All posts by blaservations

Architectural Historian, Cultural Resource Preservationist

Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee Sculpture and our Heritage of Hate

Newspaper clipping from The Daily Progress, May 21st, 1924 (University of Virginia Library)

Once upon a time, American monuments felt innocuous.  They sat quietly in parks and squares, repositories for bird droppings and cans of cheap beer.  Their stone bases worn from the sandblasting of cheapjack graffiti and chipped from years of nicks from riding lawnmowers.  Noses of erstwhile political figures were playfully burnished.  That time of unknowledgeable innocence is gone.

Like ideas and people, monuments too, can be radicalized.  It is expected that the meaning behind symbols changes with the times, yet it is easy to forget when our lives have been lived among them, whether in blissful ignorance or somber reverence.  Many Americans view monuments as parts of history we should not and can not change, particularly in terms of altering or removing statues and memorials to fallen Confederate soldiers, battles, or military generals and political leaders.  Monuments of architectural significance have been venerated locally and nationally, as well as celebrated culturally, yet it took a series of catastrophic tragedies to put into focus that their context was always incorrect.

The General Robert Edward Lee Statue is located in Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park), bounded by Market Street, Jefferson Street, 1st Street and 2nd Street, in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The statue is one of four works commissioned from members of the National Sculpture Society by philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire, located on parks McIntire gave to the City of Charlottesville during the years 1919 to 1924.  According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the monument, McIntire “wished to make a place worthy of the likeness of the most distinguished Confederate general.”

The monument, cast in bronze, was conceived by American sculptor Henry Shrady and executed by Leo Lentelli after Shrady’s death.  It depicts Lee astride on his horse Traveller.  The National Register of Historic Places nomination, written in 1996, depicts the statue as such:

“Lentelli has made a large and important Traveller.  The horse is depicted at a brisk walk with his proper left front leg extended forward and his proper right hind leg elevated.  His regal tail is arched out behind his body to show his impatience while Lee reins him in.  Lee has Traveller well in hand, but the horses neck is overbent and his mouth is open as he pulls against the bit.”

A small number of living confederate veterans as well as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy were present for the May 21st, 1924 unveiling of the statue.  Three-year-old Mary Walker Lee, the great-granddaughter of General Lee, pulled the Confederate flag draped over the sculpture away, triggering cheers from the crowd.  The National Register nomination continues:

“Thus, the Robert Edward Lee sculpture remains undisturbed in its original location.  Sentiment in Charlottesville will undoubtedly keep it there, for the monument is a unique memorial to the most eminent Confederate hero of all and an outstanding example of the figurative outdoor sculpture of the late City Beautiful movement.”

The Robert E. Lee sculpture was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 after its addition to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1996.  The narrative presented in the National Register nomination gives scant information on Lee, but it does tilt towards the idea that the Confederate cause was a noble one.

Most historical descriptions of Confederate monuments in official documents, like a National Register nomination, present their significance in neutral terms, as art works by significant sculptors or components of a landscape or planning movement, having no interaction with the cultural context the monument was constructed in or the cultural context that existed when the monument was written.  Narratives keep in line with the established period of significance of a historic resource, but this timeline will never be finite.  Context changes over time as cultural changes occur, and as we learn.

That noble cause in 1861, at the succession of the Confederacy from the rest of the United States, included the unlawful abolition of slavery and the prohibition of voting rights for anyone born outside of the Confederacy.  How do these provisions, taken directly from the Confederate Constitution, relate to a contemporary perspective to keep Confederate culture intact?  How do organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or the Friends of Charlottesville Monuments, who are at the center of a court case fighting against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue with the City of Charlottesville, balance a culture with a core of oppression against the realities of a future of inclusion?

The majority of monuments to the Confederate cause were not erected during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but well after, into the 20th century, when even the oldest, healthiest Confederate veterans were rare.  Two distinct surges in construction of Confederate monuments occurred, one during the nineteen teens and twenties, and another during the nineteen fifties and sixties.  These surges correspond to the enactment of Jim Crow laws and later, the Civil Rights Movement.

