Archive for category Berkshires

Melville Helps Us Understand Trump

Perhaps it is time to reconsider Herman Melville, not for the whale, but for his social commentary that speaks to us across generations in this Presidential campaign season.  Melville will return to the news in the next few weeks following the release of the much promoted Ron Howard movie “In the Heart of the Sea,” the account of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex that inspired Moby Dick.   As Americans, we grow up knowing the broad parameters of Melville’s tale (not tail), even if we never made it past the first chapter. Ahab’s chasing the white whale is part of our cultural DNA, shorthand for an obsessive, disastrous pursuit.

Embedded into this novel, written in Pittsfield shortly after Melville moved here in 1850, though, is the story of Ishmael, the sailor-narrator, and Queequeg, the tattooed, heathen Polynesian harpooner who was peddling shrunken heads when Ishmael first met him.  The novel begins with the two sharing a room (and, as was routine in the early 1800s for men of little means, a bed.)   Initially terrified of Queequeg, Ishmael concludes that “The man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.”  Melville’s summation reaches across 175 years with a pointed rebuke of politics following the San Bernadino shooting after Thanksgiving: “Ignorance is the parent of fear.”

As Melville was writing these lines, he was surrounded by an outburst of nativism, of anti-foreign and anti-Catholic sentiment in Massachusetts, where a new, secret society was gaining adherents: the Know-Nothings.   That anti-party political order bequeathed the nation one of the most colorful but also confounding names, opening up the obvious line of inquiry – who would want to be associated with a movement that embraces ignorance in its title?

Citizen_Know_Nothing

Citizen Know Nothing

The Know Nothing name emerged not from a desire to be equated with stupidity, but from the secretive nature of its early days when adherents were instructed to answer questions about the order by saying they “know nothing.”   Following their success in several state political elections in 1854, they gave themselves the respectable official title, the American Party, but the Know Nothing name given to them by outsiders had already stuck.

In 2015, the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates seems to drawing for their playbooks a page from the 1850s and the Know Nothings.  They are drawing on several themes and tactics from the 19th century movement, most notably anti-immigration and the rejection of traditional politics.  The third pillar of the Know Nothings, anti-Catholicism, could easily be updated using the “replace all” function on a computer, substituting in the word Muslim for the earlier threat to Protestant values.

One Know Nothing member, Henry Wilson, who was elected as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, relayed the 1850s playbook, describing the secret order whose “professed purpose was to check foreign influence, purify the ballot box and rebuke the effort to exclude the Bible from the public schools.”  The societies that fed into the political movement bore their anti-immigrant leanings in their names: Sons of America, the American Protestant Association, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, and the Order of United Americans.  Members took oaths, according to a national convention in November 1854, to “not vote for any man for any office…unless he be an American-born citizen.”  If elected or appointed to any office, the member would “remove all foreigners, aliens of Roman Catholics from office or place.”

The nativism of the Know Nothings crept over into an overarching contempt for politicians, in reaction to a perceived increase of immigrants and Catholics in politics.  The movement then saw its greatest growth spurt in a period of generalized dissatisfaction with the inability of both parties to deal with the major issues of the time.  Failure of the Whigs in the Presidential elections of 1854 and  the only temporary resolution of the slavery issue in 1850 left a vacuum in the two-party system, leading quickly to the disappearance of the Whig party .  New issues such as temperance and the length of the working day emerged but were left untended.

Tactically, the Know Nothings focused their attention at the state and municipal levels of electoral politics drawing on their secret organizations to mobilize voters to head to the polls and reject traditional politicians.  They were most successful here in Massachusetts, when voters in 1854 swept into office Henry J. Gardiner as Governor and nearly all 400 races for the senate and house of representatives.  Races from Maine to Louisiana and California saw gains from Know Nothing candidates, moving Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts to state “There has been no revolution so complete since the organization of government.”  Adherents replaced professional politicians, most evidenced in Massachusetts by the influx of clergymen replacing lawyers in elected positions.

The parallels to 2015 resound – anti-immigration in the rhetoric of “deny entry to all Muslims” and “build a wall;”  anti-political parties in the rhetoric of “I am not Washington’s candidate;” secret political organizations in the fund-raising behind super-PACs; the tactics of state and local mobilizing paying off in gerrymandered and now permanently safe electoral districts in the House of Representatives; the “purity of the ballot box” in the attempted legislated election restrictions making it harder for minorities to cast their ballot.

