A few days ago, I posted some pictures of a young cardinal, and mentioned that even though the chick had left the nest, its parents would continue their GrubHub deliveries.
That prompted me to look up “grub.” Because reading the big dictionary, that’s the kind of excitement you can have, after months of quarantine.
I’d always thought that grub, in the sense of food, was cowboy slang – kind of surprising to find out, the OED lists its first use as 1659!
I took that as a Sign.
Thinking about 1659 + grub +cowboys . . .
I should write about Old New York, back when it was The Frontier.
Once upon a time, New York (then called New Netherlands) was the Wild West — a rip-roaring settlement, clearly no country for old men. Like a colonial version of Dodge City – – cattle grazing, land barons, company stores, unprovoked attacks on Native Americans, gullible hayseeds from Weehawken, etc.
“Hayseeds” have been sticking around since 1577 (“hicks,” “yokels,” and “rubes” wouldn’t shamble along until much later), to provide comic relief, and to hire on as Barney Fife deputies (the ones whose only line is “They went thataway.”)
“Comic relief” wasn’t invented until 1783, and people pretty much just scowled all through the colonial era.
“Bandannas” didn’t mosey along until 1741. The Dutch proto-cowboys used to lament “How you gonna look tough / When you’re wearin’ a ruff?”
In those bucolic days of yore, Manhattan was a lush, verdant island, a little slice of Edam.
And the European settlers brought in livestock.
(Out-of-towners might say “Cattle drives? in New York?!” and the locals reply, “Haven’t you ever been to New York? They let anybody drive!”)
And I thought, they must’ve had cowboys.
But I was wrong.
It turns out to be an example, of just how badly History is organized.
Because according to the big book, there weren’t any “cowboys” to eat the grub in 1659. That word didn’t ride over the horizon until 1725.
Before that, those folks were saddled with a lame, generic job description, just lumped together with “herders” (1625, from a Dutch word), and shepherds tending their flocks, sometimes by night (without getting paid time and a half).
So, if there weren’t any cowboys, just who was eating this antique grub? And prior to 1725, did the cows just wander around, unsupervised and untutored, in the streets?
I checked, often they did.
“Milkmaids” (invented in 1552) had a surprisingly strong union, and refused to do any “herding, wrangling, or bovine guidance of any kind.”
Cattle & swine roamed freely for centuries, rooting around in gutters, eating the nasturtiums out of folks’ flower beds, leaving hoof marks on the Bowling Green, and making the tavern floors quite a mess.
With no cowboys to keep order, it was just the Dark Ages, practically, and you really had to watch where you stepped.
“Howdy!” The greeting is derived from the old-time, cheese-loving cowboys of New Netherlands, from their salutation “Gouda!”
Even when History finally had cowboys, and could’ve gotten things organized, it wasn’t that great. Turns out, the harmonica, which to me, is another essential part of the oater scene, wasn’t invented until 1821, so for almost a century, these old-time cowboys had to lug guitars around, and maybe harpsichords.
And History didn’t think of “chuckwagons” for another forty-five years, so they had to brown-bag it until 1866.
Without chuck wagons, there’s no chance of carrying eggs for a Western Omelette, or ranch dressing for your salad. “Sandwiches” had been created in 1762, but after hours in a saddlebag, no way they’re going to be in good shape. Kind of a personal night mare.
If it was me, I’d ride down the interstate until I found a “diner,” but that’s even more recent (1935). You see what I mean about disorganized history? Nothing happens in the right order.
If you’re planning on obtaining an animal this size, it would behoove you to actually read the operator’s manual, and go through an approved cow-owners’ training class, run by a professional cowboy. (“Behoove” from the Old English “behōf,” meaning, to not get underfoot or trampled by cows.)
Anyway, despite these obstacles, New Amsterdam had cattle grazing, out there in Big Sky Country (Manhattan), by 1625.
Amazon wasn’t around yet, but the West India Co. offered Free Cow Shipping, if you purchased land in the new colony (seriously).