In an attempt to stave off the impending threat of equal rights, work was done to control the historical interpretation of the Civil War and present it as a noble cause and to push the Confederacy as a cultural concept while presenting Confederate icons as an honorable ideal.

Out of these eras of recognition of the bravery of the Southern cause came monuments to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others as celebrations of valor and faith.  Confederate generals were exalted as intellectuals and sages, depicted nobly atop their horses and at parade rest, cast in bronze beside compassionate angels.  These monuments were placed in town squares and city parks, and presented as objects of remembrance towards a cause that was lost, but also noble.  Those that nostalgized the old days of Dixie now had the iconography to remind them that while the Civil War, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights had politically stifled their ideas of a single race state, it could never be culturally stifled.  Black people were not so subtly reminded that they had their place.

Although a public park, the landscape surrounding the Lee sculpture retained a reputation as segregated for decades, consistent with Paul Goodloe McIntire’s terms of deed for other racially segregated parks he donated to Charlottesville.  Along with their support for the Lee statue, the United Daughters of the Confederacy campaigned to build a monument to the myth of the nurturing, benevolent Southern mammy.  The monument was authorized by the U.S. Senate in 1923 but died in Congress after months of protests, including the women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, the main Union veteran’s organization, which called it a “sickly sentimental proposition.”

Confederate monuments were never innocent, never static and never simply material objects.  They were always symbols of intimidation, manipulated as cultural heritage and works of art, and silently used to perpetuate the myth that 20th and 21st century Confederalism is cultural and familial, and not innately discriminatory.  They are propaganda, not cultural heritage, and they have served, for decades, to provide something to hide behind that has more decorum than a white robe.



In search of the ‘Full House’ House

On a recent day in July, tourists gathered at the southeast corner of Alamo Square Park in San Francisco to view a characteristic row of candy colored Victorian houses on Steiner Street, set within the jaw dropping background of downtown San Francisco.  Many visitors have come to Alamo Square Park, part of a larger City of San Francisco historic district of the same name, to insert themselves into a scene that is synonymous with San Francisco.  Visit times vary dramatically.  Some visitors lounge casually across the sloped green, taking in the view.  Others focus intently behind complex camera equipment.  Still more, the largest fraction of people that come to the park, dash out of cars, hazard lights flashing, to capture a quick selfie in front of the postcard-worthy view.

Alamo Square, with its concentration of ornate late 19th century architecture, sloping streets and old-growth trees, is known more recently because of an informal late 20th century pop culture phenomenon.  It has nothing to do with turned wood details or historic districts, and nothing to do with who slept here.  As photos are snapped and shared, a question is overheard, as well as an answer:

“Excuse me, which one of the houses is the ‘Full House’ House?”


“They all are.”

The answer, by most accounts, is correct.  From 1987 to 1995, this view found its way into suburban homes via the opening credits to ABC’S situation comedy Full House.  A chorus of angelic “aahs” chimes in with a panoramic shot of Steiner Street, followed by bucolic footage of the Tanner Family having a picnic within Alamo Square Park.  While the opening credits vary, the final picnic shot remained consistent across all eight seasons.  It might dishearten nostalgic Millennials and Generation X-ers to learn that none of the six Victorian houses are the actual Full House HouseSetups for scenes imply that the house was not one of Alamo Square’s famous “Painted Ladies,” but a different house, located at 1709 Broderick, about a mile from Alamo Square.

Further complicating sense of place is the fact that, like most network sitcoms, Full House was not filmed in the city that served as a weirdly tertiary character on the show, but at Warner Brothers Studios in Los Angeles.  This perhaps explains why the interior spaces have more in common with the suburban houses built in the late 20th century that the show found itself being screened in than a wood framed Victorian located in the densest urban area in Northern California.

