Archive for category History in our surroundings

Thousands of Stories

If private property is the foundation of our nation and its economy, there may be no better place to see it at ground level than in a registry of deeds, where records of real estate transactions are kept.  The offices and rooms that house the documents offer a step back in history with their collections of oversized, dusty, heavy books and their card files of grantors and grantees (legalese for sellers and buyers) to ease tracing of ownership.  Here one can find thousands of transactions which, taken together represent the legal underpinnings of our society.  Separately, each deed tells a story and represents one of life’s milestones.  The entries speak of hope and promise, of failure and tragedy of our forebears.

Admittedly, my sample size for registries is small – just two.  But, if either of the Berkshire registries I’ve visited is any indication, there is no need for a time capsule.  Crossing the threshold into these offices will suffice: they are housed in old buildings themselves with high ceilings, wooden floors and “scary” downstairs bathrooms, as one staff person told me.  Hundreds of volumes are stacked either in floor-to-ceiling shelves or under stand-up counters upon which the books can be heaved and opened and studied.  Each of the shelves has a roller at the edge to allow for easy access and maintenance of these volumes.  The older tall shelving includes a bicycle-chain like contraption so they can be raised and lowered.  Out of place are the occasional computer terminal and photo-copy machine that remind visitors that this is, after all, the 21st century.

The books themselves tell a story of innovation and change, but also of permanence.  Now, of course, records are kept digitally as well as in books that are half the size of the pre-1970 variety – easily a foot and a half in length, a foot wide and three inches thick, representing 600-plus pages.  At one time, the deeds were photocopied for these books, and even earlier they were individually typed with carbon paper.  Prior to the 1920s, the deeds were each written out by hand, stirring images of Melville’s Bartleby facing a mountain of documents to carefully and neatly transcribe all day long.  Over the almost two hundred years these oversized volumes have gone through periods of  metal bindings and then transferred to hard leather and cardboard bindings rendering the documents they house safe from mishandling.  Most are covered in a heavy, course fabric which shows the wear of use  – the stains and spills and the rips.

The legal language remains surprisingly consistent over the past 100 plus years – warrants and grants, easements and quitclaims, and privileges and appurtenances.  Likewise, a description of a property transferred that was surveyed in the 1800s carries over into this century, explaining that the property begins at a certain pipe adjacent or “thence easterly on the South line of land of said Bracewell heirs, 66 feet to a stake and stones.”  Sometime the measurements are precise; other times they reflect bygone ways of measuring using rods and links, and still other times they are perilously vague and general.

Still, earlier social norms are hard to hide.  There is a whole slew of deeds from the 1800s all the way up to the 1950s that announce in bold calligraphy at the top of the page: “Know all Men by these Presents” which by the sensibilities of 2014 sounds jarring in itself, but even more so when both the buyer and the seller are women.  That is more common than one might imagine, given the prohibitions against voting and other social participation. For married couples back into the 1800s, it seems that wives insisted that the property be in both names.  When only one name was given it was not unusual that it was the wife’s.  If this was to protect against creditors going after debtors’ property, women stepped forward again to insist that any stupid financial decisions taken by the men in the family would not cause irredeemable harm.

It’s hard, though, not to see each transfer of ownership as a landmark event in each of these individuals’ lives.  There are real estate tycoons who owned large tracts of multiple properties and sold off individual parcels; there is a surprising amount of stability in some neighborhoods, where families owned the house for decades, and then passed it on to their children.  In others, there are sales every few years.  The fluctuations in the economy are reflected in the housing prices so that it was not uncommon to see home prices higher in the early 1900s than in the 1930s.  The saddest are the references to foreclosures or seizures by banks and courts and even sheriffs, more often than expected.  This seems to take place just a few years after the purchase, leaving the impression that their ability to make house payments was limited even as they were buying the home.

Most people in these books are local, but I have seen sellers from Washington DC and Washington state, from Illinois and Idaho and Ohio and even one from London. There are a few investors, including one J. Walter Thompson from New York City, the advertising pioneer who came from Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  The names also reflect the waves of immigrants that came to this part of Massachusetts, from Quebec and Ireland, Italy and Poland, and now Latin America.  The Minnies and Leocadies and Annabelles have been replaced by Laurens and Jessicas and Christophers.