There were even (honestly) honest-to-heck prairies in those days, in the Hempstead Plains region of Long Island.
And “desperadoes” (1647) roamed – this is a real reward notice from those days: “And whereas complaints are made that the Gardens of many persons have been robbed and their Poultry taken away, if there be any one who can give information of the Thieves…he shall be paid five & twenty guilders…” Yes, there were no trains or banks to rob, but chickens lived in fear.
Whoa, take ‘er easy there, Pilgrim. When New Amsterdam was founded, these Puritans had been living next-door in Plymouth for four years already. The Dutch remembered them, living in Leiden for ten or twenty years, and had wondered where the heck they’d gotten to.
New Amsterdam was a company town, just like Durango, Colorado – full of fur traders & colorful eccentrics, a Wild Bunch, on the frontier. Only half this bunch was Dutch (there were Danes, Swedes, Germans, Walloons, Sephardim, Huegenots, Holsteins, etc.), and it was a tolerant place, by the standards of the time — a wrangling, polyglot-trouble-spot of the good, the bad, the ugly.
And there were all those cows – then and now, The Big Apple was all about the bull market and branding.
Each year, more people are killed by cows, than by sharks. Cowboys monitor and prevent gang activity, and keep ’em on the straight ‘n’ narrow.
So by 1659, when people started eating “grub,” New York had all the makings of a good western – prairies, cows, sheriffs (called “schouten” in those days, as in “Fill your hands, and come out schouten!”), soldiers fighting Native Americans, a stockade, and windmills.
As far as I’m concerned, you have to have a clacking, creaking windmill for the right atmosphere, whether you’re filming Hans Brinker or Rio Bravo.
The stockade, along what’s now Wall St, was actually to keep out English & Yankees, not Indians, but again, a great backdrop for a western. The beer was weak in those days, but a “vaquero” (1519) could have a medicinal shot of Holland Gin, good for arrow wounds, lumbago & sciatica, which you’re gonna get after a long day in the saddle.
But tragically, in its disjointed way, poorly steered, History still lacked chuck wagons, diners, harmonicas, really portable harpsichords, steam locomotives, six-shooters, and cowboys.
Cowboy’s Lament – the end of free range beef and traditional windmills
Sorry to say a discouraging word, pardner, but it’s kinda sad, thinking of those early Dutch herders, home on the range, making sure the windmills didn’t spook the herd, and yet not considered to be cowboys. Maybe some of them, who didn’t have horses, would just take the Broadway stage to work. Glumly setting around the fire, eating their “grub” – probably pickled herrings, maybe a bowl of succotash – washed down by a tankard of warm heiferweizen.
And those colonial range riders, darned if they didn’t feel kinda unappreciated somehow, kinda…undefined, you might say, because they weren’t just herders, they were cowboys…but the word just hadn’t sprang into existence yet. Dang it.
History is just a mess.
Yep, lose the fancy duds, trade that lace ruff for a bandana, and this Dutch feller’s ready to ride. That looks to be at least a ten gallon hat.
portrait by Fredric Remington (born in Canton, NY)
Big hats, big boots, horses, cows, prairies, an addictive tobacco habit, windmills, lack of concern for personal hygiene…they were all set for to be cowboys, just didn’t have the right word for it.
But on a happier note, in the morning, there’d be cardinals singing in the trees, beautiful birds which they didn’t have back in Holland – the cardinal chick was what started this whole discussion, remember? And about exactly the same time in history that people started eating “grub,” the Dutch also started coffee plantations, in Ceylon, India, and then Indonesia, so the 17th c. cow-herders could at least have a cup of Java with their donuts.
They’d sing an ol’ cowboy lament from the Lovin’ Spoonful, accompanied only by guitar, since there weren’t no harmonicas yet:
Hot town, summer in the city Back of my neck gettin’ dirty and gritty Been down, isn’t it a pity Doesn’t seem to be a cowboy in the city
Far as I’m concerned, it ain’t a real western without a few windmills.