With the early aughts came an abundance of information available instantly, as well as an increase in life expectancy that has lengthened our culture’s view of personal history.  These factors, along with the tendency for technology to turn over quickly, has made the divide between what is perceived as “new” and what is perceived as “old” much greater.  People of every age have the right to wax nostalgic about their own pasts, and to become knowledgeable about events that occured before their lifetimes, yet there is a tendency to check a person’s ID before we give them a lane to do so.  Along with those who wish to nostalgize their time watching Full House with a trip to Alamo Square, are the thousands that dined at Saved By The Max, a pop-up restaurant concept inspired by another 1990s sitcom, Saved By The Bell.  Based on what Saved By The Max co-founder Derek Berry called “nostalgia overload,” Saved By The Max brings a fictional replica of The Max, a hip after school hangout for the attractive peer-aware students at Bayside High School to Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.  Originally slated to be open for only three months, Saved By The Max continued on for a year due to popular demand, with the restaurant now moving on to spread its nostalgic magic to Los Angeles.

From an experiential standpoint, the search for the Full House House signals something uncomfortable about the turn taken towards being less concerned about the meaning of the places we go to, and more concerned with showing others where we have been.  Standing on that hill, it is obvious that smartphones and social media have created a culture that prioritizes capturing yourself within an iconic scene, as opposed to capturing the scene itself, or absorbing in real time how being a part of the scene makes you feel.  Prior to digital photography changing the way personal events are documented, and well before social media, pop culture as a whole agreed that in terms of travel photography, nothing was dorkier than the notion of firing up the Kodak Carousel-S and showing reluctant friends and family images of all the places you’ve visited, and how you have managed to insert yourself into nearly every photo taken of a significant place.  Instagram is today’s Carousel-S, yet we judge the images in private and have somehow unlearned that there is anything tacky about mashing your ugly mug into the frame of a photograph.  A quick search for Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Christ the Redeemer or the Pyramids at Giza using any social media app’s search function yields an embarrassing amount of people looking shiny and overexposed in front of some of the world’s most unique places.  Pick the nose of the Sphinx of Giza?  Hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa (or Niles, Illinois) with one hand?  Give Jesus a double high five in Rio de Janeiro?  Jump vertically while flailing your arms and legs like an Air Dancer in front of the Colosseum?  These images are repeated over and over.

Back at Alamo Square, people are now informally queuing up to be photographed in front of the most iconic view of the “Painted Ladies” like they were Mickey and Minnie Mouse.  Alamo Square is a location, a place, a neighborhood that you physically experience.  Mickey and Minnie Mouse are characters that represent the experience, but they are not the experience itself.  The beautiful places of the world have become characters in mascot costumes.

And what exactly brings people to these beautiful places?  Doesn’t the porch where D.J. Tanner kissed either Nelson, Steve or Viper on the show seem too large for any of these houses?  Which house is Kimmy Gibbler’s?  “Doesn’t the entirety of the San Francisco Western Addition look Full Housey to you?”  Deep down, we know it is impossible to apply a series of logical truths to a fictional television show, yet we can’t resist.

1990s sitcoms and selfie hot spots are only slivers within the historical timeline of Alamo Square, many streets have retained a remarkable amount of integrity overall, a triumph for a neighborhood that was almost wiped out in the 1960s to make way for the Panhandle Freeway.  But an influx of tourists after Alamo Square Park’s recent renovation has caused an increase in daylight vehicular break-ins, and wireless providers are hungrily eyeing every street light and tall object to add their antennas to so more selfies can be shared.  Despite the attempts for history to nay say social media and early onset nostalgia, these 21st century elements have already altered our experiences with the places we travel to see.

Malcolm Little, ‘X’-busboy

“I became a busboy at the Parker House in Boston.  I wore a starched white jacket out in the dining room, where the waiters would put the customers’ dirty plates on silver on big aluminum trays which I would take back to the kitchen’s dishwashers.”


In the summer of 1940, fifteen year old Malcolm Little boarded a Greyhound bus in Lansing bound for Boston.  Born in Omaha, Malcolm had spent most of his life in foster homes in Mason, Michigan until his half sister Ella invited him to spend a summer with her.  This was Malcolm’s first trip out of the Midwest.  From the back of the bus, Malcolm watched “white man’s America rolling past for what felt like a month.” What would meet him in Boston would profoundly change the course of his life.