Each entry has a story, enough for a novel perhaps.  Take but one entry, that of one deed from the Veterans Administration, to a man, presumably young, at the end of World War II.  The VA had acquired the home following a foreclosure and turned it over, most likely to a veteran, recently married since the deed includes her maiden name.  Both were from North Adams, so they could have met in high school on the eve of the war and kept up a correspondence through the war years.  He had to have been young when they bought the house, since he passed away in 1987, forty years in the same house with his sweetheart.  She hired a lawyer to place her house in a trust, to protect her largest asset, (again speculating) in the event her medical bills exceeded her ability to pay.  This is the lived experience of veterans being rewarded for their service in a previous generation or the state of medical care in this century whose rising costs threaten a lifetime’s savings.  Add to this story their children, the jobs, the neighbors and the vicissitudes of life in western Massachusetts with factory closings and 4th of July parades and winter storms.  Where is Norman Rockwell?

Image

Inside the Registry in Adams, MA. Photo: J. Dickson

And that’s just one couple, one of what must be hundreds of thousands of names tucked away in these books.  Step back in time and find a story.

Leave a comment

Behind the Green Curtain

On the scaffold, behind the curtain, preparing to remove the stained glass panels.  Photo, the author.

On the scaffold, behind the curtain, preparing to remove the stained glass panels. Photo, the author.

There are stories behind the green curtain that people walk and drive by each day.  It’s not just the five stories of scaffolding that the curtain shields for the ongoing preservation work of the old Berkshire Athenaeum on Park Square in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  It also shields stories related to the complexity of preserving this building, stories about its benefactor and architect, and stories narrating the evolution of the city.

Above the front entrance to this Victorian Gothic monument is an inscription that reads “This tribute to science, art and literature is the gift of Thomas Allen to his native town.”  Thomas Allen, a railway baron before there were such men, moved out of Pittsfield and did go west, to Missouri, where he set himself up in the railroad business, and then ran for state office to help get the legislation needed for land acquisitions.  He predated Andrew Carnegie by decades in donating the money for a new library for the town in 1874.

Allen selected the design of William Appleton Potter, a young architect from New York who specialized in Victorian Gothic buildings: grand, ornamental Gilded Age structures, permanent grey and brown stone monuments, with pointed arches, skylights, gables and stained glass windows. Potter had designed the library at Princeton University, and the two men shared a Union College connection.  Perhaps, though, it was through Potter’s brother-in-law who was the sculptor of the Civil War soldiers’ memorial on Park Square that Thomas Allen became acquainted with Potter’s work.  Allen had been a donor for that statue as well.

At the dedication to the library, Thomas Allen revealed his hopes for the new building: help save the nation.  He could have been thinking of the Civil War, as the soldiers’ memorial erected just a few years earlier was in plain sight across the park.  He also had in mind the new immigrants in the town’s mills and factories and their children who would learn the ways of their adopted homeland through the library.  As impressive and unique as it was, the building suffered from both structural and space inadequacies almost from its beginnings.  Twenty years after its opening, the library’s leaders were complaining about water leaking and insufficient space for books.  A new addition and a new museum left more room for books, but many in the library and the city spent the next half century clamoring for a new library.

The building survived, serving a population growing with the success of its chief employer, General Electric, and outlasting calls for its demolition.  With urban renewal of the 1960s claiming whole blocks of buildings just one block away, the Athenaeum escaped unscathed.  By the time the funding became available for a new library, the country and the town had turned the corner in its appreciation for historic buildings.  A new library was built a block away, but this building was re-adapted for a courthouse and registry of deeds.

As one of 8 historic structures, the Park Square historic district received approval for placement on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1975.  As such, it has helped sustain a downtown that has suffered loss of business and consumers since then.  Pittsfield’s efforts to revitalize its downtown over the last two decades have relied on the presence of its historic buildings that offer an attractive and authentic vitality to the city.