When my relatives Out West, roughing it in the Wasatch Range, want to do some real cowboy-style cooking, they build a fire, shovel the coals into a pit, and do Cast-Iron Dutch Oven Cooking
A native New Yorker, and cowboy, of New Netherlands descent. Teddy Roosevelt, at the chuck wagon. Lookin’ kinder ornery, like a man who spotted a saddle sore on his steak.
Yep, most a these here pictures are from The Nat’l Gallery of Art,
The Met & the U.S. Library of Congress.
I don’t hold with readin’ much, myself.
It’s jest a sight easier to make stuff up.
One of my grandmothers instilled in us a family custom, passed down from her parents, etc – – to celebrate the “first” of each summer arrival.
So, the first time you have any vegetable from the garden, for example, you’re allowed to make a wish.
When it’s fresh peas, or corn-on-the-cob, it’s also customary for me to wish for more.
These pictures are of the first cardinal fledgling I’ve seen this summer. I really enjoy seeing cardinals, and certainly wish to see more.
The chick was sitting in a bush, looking a bit disgruntled, but she was the one who violated the stay-at-home order.
Apparently it’s quite common for young cardinals to attempt to fly prematurely.
No worries, the parents will continue GrubHub services, to feed the chick until it can fly.
Although I think it’s sunflower seeds, not actual grubs.
A cellphone shot of the door on an old shed, near Barnes Corners, NY, on the Tug Hill Plateau.
I like the faded colors on it, wish I had a striped shirt like that.
I tend to like colors that have weathered a bit – had some of the newness rubbed off, like faded blue jeans.
A lot of the old-time paints, some of the oldest, I guess, used things from the earth, like iron oxide.
This reminded me, visiting The Cloisters, a museum in Washington Heights. Studying a medieval image – cracked, dim, remote – a docent mentioned that the underpainting, the layer under the face, was usually composed of greenish minerals, to tone down the pinks & reds, and get a more realistic skin tone. But those ruddy pigments don’t last forever. The face, no longer in the pink, now has a greenish cast to it, like an alien, just visiting this planet, whose disguise is wearing off.
The undercoat is called “Green Earth,” and as the image of some forgotten aristocrat fades, the Green Earth shows itself, “unaffected by light or chemicals.”
Isn’t that great?
Well, headed back to Milwaukee in about four hours, we’ll see what’s going on with those Badger State folks, see ya!
Great Blue Heronry
Whether it’s Mexico, Chile, northern Africa, the Mideast, India, Australia, etc. there’s constant news of water shortages.
Meanwhile, around the Great Lakes, collectively a fifth of the fresh water for the entire planet, people complain of damage to shoreline properties, from high water levels. Most of the shoreline trail at Sterling has been closed, due to erosion and falling trees.
The Great Lakes Charter & the Great Lakes Compact (agreements between U.S./Canadian states/provinces bordering the lakes) basically prevent the exportation of water outside the drainage basin. Every once in a while, I see an article mentioning the possibility of pipelines to California or the Southwest. These have always remained, well, pipe dreams for now. Ocean-going tanker ships can access the lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway, and there have already been attempts to set up sales of fresh water to foreign countries. I think such ideas will inevitably arise again with increasing urgency.
In the ’70’s, a local utility company purchased thousands of acres on Lake Ontario, for a nuclear power plant. About sixty miles east of Rochester, and twelve miles west of Oswego. There are already nuclear plants on the lake, near both those cities. When the plans for this plant fell through, part of the land became the Sterling Nature Center, which preserves two miles of Lake Ontario shoreline. It includes woods, a beaver pond, and other wetlands; about nine miles of trails, and is a great place for bird-watchers.
A young beaver paddled around in circles, apparently curious about us.
I was watering a climbing honeysuckle yesterday, didn’t notice this creature at first, and inadvertently rained on its parade.
