Summer in October: Photos from Colorado

Inside Louis Dupuy's kitchen. A view down at the (not original) stove.
Inside Louis Dupuy’s kitchen. A view down at the (not original) stove.

Who says you can’t write about summer vacations in October? At the end of July I traveled to Colorado Springs for an epic family reunion. Naturally I couldn’t make a trip to a different state and not play tourist for a little while. I wrote about one part of my trip, a visit to Hotel de Paris in Georgetown for Saving Places.  The piece, which I had a lot of fun writing, is about the hotel’s proprietor, Louis Dupuy, a man who was a fugitive, journalist, and an infamous chef.

In addition to Georgetown I also spent a few hours in Denver, checking out the state capitol, the Emerson School (home of the National Trust Denver Field Office), and the Molly Brown House. The latter site is pretty great, mostly because it does what most historic houses do, but flips the perspective, telling us about Molly Brown’s legacy rather than just the male inhabitants. Continue reading “Summer in October: Photos from Colorado”

From Mountains to Stones…and Hope

Memory. Symbolism. Knowledge.

It isn’t so often that an opportunity presents itself…an opportunity to gaze upon something that few others have yet to see.

Of course I was by no means the first, the only, and after August 28th I certainly won’t be one of the few–but yesterday I had an opportunity to see the memorial to Martin Luther King prior to dedication.

The tour, made possible by the DC chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, was an hour long journey through the memorial’s creation — which began with a discussion by a group of brothers from Alpha Phi Alpha (the first African American fraternity) about inclusion, and that the lack of recognition of African American contributions to the American story in DC was why African American’s did not come to the National Mall.  After the origin story our guide walked us through design and development–explaining how an international jury of 11 judged 900 projects from 52 countries and brought them down to less than twenty in 3 days…and then to one.

With this Faith….

During the tour we walked through the process of meaning. Who was this for? Why is it being built? Where should we build it? Despite the initial conversation, this memorial is not meant only for African Americans. The foundation sees it as an international monument to a man who advocated for peace across the globe.

Symbolism.  As our guide,  Dr. Ed Jackson, Jr. (executive architect), walked us though the Foundation’s intent he also described the path of choosing a sculptor (Master Lei) based on artistic merit, to the quotations (each one following along the themes of love, justice, democracy, and hope) that will edge along the site each revealing a man, though imperfect personally, that saw beyond civil rights to human rights.

The memorial sits along the tidal basin juxtaposed between Jefferson and Lincoln. While the connections between this historical lineage are obvious, it is clear that the memorial is speaking to the individual–emphasizing, as King did time and again that each of us have the potential to ask/demand change. Day or night his face on the largest free standing granite statue serves as a mechanism to encourage and remind visitors of the struggle:

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

This is the memorial. Stepping through a narrow passage between two natural rock formations-despair, and coming around to see the relief of Martin Luther King with his message of hope. An image intense in its realism, right down to the veins on his hands.

On Memorials and Meaning:

There are realities to consider when building a memorial on the National Mall. In a post  9/11 world stopping cars from running aground are just as important as determining the symbolism of cherry blossoms that come alive, every year, around the time of MLK’s assassination.  Details matter and I couldn’t help wondering, as we walked around the space, of what meaning visitors will derive from the memorial. Will they sense the work of the architects, historians, the King family? Will they sense all the hands and hearts and minds that brought it to this existence?

Will they see, as I do (and despite this not being a civil rights memorial), the influence of Gandhi and the knowledge that without the work of King and the courageous acts of ordinary people who took a stand during sit ins and freedom rides that my life would have been drastically different.

What meaning will they gain from the visit? The Foundation and all of the others involved in the project have thought long and hard about the message they want to convey, however meaning, like many other elements of the past, are derived from the individual. It is that meaning which will determines the legacy of Martin Luther King and tell us if this memorial will enable that message to withstand the test of time.


Why no pictures? While I did take some there was a request to not post the image online. I will try to post them following the dedication on August 28. In the meantime you can see them on the monument site.  Check out this article about the memorial in the Washington Post.

A is For Arizona

I can’t believe that April is nearly at an end.  In a month that saw prep work for THE BIG EVENT in less than three weeks, and the NCPH conference in Pensacola I also had a quick, mini-vacation in Scottsdale, Arizona.  While we spent a good amount of time by the pool enjoying the warmth (it was still very chilly in DC, something that is no longer the case) there was an opportunity for some good eats, hiking, and a moment to take in a historic house tour.