One aspect of the current version, though, does not track with its earlier model.  While the 1850s movement did not embrace a lack of knowledge, the 2015 version can lay claim to the connotations of ignorance in Know-ing Nothing, especially when one of the candidates derides the field for its “fantasy” policy proposals.  Ohio Governor John Kasich seemed to be mimicking another one-time candidate, former Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindahl, who, in 2013, urged Republicans to “stop being the stupid party. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.”  Instead of answering they “know nothing” when asked a tough question, the candidates resort to an attack on the questioner, for his or her audacity, unfairness or meanness.  Knowing nothing or very little can extend to other statements: listing five cabinet departments for elimination that included naming the same department twice; the unwillingness to walk back claims of thousands of people from New Jersey cheering the collapse of the World Trade Towers on September 11; the claim that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen in this country since slavery.

By spouting ignorance, this year’s crop of politicians is making good on Melville’s dictum of delivering fear.  In considering all they advocate, though, that might just be the up side.  In fact, they could be driving the ship of state in pursuit of a white whale, with its disastrous ending.

This piece also appeared on History News Network and in the Berkshire Eagle.

 

 

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This Place Really Matters – The Movie

filmstillYou’ve read the thesis on preserving the old Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the articles below. Perhaps you even saw the review in the Berkshire Eagle.  Now the full-length movie.

OK, maybe you haven’t read them.  But the film project took up a big chunk of the past few months when otherwise I would have been writing blog posts, about Iran or the Pope, gun control or incarcerations, trails or demolitions in the Berkshires.

The movie is complete so the plan is to pick up on these short pieces.

How did this involvement in a full-length movie (84 minutes) come about?  Not that I knew anything about filming, certainly nothing more than home movies of children.

The e-mail requesting someone to document the preservation project of the 1876 Victorian Gothic public library building in central Pittsfield was copied to me.  Had I known the full extent of what was involved I might have shied away, but a casual “yes, I’d be interested” turned into a Master’s Degree thesis and a movie.

The architects leading the project were interested in a film documenting the project, but I was interested in getting graduate credit.  The breakthrough came from Pittsfield Community Television (PCTV) that offered equipment loans and training and a lot of storage space on their server.

The architects (Bill Gillen and John Krifka from Ford-Gillen in Amherst MA) and the contractor (Mike Mucci from Allegrone of Pittsfield MA) encouraged me to attend and even film their meetings, allowed me access to the worksite and repeatedly gave of their time and documents to understand as much as a layperson could the complexity of the work involved.

The movie, This Place Really Matters, has been broadcast on Access Pittsfield PCTV the past few weeks and is available through their on demand feature.  And now you can watch it on YouTube right here: https://youtu.be/y6er6nz605k

If you can only watch a little, proceed to about minute 50 for dramatic footage showing the reason why the state went to such time and expense to fix the structural problems of the building.

When we think of preserving historic buildings, the first ones that come to mind are usually the buildings that we failed to save, that were demolished and lost to only the archives.  Here, though, is a success story that deserves to be celebrated and remembered.

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This Place Matters – the old Berkshire Athenaeum

Right before construction started.  Photo the author

Right before construction started. Photo the author

Since September 2013, the yard in front of the Superior Court and the old Berkshire Athenaeum on Park Square in Pittsfield had a chain link fence, construction trailers, portable toilets and gravel. Much of that time, a green curtained scaffold blocked the public view of the majestic stone work and prominent stained glass windows behind it.  And yet, in practically no time at all, the scaffolding and fencing have been taken down, and fresh green sod lies in their place.  What we see now seems much the same as it looked before work started.  According to the contractor, Mike Mucci from Allegrone, that’s as it should be.  “People stop by,“ he told me, “and look up at the building and ask us, ‘What did you do?  I don’t see any difference.’  We take that as a compliment.”