The damp moth fluttered to the lawn, and I took a snap with my phone.
It dried its wings for a minute in the sun, and flew across the lawn, but couldn’t gain altitude.
A catbird noticed, and swooped down.
And those “false eyespots” worked as advertised!
At the last second, the catbird slammed on the brakes and swerved away.
It then sat on a branch and studied the situation, but before it could dive again, Sarah jumped in front of the moth. She likes catbirds, but told this one off, and suggested it go find another snack, and leave the moth alone. A polyphemus moth has less than a week of adult life, that’s short enough, and the bird can find something less beautiful to munch on.
Polyphemus was a giant cyclops in Greek mythology. When Odysseus’s ship landed on his island, Polyphemus invited the crew to his cavern, with typical Greek hospitality, and mentioned he liked seafood. The Odyssey turned out to be a typical cruise line experience, an epic fail, with rampant gastrointestinal issues, a buffet buffeted by fate – by “seafood,” the cyclops meant seafarers, and he started eating the crew.
I don’t understand naming the moth after him – – the fake eyes are clearly in pairs.
And we clearly see it as a welcome visitor, and not to be eaten.
New York State has, I found out yesterday, two identically-named state forests. I visited the one in the Finger Lakes region, just south of Skaneateles Lake. It’s namesake is in Otsego County, about a hundred miles east, near Cooperstown (Baseball Hall of Fame). And a quick web search came up with lots of Bear Swamps, all over the country.
Bears apparently just love a good swamp. And yet quagmires, morasses, even a good foggy fen – – you really cannot interest them. You show them a sun-dappled marsh, spacious, move-in-ready, priced-to-sell, and it’s “Yeah, it’s ok I guess, I don’t need anything fancy, but this is just.. a bit…reedy, I guess. Yeah, that’s it. A bear needs trees, you know?”
Peat bogs, forget it. That’s more of an amphibian scene, and too acidic.
Well, we saw no bears, beavers, or otters, which were reintroduced into the area. We did see numerous red newts, which always make me happy, and one red fox.
Despite it’s name, Bear Swamp has plenty of hills and woods, and miles of trails. Depending on the website, it’s acreage is 3280, 3300, 3316, or 3539.
Perhaps it’s growing, that would be nice. It’s a pleasant mix of old pine plantations and hardwoods.
And it included kind of a surprise – what, according to my map, downloaded from the state DEC site, was a little creek, yesterday appeared to be a good-sized pond:
I’ve never been to this spot before, and didn’t know if some of this is normally marshland, and just submerged by spring flooding. (And I think that’s the explanation.).
Standing on the road with the pond washing over it.
The pond was lapping the edge of one of the access roads, and looked like it had recently washed over it. The access roads are dirt, and were fairly rough, with some huge puddles, and I wouldn’t recommend driving down them without AWD.
This was one of the smooth stretches:
We saw some wildflowers, but what was unusual, were huge stretches of forget-me-nots. And I’m pretty sure, these were Chinese forget-get-me-nots – – I guess they’re not considered an invasive species, but wow they really spread.
Some of this forest was reclaimed farmland, and so, predictably, there were patches of Vinca minor (“periwinkle”) near the sites of old houses – – apparently all the old-time farmers were absolutely required to grow this in their gardens – – but I’ve never seen so many forget-me-nots before.
[Editor’s Note: One Paragraph Rant Warning]
And also one of the banes of my existence. Garlic mustard, which is really getting on my nerves. A lot of folks who normally don’t visit parks & woods, have been venturing out this spring, while the epidemic has shut down their normal haunts, but I’m guessing they don’t recognize this plant as a horrible plague of its own. I have not taken a single walk in the past few years, without seeing it. It spreads along the access roads, then up the trails, and at this point, it’s impossible to take a walk anywhere in the region without tripping over the smelly stuff. The deer won’t touch it – – the leaves are bitter and contain cyanide (just a bit, they’re still edible, but it shows what kind of an attitude this plant has), and the allelopathic roots not only kill off native plants, but also the soil fungi which are beneficial for trees. Whenever I stop for a drink of water, I yank it out, but it would literally take an army to clear an entire woods. You can see it in this photo, the heart-shaped leaf, and by next year, it may have killed off that flower.