Malcolm had never been impressed with anyone like he was impressed with Ella.  Ella was “the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life,” an attitude unheard of in segregated Lansing.  Jet black and outspoken, Ella lived in Roxbury, a community Malcolm X would later describe as practically effervescing with black culture.  “I didn’t know the world contained as many Negroes as I saw thronging downtown Roxbury at night” Malcolm recounted in his 1965 autobiography.  “Neon lights, nightclubs, pool halls, bars, the cars they drove!  Restaurants made the streets smell rich, greasy, down-home black cooking!  Jukeboxes blared Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Cootie Williams, and dozens of others.  The biggest bands, like these, played at the Roseland State Ballroom on Massachusetts Avenue-one night for Negroes, the next night for whites.”  In central Michigan, Malcolm had only known life as a black person in white spaces, following the cultural framework that unofficially mirrored the Jim Crow laws of the South.  For the first time, in Roxbury, Malcolm was a black person in a completely black space.  Roxbury showed Malcolm Little an African American experience that was intelligent, creative, outwardly successful and unafraid, everything that his small community in Mason was not.

Returning to Mason at the end of the summer, Malcolm felt restless.  This change was palatable to his classmates as well as his foster parents.  Those that knew Malcolm continued to ask him what was wrong, but Malcolm was either unable to articulate how Roxbury made him feel, or afraid that being honest about his feelings would be damaging to the relationships in his life, especially with the small group of white people he had grown up with, and trusted.  Always a top student, a major tipping point occurred when Malcolm’s English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, asked Malcolm, one of the top students in the school, if he was thinking about a career.  “Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.”

Mr. Ostrowski saw in Malcolm the kind of future white people saw for black people in 1940, the kind of future where race dictated expectations.  Malcolm needed to be realistic.  He suggested Malcolm plan on carpentry.  This was a poor appraisal of Malcolm’s future, and one that Malcolm Little was intent on proving wrong.

Malcolm expressed to Ella in a letter that he wanted to come to Boston and live with her.  Ella arranged for official custody, and Malcolm headed to Boston.

Once she enrolled him in a private boys school downtown, Ella encouraged Malcolm to postpone getting a job until he got a feel for his new home, so he observed the comings and goings of Roxbury, but soon branched out and began to explore the entire city of Boston.  Malcolm gawked at the historic buildings, with plaques and markers and statues for famous events and famous men.  Malcolm wrote at length to his family in Lansing about the cobblestone streets and the department stores.  In Boston Common, he was astonished to see a statue of a black man, Crispus Attucks, the first to fall in the Boston Massacre.

In the fall of 1941, Malcolm found himself a job at one of Boston’s most storied institutions, the Parker House.  Established in 1855, the Parker House Restaurant claimed to be the first to serve Boston Cream Pie, Parker House Rolls, and scrod, and was a famous haunt of local politicians and writers like Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton.  At the Parker House, Malcolm held the benchmark of low-paying restaurant jobs: the busboy.

Bus Station, Parker House Restaurant

The Parker House, now run by Omni Hotels & Restaurants, looks, feels and smells like an institution that thrives on established wealth.  Its consistency makes a strong selling point to those accustomed to an old fashioned notion of luxury, and little has changed.  It is proudly past its prime.


The Parker House is the type of place one might imagine being underdressed in, until you arrive and realize that money is money-even yours, and guests are happily getting along in flip-flops and Disney sweatshirts.  The same 1856 Boston Creme Pie recipe is still as venerated as it once was, yet now it’s woefully overshared on social media as a key component in the Boston experience.


