of a aircraft is emerging from the modern structure, to announce the Space Exhibit currently on display.

Finally: the mystery of the low houses. On a drive around town, I saw two of a group of low houses--houses in which all the living space was below ground, and only the top of the house and the roofline was above ground. Unfortunately, I was not able to snap any pictures of these. I speculated that this might be some kind of natural disaster protection, but as local Bill Ginkel told me, the explanation is much simpler. When people moved to Idaho Falls in the 50s, they bought land and started to build their houses. Often, the money they had was only enough to build the basement, and in order to make it through the year, presumably, a roof had to be put on the half-built house. Some of these houses were never finished, and remain basement houses. The story reminded me of the garage houses in Chicago.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Idaho Falls and surrounding desert

Two buttes near the Experimental Breeder Reactor I on the INL campus, as seen in April. I was out in Idaho for the opening of the Race for Atomic Power exhibit at the Museum of Idaho, with AHF, Academy Studios, and many others. Robert from AS and I wanted to hijack the car and go up to Craters of the Moon (only about 80 miles, I think), but no time for that. There is some great hiking and animal spotting in the nearby area. Just on the drive up to EBR-I, I saw two pronghorn and a coyote. Check out the Museum of Idaho if you get a chance.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Oakland, California

(c) photograph by m. wells

This photograph was taken in 2002, near downtown Oakland, very close to the Fruitvale BART Station. The building was not being torn down in its entirety, but modified from its former life as a commercial-industrial structure, to a new one as loft housing for the growing Bay Area population. Still, seeing the building like this, with rebar and concrete everywhere, seems a little sad, nonetheless.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Robert E. Lee Motel

(c) photograph by m. wells

Somewhere between Bristol, Tennessee, and Abingdon, Virginia, stands the Robert E. Lee Motel. Back in the summer of 2001, I and my car made a series of trips around this area. It was before I was a preservationist, but the seeds of it were in me: history, art, architecture, and storytelling.

My friends gave me exceedingly complex directions to backcountry locations. One of these was a junkyard, seemingly abandoned. Cars from the 30s, 40s, and 50s were sinking into the soft earth here, only their headlights visible from the road through the thick brush and Virginia Creeper. My search for the perfect grille was abruptly ended by an adrenaline-inducing chase though the forest by junkyard dogs and a man in a blue pickup truck. On another backcountry trip, I encountered a revival in yellow and white striped tents.

In the case of the Lee Motel, I was armed with only one thing--the camera. I came to an abrupt stop at a gas station across the road from this fetching Moderne motel. If only it had been night-time, and the place had been open: the neon sign would have been lit, and so enticing. But it was not open, and it was heavily overgrown. Some of the plants had come in at the windows, and through cracks in the structure and pavement. A man at the gas pump was watching me. I could hardly try and slip through the windows, or around back without rousing some suspicion. But I snapped this picture, and I still remember the crickets humming.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Lowenthal on Heritage Sites

I’ve been thinking about David Lowenthal’s chapter in Giving Preservation a History, “The Heritage Crusade and its Contradictions.” I find the chapter to be a little incendiary, considering that Lowenthal is writing to an audience of preservationists, and he himself has been working with heritage sites, most recently with ICOMOS. Still, a little professional unease is good--it means that we’re thinking critically about our work.

He was, I think, on the mark to say that the American obsession with heritage is a little out of control—and he means heritage in the broadest sense, from founding fathers and battlegrounds to baseball cards and lunch boxes. Heritage has grown to encompass all that is past, trivial or grandiose.

Interestingly, he notes that this kind of heritage--heritage as a physical manifestation--is particular to Western countries. He talks a little about Asia, and specifically China, in illustration of this. I was interested in this, in light of the Historic Preservation Department’s recent trip to China, and I wonder if this ever came up in discussion, either during the trip, or afterwards. Citing Wang Gungwu and Pierre Ryckmans (and others), Lowenthal writes that heritage in Asia is best understood through living tradition--creative skills, art, letters, memory—and not through remains or monuments. This does fit with my impressions of the intellectual history of China in the past century and a half, and while monuments and sites may be destroyed there (and they have) it is less easy to erase traditional thought and practice. In the end, this may have been looked to for its essential Chineseness.

But it seems that the Western notion of heritage is spreading too, since the proliferation of monuments and heritage sites is occurring abroad as well as at home.

There is something to the heritage movement, in all its forms, that makes sense to me (besides its creation of work for me to do). Durkheim once wrote that socialism was “a cry of pain,” rather than a political movement. Heritage, too, perhaps. While heritage is not a directly opposite reaction to rampant capitalism and the discomfort it causes, neither can it be seen as in line with capitalism, philosophically. I can easily see how heritage could be an emotional response to a real threat--to anything that doesn’t constitute the highest and best use of your little chunk of property.

It is one thing to say that we don’t need a glut of old material (be it buildings, excess paper at archives, or a never-ending supply of collector’s items) and that there ought to be room for innovation. It is another to ask that we take losses in the way of historical remains, and get neither innovation nor beauty in return--but things which were not intended to last and which do not make us very happy.

Lowenthal suggests, all too briefly, that we might turn our efforts to preserving our traditional creative skills, our cultural and intellectual tradition, and of course, memory. All of this is fine, of course, but none of these things serves well as currency, and as a result, they aren’t always valued. Real estate does, and is.