I always think of swamps as low-lying, but Bear Swamp is the high point of the county.
Not culturally, I mean the land around the swamp, soars to 1860 feet (over a thousand feet higher than the county’s lowest point). OK, the Rockies it ain’t, but on the other hand, the Rockies don’t have these cute red-spotted newts.
And it turns out, the forest is indeed growing a bit. The local land trust acquired 145 acres along the creek, and it’s now been attached to the state forest. This watershed drains into Skaneateles Lake, which serves as the reservoir for the city of Syracuse. They’ve managed to keep the water so pure, that the city essentially does no filtering. Isn’t that good to hear?
If you ever find yourself in Wampsville, and run out of things to do, I have a suggestion.
A lot of the state forests are reclaimed farmland, and even after 60 – 90 years, there’s still evidence of houses and barns from the old days.
You might think,
as I did,
that living as we do,
or at least,
lives we can photoshop into something presentable,
and not having the faintest idea where it is,
it’s not likely
you’d ever end up
An old twisted drainpipe, in the corner of my eye, looked for a second like a discarded snakeskin.
But we never really know what twist of fate is in store, or is perhaps back-ordered, just waiting to unload on us, when we take a wrong turn.
Yesterday, I happened upon Wampsville, about seventy miles east of my hometown, on my way to a nearby state forest.
Turns out, it’s a real place, bustling with 534 residents, right on NY Route 5. I’ve never driven too far on that road, because it’s mostly two-lane, slowing down for lots of little villages, and basically parallels the Thruway, which is a heck of of lot faster way to cross the state.
For a 67 mile stretch, including my village, Route 5 is a fellow traveler with U.S. Route 20, and “5 & 20” is a scenic tour of mostly farmland and small-town America. In the days of the Iroquois Confederacy, the route was a path from the Hudson Valley to Lake Erie, and later, it took settlers and soldiers to what was called “The Niagara Frontier” in the early days of this country.
As a boy, in the 1930’s, one of my grandfathers used to travel along it, going to visit relatives in Detroit.
This road has kind of defined quite a stretch of my life, too. I grew up a few minutes walk from “5 & 20”, and one of my grandmothers lived in Avon, at one end of the combined route. My first experience as a museum docent was at the Seward House in Auburn, the other end. Someday, when I’ve got a few weeks, I’d like to drive the length of Rte 20 – – 3,365 miles, from Boston, Mass. to Newport, Oregon.
Despite it’s bantam size, Wampsville is in fact the county seat for Madison County.
(Which has 124 bridges, if that topic comes up.)
(And 143 large-size culverts, if Streep & Eastwood make a sequel)
It’s mostly rural – – the Chobani yogurt company is based there, and although it uses at least 25 million gallons of milk, each week, it’s a myth that cows outnumber people in the county.
People hold a least a 2-to-1 edge.
Like the county I grew up in, the old-time residents couldn’t agree on which town would be honored as the county seat.
The solution in my county, was to have two county seats, and build courthouses in each, which they still maintain. I believe they finally settled on Waterloo as the primary county seat, but I could be wrong, and don’t care to inquire. The one time I asked a local official, during a Memorial Day gathering, he wandered off into an endless legalistic history of the “two-shire system,” etc. and I woke up two days later from a coma-like state, with a headache and no memory of the entire weekend.
Madison County picked the town of Cazenovia as its HQ in 1810, but then five years later pitched camp in Morrisville, and stayed there for over ninety years, even though they had to rebuild after the Loomis Gang burned down the courthouse in 1864. But in 1907, when several towns competed for the honor, John Coe stepped up & offered his apple orchard in Wampsville as a site for a new courthouse, and that settled it.