The crisp white shirts Malcolm X wore have been replaced with gold vests and ties, yet the notion that the busser is present but anonymous remains.  There is no temporary stewardship of the guest experience, or push for the upsell.  Bussers are encouraged to fade into the background, yet they are expected to maintain a complementary demeanor.  They are the only component of a restaurant that exists comfortably among the table linens and silver trays of the dining room, and the dish bins and sinks in the kitchen, the most vital connectors between the front of house and back of house.  They clean up after the servers and vacuum the crumbs from the carpet.  They lift heavy bus bins, take out the trash and are responsible for what is often a restaurant’s most thankless, labor-intensive work.   The colloquial job title is still woefully, pejoratively gendered, as the term ‘busboy’ is fundamentally belittling.  There is no question the work environment of a sixteen year old African American male, a self professed “hick” from Michigan just months before Pearl Harbor in a well to do downtown Boston restaurant was not one of respect or appreciation.  A black person in an expectedly subservient white space.

Associate Entrance, Omni Parker House Hotel

Research has showed that little has changed.  In restaurants, the lighter your skin, the more likely you work in a front of house job such as a bartender or server.  Black and Latino workers are far more likely to hold busser, food runner or dishwasher positions.

Service industry professionals build a thick skin against the criticisms of both their guests and co-workers.  You learn to internalize anger, as being agreeable and non-confrontational are seen as not only positive attributes, but traits that will get you the biggest tip percentages and the best table sections.  You brush off disparaging comments and harassment, and learn to keep your head down.  While the Parker House wasn’t Malcolm X’s first service industry job or his last; he washed dishes at a restaurant in Mason and would go on to shine shoes at the Roseland Ballroom in Roxbury, it was undoubtedly a place where he saw the distinctions between social classes clearly.  Was he talked down to by white customers and white staff?  Did he see fellow black employees struggling to make ends meet at menial jobs?  While Malcolm X wrote little about his time at the Parker House or in the service industry, he borrowed generously from personal experiences throughout his life, allowing them to inform his ideologies at various stages.  Perhaps it was this job, the first outside of his hometown, where he further developed the sense of frustration and anger towards the status quo that would lead him to champion African American self-determination and later cast a wide net fighting against racism, Colonialism and white supremacy.










The Man Mound: A Transformative National Historic Landmark


Aerial View of the Man Mound after the spring “burnoff” of dead prairie grass, 2014.  Image via Sauk County Eagle.

Deep in the rolling hills of the northern flanks of the Baraboo Range, and about two miles northeast of Baraboo, Wisconsin, lies an ancient and mysterious earthen figure, cut off at the shins. An amputee.

The Man Mound of Greenfield is the only surviving anthropomorphic effigy mound in North America.  It was formed of earth between 700 and 1000 AD by the Late Woodland effigy mound builders, who constructed both humanoid and zoomorphic mounds across the eastern and middle western portions of what is now the United States.  Until the turn of the 20th century, Sauk County had as many as twelve humanoid mounds, with hundreds of others depicting birds, snakes and other animals.  Despite early recognition by surveyors of these earthworks as special monuments, almost 75% of the mounds previously identified have disappeared.

Looking north towards Man Mound’s “horns.”  Despite the snow cover, the rise above grade is clearly visible.  Mowing of the mound ceased in 2008, attributing to an array of prairie grasses and flora seeding from it, including ferns not native to Wisconsin.

Not long after measurements of the Man Mound were taken and the mound was brought to wider public attention by civil engineer and naturalist Increase A. Lapham, an east-west road was cut below the figure’s knees, detaching the body from the feet, an unmistakably adverse effect that would be inconceivable today, and illegal in terms of federal and state laws regarding the mound’s historic and cultural status.  But this was the Midwest in the 1860s, less than a lifetime after the Indian Removal Act, and the center of a century where transportation routes and the opening of government lands pushed non-native people westward.  Immigrants of German and Irish decent were coming by ship, steamboat, railroad and then in wagons through the Baraboo Valley.  Thirty years prior to the construction of Man Mound Road, Native Americans were the primary inhabitants of Wisconsin.  The name of the road has a deeply disquieting effect, as if the mistake was acknowledged as soon as the road was laid.