Its structural problems remain, however.  One engineer assessed the situation in the 1970s simply: William Potter was trying to do too much, too many roofs, too many places for water to seep behind the stones and through the skylight. As the water would freeze and thaw, it would open up more space for water to seep, increasing the bulging.  Major structural repairs, including steel ties across the front and side elevations, were required for its stabilization in the 1970s.  Again in 2001, the rotting skylight was restored, the roof was replaced and new internal drains on the roofs were installed.

Still, by 2011, the bulging on the front had increased dramatically, as much as five to six inches in places.   In September 2013, the state embarked on a major stabilization effort, with plans to remove most of the masonry and stained glass on the front façade.  A complicated system of anchors will hold the re-laid stones in place to a reinforced back-up wall.  A simple enough sentence, but documenting and removing each stone, storing them off-site, installing new steel supports, repairing the brick back-up wall, re-laying the stones and inserting anchors and grout to hold them in place, is anything but simple.  The movement in the wall took its toll on the stain-glass windows, so a similar process of documentation, removals and repairs is underway as well.  All work is specialized to ensure the historical integrity of the building, matching colors and textures as closely as possible to the original design.

This effort will save the stories of the old Athenaeum for future generations, so they will be see in the building, stories of their immigrant, working class ancestors who made this one of the busiest libraries in the state, stories of a golden age of prosperity when wealthy elites felt a civic debt to their communities and stories of a misguided urban renewal scheme that demolished entire blocks of the city, but somehow managed to overlook this building, with the help of another generation of civic-minded individuals.

All that behind this green curtain.

1 Comment

After Sonos, what’s next?

One of the running conversation games played in my house goes like this:  which generation has seen the most amount of change in its lifetime?  The discussion usually happens after watching some old episode of Seinfeld where Jerry’s doing body building by lifting his cell phone, or some photograph of a professional football player from the 1950s whose physique makes him look like a chess player, rather than a linebacker.

This time, though, it occurred when we bought the latest music delivery system, a Sonos system about the size of a shoebox with a speaker and no other components.  No wires, no amp, no discs or tapes or records. 

My own history with recorded and broadcast music starts with the small AM transistor radio and graduates to the Hi-Fi record player capable of playing both 33 rpm albums and 45 rpm singles.  My grandfather had a contraption that could record voices on a disc, and he seemed to favor 78 rpm discs.  There were several drawbacks to these, most notably that you had to stand up and walk over to the record player to turn the record over or to skip a song that you didn’t like. 

That you had to listen to all the songs on a record or actually move to skip the one you hated helped sell me on my first tape recorder.  It was a small reel-to-reel machine that could handle tapes of roughly 15 minutes.  These I used and re-used for my own personal playlists.  The low-tech way of recording was to stick the little mic up to the speaker of the record player, but that changed when we were able to master the wire audio in and out connections.  But, I get ahead of myself as I haven’t even touched on cassette tapes or even everyone’s favorite anachronism, the 8-track cartridges. 

One advantage of record playing albums still survives to this day.  We pretty much learned how to read by poring over the album liner notes, that were actually written in a type size you didn’t need a magnifying glass for.  You didn’t have to go to a screen to find information about the artist, and you could easily follow along with the lyrics that were often printed on the album cover or sleeve.

The transfer to stereo music — bigger and bigger speakers, with components for an amplifier and a tuner for radio — was about the last music technology that I actually cared to try to keep up with and understand. Hauling one of these to college or to yet another apartment required a small U-Haul.  I can actually remember where I was when I heard my first compact disc, as if it was equivalent to remembering where I was when Kennedy was shot or when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.   The quality of sound, with no scratches or distortions, and the lack of a needle or tape head picking up the sound made this a true wonder.

To lose the needle was hard enough to fathom; to lose the actual physical thing the music was stored on came next as recorded music leapt from CD to IPOD and phone and file sharing.  Hello Napster and ITunes, goodbye Tower Records.  