There are two theories about the name.
The first, was that a large “S” went missing from the original village signboard, and those thrifty 19th c. Dutch and Yankee settlers didn’t want to purchase a new one. They figured it would turn up, by and by, and eventually found they could get along fine without “Swampsville.”
In the second (and real) version, the town was named for Myndert Wemple, descended from an old New Netherlands family, but at some point, people decided Wempleville or Wempsville sounded funny, and wisely opted for Wampsville instead.
It just has more “oomph” to it.
So anyways, to return to the original point, if you’re in Wampsville but if there’s no trial on, I’d recommend driving due south to Buck’s Corners, and Stoney Pond State Forest.
(And that is the way they spell it, “stoney.” I just read that most people spelled it that way, prior to 1850, and it’s still an accepted variant in Webster’s.)
This is a relatively small state forest, less than 1500 acres, but it has a nice 44-acre pond, and a smaller beaver pond, too.
There are miles of pleasant trails, through mixed pine/hemlock/maple woods, and sometimes with views toward distant hills covered with windmills.
Volunteers groom the trails in winter for cross-country skiing.
This was eroded farmland, reforested in the ’40’s and ’50’s. The area began being farmed by settlers of European stock beginning in the 1790’s. This mossy old stone wall, mostly intact, runs for at least a mile through the woods.
This flower was tiny but beautiful. I think it’s Polygalaides Pauciflora (please correct me if that’s wrong!). As formal names go, that’s pretty musical-sounding.
It’s common name, “Bird-On-The-Wing” is also great, and “Flowering Wintergreen” & “Fringed Polygala” are OK too.
Then things go downhill a bit, with “Fringed Milkwort” which is a bit odd-sounding, like a disease, but apparently in the old days, they’d feed this plant to cows, to increase milk production.
It would make a nice picture, to see a farmer offering a bouquet of these to the herd.
Leaving the forest, and taking a more direct route back to the highway, you’ll pass through Peterboro, and the remnants of the 19th c. Gerrit Smith estate.
I’ll leave Gerrit for another day, but he was a fascinating guy, who ran for President three times, and used his fortune to support abolition, temperance, women’s suffrage, integrated colleges, non-sectarian religion, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and probably a dozen other causes I can’t bring to mind.
The ocher-colored building above (1830) was the laundry for the estate.
Well, lots of interesting stuff, it turns out, I hope to poke around this area again some time.
Lots of attention on working-from-home, so I thought I’d do a post about Taliesin, where Frank Lloyd Wright worked, lived, and taught.
I work at a busy university, but in a seldom-visited ell off an old building. Some days my only visitor, is someone checking if I’ve watered the office plants in the window of the common space. (I haven’t.) Other than a couple of meetings a week, I’m used to working solo — I spend my day on computers, email and phone — so the adjustment to working and attending college from home really wasn’t too traumatic.
Apparently though, based on the continuing flood of online advice, it’s been a real sea change for a lot of folks.
Lots & lots of articles floating around, or rather, we’re floating in a sea of articles, about remote learning and working.
All this advice is eddying round and round my head, kind of confusing.
Here’s some of my notes:
~ ~ ~
Turn on drone music.
Analyze your neural pathways & practice brain-hacking
Need to hack a pathway through shrubs for drone pizza deliveries.
Do we have oregano in spice cabinet
~ ~ ~
Learn to better communicate with your animal companions.
Resolve relationship crises between cat & dog.
Evaluate pets as an emergency food source.
Order a larger crock-pot.
One with a lockable lid.
Buy more oregano. Catnip? Horehound?
~ ~ ~
Research-Backed Secrets to Concentration!
💐 Let your mind Wander🎈🌻 It will create Wonder💐
Remember, a wandering mind, like a Labrador, almost always comes home by dinnertime, carrying with it, something interesting.
An online motivational voice tells me to live in the moment.