The Man Mound is a transformative being, a curiosity of the Lower World, a primordial deity, a water spirit, a bear, or a rabbit, or any of these things.  And to native peoples like the Ho-Chunk Nation, who lay claim to the Late Woodland effigy mound builders as parent stock, a symbol of renewal.  In 1908, the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, along with the Federation of Women’s Clubs and The Sauk County Historical Society moved to acquire the Man Mound Site, establishing it as one of the first archaeological sites preserved specifically for preservation purposes.  This purchase occurred in the nick of time, as the previous land owner had disclosed that he was looking into cultivating the site.  Man Mound Park was dedicated on August 8th, 1908.

Historical marker erected by the Sauk County Historical Committee, 1969, alongside the Wisconsin Historical Societies’ plaque from the 1908 park dedication.  The Man Mound’s torso and right arm are visible in the background.

While the dedication of the park did include an invocation of indigenous peoples, accounts of that day paint a woefully misguided picture of appropriation as appreciation, showing a version of the disconnection between Americans and native peoples that we see today, from feathered headdresses at Coachella to the Washington Redskins to referring to a work meeting as a pow-wow.  Native Americans were not considered a part of the 20th century narrative of the Man Mound, and were instead relegated to a cultural footnote during the celebration-tipis, wampum and all.

Detached from the rest of the body, the feet were now located in a cow pasture on the other side of Man Mound Road, and would over time get trampled down to grade. Even without legs, which is certainly an integrity problem for the ages, Man Mound was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Rob Nurre is a landscape historian and longtime steward of the Man Mound who has come to live “seventeen man mound-sized steps away from the park.”  With the 100th anniversary of the park looming, Nurre began thinking about the Man Mound’s amputated legs and feet, along with ways to raise public awareness for the site.  Using measured drawings from the 1850s and a can of white paint, Nurre gave Man Mound new prosthetic limbs stretching across the road, and worked with the land owners north of the road to mark off the area where the feet once stood.

The Man Mound’s “ghost legs” stretch across Man Mound Road.

“How do we best care for these sites,” asked Nurre. “When they are such a reference point in terms of how we see the world?” Perhaps the Man Mound’s painted legs are an arbitration between a careless past and a conscious, deliberate future.  They also “get in your face” Nurre said, as they clearly do not relate to roadway safety, and you’ve got to drive over them in order to get west of the mound.  Rebuilding the missing extremities from grade wouldn’t be appropriate mitigation, as it would serve to erase the lessons in stewardship and our cultural dialog with the past that the flattened legs and feet force us to interface with directly.

The location of Man Mound’s trampled feet, fenced off from a cow pasture.

In 2016, the Man Mound was designated as a National Historic Landmark, a distinction only given to historic places that have a profound national significance, and are already listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Only 2,500 of our nations historic landmarks meet this criteria.  The boundary of the Man Mound National Historic Landmark was extended beyond the boundary of the National Register of Historic Places listing to include the area of the road containing the “legs” as well as the section of pasture where the feet once were.  The creative mitigation of modern interference is now a part of the Man Mound’s official story.

William H. Canfield’s map of the Man Mound, 1859.  Canfield shared Man Mound’s discovery with Increase A. Lapham, and Lapham publicized the find.  Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, WHi-77567.

In 1859, Increase A. Lapham wrote that the Man Mound “is in the act of walking, and with an expression of boldness and decision which cannot be mistaken.” At over 214 feet tall, Man Mound is striking when viewed from the ground, but aerial views are truly mystifying, and beg some serious questions.  Was the Man Mound meant to be viewed from the sky?  Where is it walking to?  What is the true meaning of the iconography?  We as a modern people know so little about the purpose of effigy mounds, and almost as little about their contents.  As many as 87% of effigy mounds that have been subject to archaeological investigation were used to mark or contain human burials, with most contained near a figures’ heart or inside the head.  While archaeological digs have occurred in the area where the feet once were, yielding nothing of interest, there is no record of disturbance for the rest of the body.  Digging into a cultural monument that is over a thousand years old would be a selfish, obscene choice, and would produce nothing of value.