I’ll be honest and say that this trip had an agenda–it was my sisters bachelorette party–and the goal was relax, relax, relax. So while we did take a lovely hike up Camelback mountain (you can see me in the slideshow sporting my shirt) the rest of the time pretty much just involved….



While in Scottsdale we ate at a lot of places. I did want to take a second to mention that as great as the food at Deseo was , the private mixology class where we learned how to make three different types of mohitos was fascinating–historically speaking of course. The instructor gave us a brief history of the drink and explained the different variations of rum and how they are developed. From some of the courses I took on foodways I remember thinking about the different regions of the world that make the liquor and how the histories of those nations were affected and transformed by production.  Specifically the history of sugar and the slave trade. If you want a really good book about the subject check out Sydney Mintz’s work Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.

Food at Deseo

We also ate at…

Old Town Tortilla Factory

In addition to perfect weather, this restaurant had amazing southwestern/Mexican cuisine.  Built from a 75 year old Adobe, diners at the Old Town Tortilla Factory sit in the open air.  I would recommend getting the green enchiladas.

Hotel Valley Ho–Cafe Zu Zu

French Toast at Cafe Zu Zu

Brunch at Cafe Zu Zu was the perfect way to start our leisure filled Saturday. It also gave me an excuse to visit a very chic modernist hotel (part of the Historic Hotels of America collection). With awesome chandeliers, and a pretty trendy lobby–I thoroughly enjoyed my french toast.  If you love mid-century modernist hotels I recommend visiting the Valley Ho–or just read about its past.

Olive and Ivy

Our first stop when we landed was getting some food at Olive and Ivy. Despite it being the hottest day of the year (so far) in the area, we decided to sit outside. While we tried a lot of different food–the Sweet Corn and Tomato Flatbread was (to me at least) the star of the meal.

And Now for the History: Taliesin West

View from the front of Taliesin West

Earlier this week I posted this post over at PreservationNation about the perfect house tour. It stemmed from my general dissatisfaction of a tour I had received at Taliesin West. I wanted to elaborate on this a little. For me the typical house tour is symbolic of a time when great men dominated our history lessons. So while many tours work very hard to look “downstairs” or interpret slave quarters occasionally you get to a tour that hasn’t quite made the leap.

Now of course, the difference with Taliesin West is its connection to Frank Lloyd Wright and his influence on American architecture–but the same principals apply. Instead of trying so hard to convince the captive audience of his greatness, the tour may have been better if his concepts and ideas were relayed narratively, using the house and the school to illustrate the points.  Instead, as an audience member, the conversation felt a little condescending. Rather than talk about the school in a way that talked curriculum and how it uses Wright”s vision to train new architects, we got discussions of accreditation and how many students are accepted. It felt, at times, much like an advertisement for applicants rather than a  story of Wright’s legacy–continuing on beyond his lifetime.  I am willing to concede, as I mention in the post above, that the temperature may have contributed to the ineffectiveness of our guide–or that it was a particular off day–but when you feel like the hour long tour could have been concluded in half the time, there is a problem.

Detail of a statue at Taliesin West

The tour aside, if you do have a  chance to visit this masterpiece do so. Every angle produces a new vision — of sky, water, stone against Arizona’s natural landscape. A is for Arizona–which means it was absolutely amazing.

Note: Speaking of historic moments. While we were in AZ, some of the party attendees stayed up all night to watch the final cricket match of the cricket world cup between India and Sri Lanka. At this moment the Indian team was playing against a team that had dominated the series, while they had fought tooth and nail to make it to the end. It was a team that had not made the finals since the year I was born (1982). While very much an important part of Indian culture, I found myself unexpectedly caught up in witnessing the exciting win–and felt like I was a part of a nationwide moment of joy. So I say Bravo India!

View the full album of pictures.

A House Tour – Just Like a Building – Should be Greater than the Sum of its Parts

This blog has been re-posted from the PreservationNation blog.

Chris Madrid French’s recent blog post on Phoenix modernism on Preservation Nation reminded me of a recent weekend jaunt I took just a few miles east in Scottsdale, Arizona.

While there I did what any self respecting historian/preservationist would do and dragged my two cousins and my sister to see a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, Taliesin West. I’m going to start off by admitting that I do not know much more about Frank Lloyd Wright and his architecture style than his overarching building ethic of having structures that are “in tune with nature.” I love the way they mirror the landscape, providing an almost abstract art-like vision, modernist masterpieces that are close to the earth. They remind me that the soul of a building is much more than the sums of its parts—as Taliesin West exhibited with its tilted roofline, low ceilings, and sunset colored walls.

