As I write this, it’s 5:00 in the morning on (what I’m anticipating will be) an uneventful Sunday. It’s a balmy 61°F outside, the windows are open, there’s a cat on my lap, the birds have begun serenading one another, and the cacophony of Christopher’s snoring is something I’d liken to a lawnmower hitting (and getting stuck on) a particularly large dirt clod. On the surface, it seems like a pretty normal morning. But why am I awake at this hour on a weekend? Because it’s March 2020. There’s a global pandemic upon us, we’re all stuck in our houses, and the day-of-the-week and time-of-day have seemingly become irrelevant.
[Also, how many days in a row can you wear the same pair of gym shorts before it becomes sad and socially unacceptable? Asking for a friend… ]
This past week has been… interesting. As I’m sure it has been for all of you. But let’s be honest. You didn’t come here to read my regurgitation and analysis of current events. Nor do I particularly want to regurgitate or analyze current events. That’s not my shtick.
What I want to do is to escape. So, let’s all escape for a moment, shall we?
Let’s Get Personal
If there’s one thing I now seemingly have in abundance, it’s time. It’s really shocking how much extra time you accumulate when you’re not sitting in Sewickley Bridge or Parkway East traffic twice a day. I’ve relished using that time to hang out with my cats. And to make appallingly strong cocktails while sitting on our front porch–enjoying our block’s neighborly (albeit socially distanced) banter and impromptu violin recitals. #bellevueismagic [If you’re reading this, Alicia, you’re an incredible talent. Brava! Encore!]
I’ve also used a fair amount of that time to work on Freshwater. But I’m going to hold off on telling you about those projects for right now. Why? Because I need to lay the ground work. Plus, when I get around to writing about our recent bathroom restoration (which will be in… many installments), you’re going to need a little backstory–just so you don’t think I’m completely insane. [Don’t worry if you already do. Many people do. You’re in good company.]
Last week, I got a little philosophical on you. I told you a bit about Louis Sullivan and his beliefs. Well, this week, it seems apropos that I tell you a little about me and mine. [Yay, narcissism!]
But seriously, if you’re going to read a blog about an Architectural Historian restoring his house, the least you can expect is for its author to offer an explanation for his particular brand of crazy. I mean, I’m pretty sure that driving to Chicago for a sink and having a 92-year-old, 450-pound cast iron bathtub shipped to Pittsburgh from California isn’t normal. [Because both of those things happened. More on that in future posts.]
So, where does all of this come from? Why am I an Historic Preservationist? Why should anyone care?
A Method to the Madness
I’m not going to generalize. For some Architectural Historians and Historic Preservationists, it’s just a job–like any other job. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll usually find a defining moment that led them to their chosen profession.
Typically, that defining moment involves a bulldozer and a pile of rubble. I am no different. But we’ll get to that…
I’ve always been interested in buildings. As a child, I’d watch the world go by from the backseat of my mother’s 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. [I can still see its blue corduroy upholstery and T-Top windows. So fancy.]
One day (so she tells me) my mother decoded my unusual ability (for a 4 year old) to always know where we were. My secret? She discovered that I was watching the tops of buildings.
If I could see the courthouse dome, we were in Greensburg. If I could see the cornice of the Troutman’s Building, we were in Connellsville. If we were on Route 119 and I could see Golden Corral, we were passing through Connellsville. [Hey, no snide remarks. I’m from Fayette County. And where I come from, we proudly defend our Chocolate Wonderfalls and animal trough-style eateries.]
Later, I became obsessed with my grandmother’s house–built circa 1890 and located just outside of Mount Pleasant, PA in a place called Bridgeport. I’d poke through the basement, climb up to the attic, and document where windows and doors had once been. I even remember pulling a wadded-up piece of newspaper out of a knothole in the pine floor boards. That piece of newspaper recorded the 1948 death of Mahatma Gandhi.
[Looking back, I’m pretty sure that every adult looked at me with a raised eyebrow. Of course, that could have also been due to my penchant for wearing my grandmother’s clip-on earrings and my mother’s red, high-heeled pumps. I guess we may never truly know…]
But, I digress. What about that defining moment? What turned me into a Preservationist? Well, that didn’t happen until later.
The year was 1997. My mother and I were driving through Connellsville when I noticed that the horizon was distinctly different. There was something missing. The Troutman’s Building was… gone? No. It wasn’t gone. It was there, but it was… a pile of bricks and twisted metal. My mother pulled over.
We both got out of the car. I stood there. I just stood there. An 11-year-old, fists clenched, staring at the detritus of a once grand building. I tried to make sense of why someone would destroy something so beautiful.
My mother egged me on, “Go steal a brick.” I broke from my stupor and I did as I was instructed. I climbed over the barricade and picked up a brick. It was heavy.
That brick represented a building that had stood for 97 years. That brick represented a masterpiece designed by the New York City architectural firm of Mowbray & Uffinger. And that brick represented a kind of vandalism and violence that I had not previously known. That brick was really heavy. But it still managed to fit in my hand.
Humor me for a minute.
Have you ever wondered why a brick is the size that it is?
[I mean, we can’t decide what size the next I-Phone is going to be, yet bricks have–more or less–remained the same size for millennia.]
Well, I’ll tell you. Bricks are the largest single building unit that can comfortably fit in the human hand. Think about that for a second. Bricks–like paint or clay–are an artistic medium. They are the means by which we, as human beings, manifest the ideas in our heads and change our environment. Buildings are intrinsically human things. They are extensions of us. And for that reason, I believe that they deserve our respect.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but on that day in 1997, I dedicated myself to the cause of Historic Preservation. [I mean, I didn’t go home and write my manifesto or anything. C’mon, I still had the nightmare of Junior High school to endure… geesh…]
But, looking back… in some small way, everything I do to further the cause of Historic Preservation is in memory of that building.