It’s good business for the industry as people end up scrapping all the components and all the records and tapes they own every 5-6 years.   Then as hip-hop music picks up on record scratching for its edgy, urban sound, we end up looking for the old records and players we used to own, and then going out to buy those again if we no longer have them buried away in our attic or storage units. 

All this makes for pretty dramatic change in the course of one life.  Still, my wife is not convinced that this is evidence of more change in our lifetime than in our great grandparents’ who witnessed the arrival of recorded music with the invention of the gramophone in the 1870s.  This shift took a medium that could only be enjoyed live into one that allowed for repeat performances on demand.  What my generation experienced was not so fundamental, since it just changed the nature of recorded music, its delivery system.

So, to ponder this more fully, I’ll go to my phone, find the Sonos App and decide whether to tap into my hundreds of purchased songs on my computer, my account with Pandora for their thousands of songs, or any of thousands of radio stations around the world.

Several generations of music delivery; photo the author.

Several generations of music delivery; photo the author.

It’s a far cry from listening to Cousin Brucie on WABC-radio.

 

 

Leave a comment

The Power of Film

No matter how many times I have read about slavery and all its accompanying violence, I was still unprepared for the impact of visualizing the beatings, the rapes, the breaking apart of families, the hangings and other assorted fears and horrors portrayed in 12 Years a Slave.   This new film by British director Steve McQueen tells the story of Solomon Northrup, a free Black man from Saratoga New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and then wrote a book about his ordeal upon his release after 12 years working on a string of southern plantations in the mid-18th century.

Solomon, from his autobiography published in 1855

Solomon, from his autobiography published in 1855

I had to cover my eyes on several occasions; my wife walked out during one scene, so disturbed.  Yet, while she said at the end of the film that she “hated the movie,” I walked away thinking this was a movie every American should see.  Both sentiments came from the same effect of the realities of the institution of slavery.  She hated to see the suffering so vividly captured.  She

was right in that it was certainly something to hate.  The film though succeeded in evincing her reaction, and therefore was effective in forcing people to see exactly what it means to read about a slave getting a whipping, the oozing welts crisscrossing the back, the keloid scars, and the immediate return to the fields to work.  It would be hard to walk out of that movie and think that those scars on individuals long since dead do not still, or should not still, weigh on the national consciousness.

It wasn’t just the graphic violence which was so horrifying. The film was also able to show the endemic fear and indifference on the plantation.  “I survive,” said Solomon at one point to a mother whose grief over her lost children was inconsolable, leading ultimately to her own death at the hands of her owner.  Living in fear of the whims and temperament of the person who controlled your existence was the norm.  So was the indifference, as McQueen showed owners’ wives watching casually from the balconies of their houses as punishments were meted out.  Even other slaves went about their daily chores as Solomon struggled to stand on his tiptoes to avoid choking to death from the noose around his neck.

This film reminded me of 42 or Brokeback Mountain, Schindler’s List, or even The Passion in their ability to evince a transformational reaction, through the visual portrayal of suffering, despite the abundance of the printed word on

topics portrayed in those movies.  People have heard of the abuse Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues, received when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, but seeing an opposing manager yell out the n-word repeatedly has the ability to shock that words on a page simply cannot convey.

I am unsure of the appropriate reaction, from a national, collective perspective.  It has to lie somewhere between the c

asual “national conversation” and the probably unrealistic reparations claims.  Steve McQueen, said in a New York Tim

es interview that he wanted people to see the connections of this historic past to the present, in Trayvon Martin, in our prisons crowded with African-American offenders, in still segregated neighborhoods.  Ridley Scott, the script writer, said on the PBS News Hour that he wanted Americans to confront this past.

 Two final points.  Going back to Roots or even further To Kill a Mockingbird, film has helped place race and slavery in the forefront of our national consciousness.  The frequency of films exploring these themes has increased in recent years, from 42 to The Help and even Django Unchained.   These films have achieved both commercial success and critical acclaim.  Do their frequency

and success have more to do with an increased public acceptance to confront this uncomfortable past, or more of a need for the country to face its legacies?