But his accent makes it sound like mo-mint, and I realize how long it’s been since I had a York Peppermint Pattie. Doesn’t mint kill germs? Was it peppermint or spearmint as a plague preventative? Mandrake?
Then I wonder if it’s true, that if you breathe through a hookah filled with mint mouthwash, the air will be cleansed of germs.
Would people stare at me, if I did that on the bus. Not in my neighborhood. But if they see the hookah, will they think it’s a bong, and approach too closely, to ask if I’m holding? I’m not a pothead, but I’m often mistaken for a homeless guy, when I wear my favorite old jacket, and don’t shave or comb my hair.
What if I just wear that horrible old jacket, which has been encouraging social distancing for years, before that was a thing, and is infused with organic scents (citronella, lemon eucalyptus oil, raisins, and wet Labrador) and just keep popping York Peppermint Patties? What about tabbouleh with fresh mint, would that kill a virus? Are there any Lebanese delis in this town? Do they sell hookahs? Is that an offensive stereotype?
When I was a kid, my grandmother walked me through her herb garden, and handed me little snips of every plant as she named them. I put them in my jacket pocket, and forgot about them. Then when I was riding on the school bus, I kept thinking about pizza all the time. After a couple of weeks, I realized, my jacket was full of pizza spices — oregano, marjoram, basil, thyme, etc. I left them in the pockets, I loved having a pizza jacket, but they didn’t prevent me from getting frequent colds and ear infections.
Buy fresh mint when you get the oregano. See if they have mandrake in the Goya aisle.
And so it goes. I don’t think my mind is coming back anytime soon.
But let’s get back to architecture, we’ll be minty fresh & on point.
Like a lot of people, housebound, I’ve been thinking about how our surroundings and architecture influence our mood, and our thoughts.
Lots of studies and articles – – by architects, artists, home decorators, psychologists, color psychologists, etc.
In this monograph, we will explore how manifestations of this current crisis complicate our societal work-centered dynamic & we will deconstruct the underlying cultural sources of pandemic-induced burnout.
Just kidding, were you scared?
Interesting stuff, but this column isn’t structured to construct or deconstruct much of anything.
I find too much structure, grammar, stuff like that, disrupts the feng shui of my site.
It’s Spring, and barbeque season, and that brought to mind a trip during April of last year, to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home/school/workshop in Wisconsin. A place of beauty and really bad fires.
If you’re gonna work from home, this is the way to do it! A fascinating, sprawling place, in a bucolic setting. The house, studio, and outbuildings total 37,000 square feet, and if you add all the other buildings on property he designed (Hillside School, theater, sister’s house, barn, visitor center, etc. ) it collectively covers almost two acres.
Arriving there from my 700 square foot apartment, it felt…spacious.
I was a docent at a house museum, and at the Jamestowne site in Virginia. So I understand that you cannot talk about every aspect of a place, in one tour.
So it wasn’t a complete surprise, when the guide at Taliesin, didn’t mention the ax murders.
So I asked.
Mostly out of curiosity over how the docents would handle the topic.
I don’t want to do a hatchet job on the tour, or the house, so I shouldn’t exaggerate. No one was actually killed with an ax.
It was a hatchet.
Wright was already married, with six kids, when he ran off to Europe for a year, with a married client, Martha Cheney.
He built a house at Taliesin, and Martha and her two children lived there with him.
A husband & wife from Barbados worked there as a handyman/cook team, but had just been fired. The mentally-unstable handyman attacked and killed Martha and her children, and four others, poured gasoline on the bodies, and set the house on fire.
Instead of fleeing the site of the massacre, Wright rebuilt it.
It burned down again, from an electrical short. (It seems ironic, that one of the first homes he designed in the area, for his sister, was featured in a magazine article “A Fireproof House for $5000.” Wright later set the theater wing of his architecture school on fire, trying to clear some brush.)
Wright rebuilt for a third time, on what some people might have felt was an unlucky sort of spot, or at least, too far from the nearest fire department. The current house is sometimes called Taliesin III.