The Man Mound will continue to yield information on our collective reference point, but by way of our understanding of what has occurred above ground, and how we weigh our current decisions against the established effects of the past and the unknown future.  So what is the best practice in terms of an effigy mound without legs, when there are no other effigy mounds with legs to compare it to?  Perhaps this is the Man Mound’s true character as a transformative being.  One that continues to learn from us as we learn from it.

The author would like to thank Rob Nurre for his generous contributions to this article.

Blaservations + Emily Speed

Louise Freer Hall, University of Illinois (Charles A. Platt, 1930)

This fall, I had the pleasure of writing text for UK-based artist Emily Speed’s superb exhibition at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts in Fort Worth, Texas.  Ms. Speed’s work tackles a micro and macro sense of place, from a perspective that addresses the body as a house for the mind, and architecture as a personal matter.

Body Builders is a tongue in cheek film with both sculptural elements and paintings that looks at the recreation and duplication of Roman and Classical architectural around the world, with a focus on campus architecture.  Below is an excerpt of the exhibition text:

It’s the fall of 1986, and college freshman Thornton Melon is strolling through the campus of Grand Lakes University.  It’s a bucolic setting, with vividly hued-leaves falling to the ground around beautifully authoritative academic architecture.  Ornate pediments top columns of the highest order with Ionic capitals between, like blooming stone mushrooms.  Tweeded students await fellow classmates underneath deeply recessed porticos, textbooks in hand.  Egg and dart moldings dash around corners.  Windows are so carefully arranged within fields of red brick that they almost look mathematical.  Fresh pledges scurry up dramatic staircases and into grand temples of learning.  “When I used to dream about going to college this is the way I always pictured it,” remarks Melon, “When I used to fall asleep in high school.”

Thornton Melon isn’t a real college student, and Grand Lakes University is a fictional institution.  What’s described above is a memorable scene from the 1986 American comedy Back to School, starring the delightfully bug-eyed Rodney Dangerfield as a pension-age freshman.  Back to School centers on Melon’s attempts to survive his first year of college, with his lovably crude personality and eye-roll inducing one-liners (“Remember, the best thing about having kids is making them”) as an accelerant for the various atypical university hijinks he seems to innocently fall into.  If the comedic films of the 1980s have shown us anything, it’s that we will always be fascinated by watching an element of the past (i.e. Rodney Dangerfield) flop around in our kooky contemporary world like a fish out of water.  See films like Big (1988) 18 Again! (1988) or any of the three movies in the Back to the Future cannon (1985, 1989, 1990) as examples.  As Thornton Melon himself quips, “Read.  Who has time?  I see the movie.  I’m in and out in two hours.”

The sense of place that Dangerfield dreamed about and also experienced, however, is spot on.  Grand Lakes University (or in the real world, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Back to School was filmed) is the built environment one dreams about when one dreams about–thinks about—going to college.  While it’s difficult to peg whether this dream is one minted via popular culture or the experience of actually attending a university, it’s reality.  Columns, fanlights, triglyphs and dental patterns abound.  Entablature sandwiches so layered they are almost difficult to look at.  Order and symmetry rule, as well as proportion.  Cue Pomp and Circumstance, if it hasn’t already become an earworm since you began reading this.

Much like a senior citizen aged college freshman, the Classical design language of caryatids and columns was recontextualized from the ancient temples and churches of Leon Battista Alberti, Andrea Palladio and all the Greeks, and smacked down into late 19th and early 20th century college campuses across America.  Classical revival buildings connect us to our ideas, history and culture, but also reflect them.  It’s a powerful visual statement for an educational setting.  College is often a person’s first taste of adulthood-be it a slightly simulated one; when we leave the protective cocoon of our parent’s house for the larger body of the college campus.  Unless you were one of the lucky kids to grow up in a historic house, the White House, the Neutra House or This Old House, chances are you spent your formative years within the architectural indifference of the suburbs, where the only thing we ask of buildings is that they have enough bathrooms and convenient parking.  The transition from this underwhelming built environment to the grandeur of the college campus is one of many shocking readjustments.