Finally, it is unfortunate that 12 Years a Slave is not in theaters in my hometown.  Movies like Ender’s Game and Thor, the Dark World dominate the local complexes, so we had to travel to an adjoining town to an arts theater to see the movie.  So much for my hope that every American view this film about the real dark world, that of slavery in our past, and its vestiges in our present.

Leave a comment

The Poetry in Emily’s and Austin’s Homes

Time for another field trip.  This time to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst Massachusetts.  It turns out the Herman Melville is not the only American author who achieved public and literary acclaim only long after his death.  So did Emily Dickinson with her poetry, but with a twist: she never sought that acclaim in her lifetime.

The only known photo of Emily Dickinson, the original owned now by Amherst College

The only known photo of Emily Dickinson, the original owned now by Amherst College

Emily’s house, now a museum, is actually two houses.  One, next door, belonged to her brother Austin; both help to tell the story of her writing.  What draws people to the home is this story of a private woman, creating, in bursts of prolific energy, a poetry ahead of its time and for the ages, but not publishing any of it.  It is through Austin that the world eventually gets to see and appreciate the poetry.  It is hard to know if mid-18th century American readers were ready for her poetry, which expanded the boundaries of the form.

Still, the renovations and additions, the wallpaper and paintings, the path and hedge of both houses are historic traces, primary sources themselves, revealing the complicated relationships between Austin, his wife, his daughter, his paramour and his sister.  Through the objects, the museum guide is able to craft the story of how Emily’s writing became known to the outside world.  It is a story which speaks to us today, of women’s roles in society, of the unknown loss of similar treasure due to an inability to contribute fully.   There is a strong possibility that her poetry may never have emerged.

The two side-by-side historic houses tell a different story as well, a story of authenticity in their contrasting models of preservation.  They tell a story of authenticity, juxtaposing ways to create an honest portrayal of how we now can appreciate the lives of the siblings, how we now understand the story of her writing.  Emily’s house, The Homestead, is restored, with fresh, clean paint and new wallpaper, sanded floors, with new work underway to “take away the 20th century in Emily’s bedroom,” as Jane Wald, the director of the museum, characterized the project.  Austin’s house, The Evergreens, on the other hand, stands as it was found and transferred to the museum, with nothing changed or restored.  The walls are moldy and crumbling, the wallpaper is peeling, the rugs threadbare and the furniture unfinished.  Dark and smelly.  It is a ruin, akin to one of those old stone walls scattered in the New England woods.

The contrast has much to do with what transpired between the Dickinson occupation/ownership of the houses and their acquisition by Amherst College, and then the museum.  Simply, Austin’s home was kept intact, first by his by his daughter Martha and then by her heir, the young man who helped Martha edit Emily’s poetry for publication.  Next door, no Dickinson lived in Emily’s home after her unmarried sister Lavinia’s death in 1899, 14 years after Emily died.  First tenants, then new owners moved in to The Homestead, and they renovated and changed features of the structure.  Once the house was bought by Amherst College, then work began to restore to as faithful a version as possible the house Emily lived in.

Which is authentic?  Both, but it depends.  It depends on how we approach them.  Authenticity implies honesty.  Austin’s home in its ruinous state, does not honestly reflect how he and his family lived.  The threadbare carpets gave it away; they alone do not allow anyone to say “this is how the house looked when Austin lived here.”  It may have been Austin’s carpet, but it is not how it looked in his tenure.  Emily’s home, preserved, does try to reflect the “present-ness” of how Emily lived.  But, it is only a reflection, and as a re-creation, is a present version, unable to say without caveats, “this is precisely how the house looked when Emily lived here.”  Her plush carpet may look like the one she had, but it is not the same carpet.

From a preservation perspective, it is useful to have the two different approaches side-by-side.  From the insights which the two houses tell us about gender and art, the juxtaposition also offers meaning, by showing both the actual, deteriorating objects in Austin’s home, but re-imagining them to a prior era in Emily’s home.  Side-by-side, these traces complement each other, the real and the imagined, to tell the story of women’s lives and routines and the central role of their homes.

 

Leave a comment