And here’s one thing – – no one on the tour, including myself, felt the slightest sense of creepiness. The house is light-filled, calm and lovely.
I’ve read that traditional Navajo will burn or abandon a home, when someone dies inside it. Some cultures practice purification rituals, burning sweetgrass or sage, etc. Perhaps they’d feel that the two fires served as a cleansing process, or that ghosts need a physical fabric to attach to a site.
Well, it struck me as a lovely spot.
Across the little valley, a Shingle Style chapel is visible, with the interior designed by Wright, and where some of his relatives are buried. He was originally buried there as well, for about 26 years, but his tradition of controversy, family strife, and fire continued even after death. In 1985, according to the wishes of his third wife, but apparently without the knowledge or consent of other family members, he was disinterred, cremated, and the ashes taken to Taliesin West, his studio in Arizona.
I’ve now toured a number of Wright structures – the Darwin Martin complex in Buffalo, Graycliff (a lakeside estate for the same client), Fallingwater, Pope-Leighey (a small “Usonian” house in Virginia), the Guggenheim, as well as individual rooms, that were rescued from buildings being demolished. I’ve viewed others in Rochester, Milwaukee, Chicago, etc. They are all wonderful.
But quite often, you see or hear about problems and staggeringly expensive restorations – – cantilevered floors that had to have I-beams retrofitted, at huge expense, ceilings coming down, etc. Some of that is simply a function of age and weather. One of his principles, that a house should be an organic part of the landscape, integrated with its surroundings, is famous, and now seems kind of inarguable. But sometimes his houses seem to want to disintegrate into the landscape – most tours of Wright structures include recitations of repairs and restorations, and pleas for contributions.
But even during his lifetime, there were problems. The shellac that he specified for exterior woodwork, peeled off, repeatedly. Ask a few carpenters sometime, if they’ve ever used shellac on exterior wood. They’re just going to look at you funny, while they shake their heads, no, never. A famous story was about a client, calling about a skylight, leaking water all over his desk. Wright’s reply: “I guess you’re going to have to move your desk.” Leaks in flat tar roofs, cantilevers that weren’t up to the task, rooms heating up because the windows were without drapes or shades at his insistence, etc.
Kentuck Knob Museum website
I’ve never taken an architecture class, and know very little about Wright. But I’m going to stick my neck out, and express my uninformed personal opinion. Wright’s houses are wonderful, they’re timeless designs, and I guess you don’t need me to explain that to you – – but sometimes…they seem to have been constructed like stage scenery, not intended to last. Wright was an artist, a theatrical person, leading a life filled with drama. Very Hollywood. An abandoned wife & family, notorious affairs, financial insolvency, dozens of automobiles, a lurid mass murder, and what some would see as a flamboyant arrogance. The guy wore a cape, for heaven’s sake. And a cardsharp broad-brimmed hat. The house was modern, organic, “natural style,” but the narration inside it was gothic.
These houses are like fantastic home theaters, for the residents to strut their hours on the stage. Phone calls from clients, full of sound and fury, complaining of leaking roofs, do not signify — there’s not a note that’s worth the noting. He created these scenes, and left it to the home owners — the actors and stage managers, mere players — to fret about impracticalities & drips. “Reason and love keep little company together…” Bob Vila mentions a number of leaky houses created by famous architects — Philip Johnson, Le Corbusier, Frank Gehry, etc. — and a story about someone visiting a Wright house in Tulsa, during a rainstorm. There were containers all over the house, to catch the drips. The owner just said, “This is what happens when you leave a work of art out in the rain.”
So, what are the takeaway lessons for working from home? Think creatively, stretch, take time for recreational pursuits, like other people’s spouses, put new batteries in your smoke alarms, and don’t leave sharp objects laying around when you’ve fired your staff.
Oh yeah, and try to create something revolutionary, beautiful and serene, that people will admire forever.