The student gathers their shower caddies, desk lamps, folders and highlighters and packs them tightly into giant Tupperware bins in preparation for the epic move into the dorm room, a 12-foot by 9-foot space, all of 200 square feet that they will share with a complete stranger.  There are classes to register for, the dining hall and library to find, and an abundance of exciting new faces.  The campus is sprawling and old; it feels like it’s been around forever.  It’s likely less than a hundred years old, but the constant ebb of students and the continuous creation of significant memories within the context of the authority of the built environment makes everything feel very ancient.  The architecture couldn’t be more intimidating, with its clearly formal tendencies a constant reminder that this time is just as serious as the surroundings.  This abundance of “old” forms in a new context for eighteen year olds is a salient visual to students of the importance of the decisions they make right now, and not just whether you’re going to get the townie outside the convenience store to buy you Natural Light or Keystone.  Perhaps it is the extreme order and traditionalism of the Classical architecture of the college campus, the strictness of it, that pushes some students to transgress and break rules.  College is an important time, but it’s also a silly trial and error time where we test who we are against who we want to become.  College is a life event where we are almost authorized make odd or bad informal decisions, like rolling the cuffs of our jeans up to mid-calf, or hanging a Phish poster on the back of our dorm room door.  All the while, the formal campus architecture keeps its arrangement, and keeps watching us change, like it’s watching us from high above, a cultural acroterion.  Four years of experience-based memory in terms of place is an incredibly short time.  The classical revival architecture of the college campus sees it all, and somehow absorbs all the secondhand embarrassment on our behalf.  Perhaps this is why a part of the perception of higher education is forever connected to high architecture, and we will be forever passing out on the steps of timeless, archaic temples of learning donated by alumni (“I hereby dedicate this building to…myself”) and Collegiate Gothic will not only be an architectural style, but the font used to emblazon the most iconic piece of university apparel ever, a sweatshirt screen printed “COLLEGE.”

Rodney Dangerfield

Blaservations + Pizza Hut

A recent conversation with a friend went something like this:

E: I love Mansard Roofs.

M: What’s a Mansard Roof?

E: Think “Pizza Hut.”

Pizza Hut, Louisville, Kentucky.

Pizza Hut took a highfalutin Beaux Arts decorative feature and used it to jazz up the physical environment of almost every suburban sprawl with a hunger for pizza and a salad bar.  This is an architectural minutiae that almost everyone can understand.  Make the building look cool so people will be attracted to what’s inside (breadsticks).

Francois Mansart (1598-1666) is the father of the Pizza Hut, or Mansard, roof.  This became his specialty (toppings are extra) and years later was used to outfit Nepolian III’s Second Empire Paris, which sent the Victorians in America swooning wildly over their fainting couches in the late 19th century.

Unfortunately, the use of the Mansard as of late has left me a bit light-headed.  Paris on the Prairie or a Claes Oldenburg work entited “Sharpie Marker”?

Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Chicago, Illinois.

Old Buildings, New Tricks: Permastoned

Permastone 1

Perma-Stone, Formstone, faux stone, Rostone.  John Waters once called this ubiquitous simulated masonry the “polyester of brick.”  From the 1930s through the 1950s, companies all over the United States were pitching faux stone siding to homeowners as a modern update to the exteriors of late 19th century buildings.  Made of shale, lime and water, the unbaked permastone slurry would be pressed into stone shaped molds and heated, creating a stone-like “cracker” that could be applied to the exterior of a building.  Permastone came in an array of colors, textures and stone types, and sometimes mica would be added for extra sparkle.  Widely toted as maintainance free, permastone could be easily adhered anywhere on your building by anchoring it with chicken wire lath, or simply adhering the permastone panels with cement directly to the façade.

permaston 2

The 3400 and 3500 blocks of Le Moyne Street, between Homan and Central Park Avenue in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, have some superior examples of permastone in nearly every color and texture, from taupe roman bricks to rusticated course stone so red it resembles raw meat.  Here is a windshield survey of permastone types seen within these two blocks:

permastoned 3permastone 4permastoned 5

permastoned 7permastoned 8

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