As magnificent as the building was, I found myself contemplating another art form—the art of a house tour. Being an interpreter is a tough job. No tour is alike—as I well know from giving historic house tours when I was in college. A guide has to be on his/her toes ready to pull from the reams of knowledge they have amassed. My experience—both in giving and attending—tells me that moving a house tour from good to great also involves the following:

  • Know your audience—at the start of the tour it is fine to ask your group about where they are from—but delve deeper. Find out how much the group knows about the site and why they’ve come to visit. And then ADAPT.
  • Show—don’t tell. Obviously there is a reason that this home/structure/architectural wonder has been preserved. However, a repeated exclamation stating that it is wonderful is not instructive when the evidence is right in front of us.
  • Time. I’ve often found that one of the biggest problems with house tours is the need to fill a specific time frame. It is important to recognize when you don’t have enough material—so as to prevent repetition. It is better to produce a tight program, rather than one that rambles and is repetitive over the course of an hour.
  • Tell us a story. This is a personal preference of mine. The house tours I tend to gravitate to make the broader connections between the architect, the place, and those who lived there. It is that interconnectedness that makes a space come alive and makes those past lives tangible.
Taliesin West

Maybe the early morning 95 degree heat in late March may have had something to do with it, but the last point is why I found the tour at Taliesin West slightly unfulfilling. We had the building, we had the great story of an architect whose work dots the American landscape in many forms, but we also had this amazing living history of a school—and the students who lived (and continue to live) there. However, as we moved around the main area, each of these pieces remained disconnected from one another; each existing as a part of their own separate sphere, ultimately lacking the organic, natural flow emphasized by the teachings of Wright.

As our guide stated—entering a Frank Lloyd Wright house is like listening to music. Each element blends seamlessly with the other—low entryways opening up into a robust chorale of space—with its own volume and tone leading to a symphony of nature in something that is man-made. This is how a great house tour should be: elements building upon one another, sifting through the potential cacophony of information creating seamless (with occasional improvisation) orchestration.

See pictures from Taliesin West.

Learn more about my trip to Arizona.

Something has to be First/Entering a Fortress

Side Wall of Eastern State Penitentiary
Side Wall of Eastern State Penitentiary

Let’s create a little atmosphere first, shall we? It’s a broad stony wall pitted with greenery and reminiscent of a medieval fortress.  I’m sure if you pick a particular point you’ll realize that the wall is all you can see in either direction–despite the rows of restaurants in front of you. At night its a little creepy, with crevices and corners for shadows to conceal themselves in…..and its enough to make your skin crawl.

This weekend I went to Philadelphia to visit a friend from graduate school who works at Eastern State Penitentiary. Let me say from the outset that I had heard how amazing this place was–and the website does do a good job of setting the stage, but nothing prepared me for actually being there.

Eastern State was a working prison from the mid 19th century through to 1970. In 1994 it reopened as a museum and has been doing well ever since. It is best known for its annual Terror Behind the Walls haunted house which boasts all sorts of spectacular scary stuff.

While we were there my friend got to talking about the popularity of “Dark Tourism”, or tourism to epi-centers of grief and suffering. This means–Battlefields, Concentration Camps, Dungeons, and of course, Prisons. I’ll be the first to admit that I must have mentioned just how cool Eastern State was about 50 time during my 2 hour tour–and I’ve come to the conclusion that it has to do with the broader stories that are being told here. While partially about architecture and the attempt to build a prison where everyone could be seen from a central point, but it also revealed the beliefs of the architects toward reformation and the human condition.

Charles Dickens visited Eastern State at one point and walked away unimpressed–this is from chapter seven of his American Notes (quotation is from the six page history provided on the Eastern State website).

In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

Of course visiting a place like Antietam is a little different from Eastern State–we travel to hallowed ground because those deaths are honorable, having occurred for a cause greater than themselves. At Eastern State it is a little different–Al Capone stayed here, and there were magnificent escape attempts and a very serious riot during the 1960s.

So go visit! My favorite area? The newly rehabilitated Synagogue–where the walls prior to rehab are cleverly hidden behind matching wooden panels.

Check out my Philadelphia Picassa Slideshow–later this week I’ll bring you a quick post my trip through Food.

Also: Here is my blog post from the Blog which looks at things a little differently.

Eastern State Penitentary and Philly