In fact, much has changed, and that should also be a compliment.  A closer look will reveal the steel braces gone from the front façade, but still in place on the sides and the rear of the building.  Some onlookers might detect gray mortar between the stone work on the front, as opposed to the red on the other three sides.  Few passers-by would be able to remember the broken stained glass sections or the cracks in the wall.  And only a trained eye with perfect memory from the summer of 2013 would be able to notice the front façade is straight.  Gone is a bulge that protruded away from the building as much as five to six inches in places, that had been building for years and created an emergency safety concern for the staff inside the building and the many people coming into the building to go to the courts or the registry of deeds.  So, almost five years ago, the state, which operates the courthouses and registry of deeds in the building now, took the first steps of what started as a “small repair,” according to architect John Krifka.

Because of the conditions of the building, though, what took place behind the green curtain over the last two years has turned into a monumental effort to secure the front façade and preserve a building almost 140 years old.  This Victorian Gothic structure, unique in the downtown core, housed for 100 years one of the busiest libraries in the state.  Bearing witness to the rapid economic growth of the city, it still stands, despite the flight of industry, and contributes to the city’s plans to attract new business and arts and tourism.  But, it also carries for many residents the fond association of books and knowledge and community, lending a sense of dignity, pride and identity.

The project involved taking down almost every stone on the façade, and relaying each one, secured to the building to ensure they do not move again.  That’s relatively easy and straightforward to say.  But think about that for just ten seconds, and what that might entail.

Pause.

Each of the thousands of stones went back in exactly the same place.

One could liken it to a giant jigsaw puzzle except that the pieces weighed from 50 pounds to ten times that weight, and  they had to run in straight lines, and they may have been chipped or cracked over the years, and they had to be affixed to a new concrete and steel structure behind that stones, and they  needed new mechanical strategies to prevent water from working in behind the stones to cause the damage, and the stained glass windows and the surrounding forms also needed repair and the entire package needed to maintain the historic integrity and appearance of a building that is listed as a contributing feature to the original Park Square historic district.  And, the building remained open to the public.  And the work was completed in two of the harshest winters in recent memory.

Working in the depths of winter.  Photo, the author

Working in the depths of winter. Photo, the author

An even greater appreciation for this effort emerges upon examining the historical record of the building, where this problem of shifting and bulging has plagued it for well over 100 years.  A letter in 1897 from William Plunkett, the President of the Berkshire Athenaeum Board of Trustees, indicates the need to repair the leaks in the roof, just 20 years after the building opened.  “No one can tell,” he wrote, when it may give out and cause serious trouble.”  Water getting behind the stones, then expanding in the frozen winters and contracting and allowing more water to enter, pushed the stones away from the walls.   Steel girders and reinforced foundations were put in place in 1945 to hold up the roof and stabilize the building.  Then steel bands were installed around the building to hold the stones in place in the late 1970s when the building was re-purposed for the courthouse and registry of deeds.

Those steel bands are no longer needed.  When the stones were re-layed, a new concrete wall, with steel reinforcement, was poured behind the stones each time a layer of 2-3 feet stones was put in place.  Repairing stones and reshaping them to fit and align required a slow, precise care more akin to surgery, if the doctors were manipulating 50-300 pound organs or bones.  Finally, flashing at both the roof line and at the base will prevent water from entering behind the stones.  Hard to see, but along the base are small round “weeps” that serve as drains for any water that might be able to enter through the mortar during the storms that the northern façade bears the brunt of through the year.

Ready for another 100 years.  The old Athenaeum in May 2015.  Photo, the author

Ready for another 100 years. The old Athenaeum in May 2015. Photo, the author

Similar precision and care went into repairing the stained glass windows, the first comprehensive repair since the original construction.  All the shifting over 139 years resulted in cracked and broken glass in the 46 panels  on the two large windows on the front façade, with only small, colored pieces of plastic mounted as temporary replacements to keep out the weather and maintain a poor facsimile of the graceful windows.  New concrete molds (or tracery) were produced to hold the repaired windows in place, and each section of this tracery was fastened securely to the surrounding stone work with metal anchors. The project’s architect. Bill Gillen, said that, despite the new sod and the removal of the scaffolding, the project will continue with small follow-up activities over the course of the year, ending, “with a whimper.”   That would be too bad, as those many people who worked on this project over the past two years of active construction have saved a unique treasure for the city, its residents and its many visitors.   The old Athenaeum, renamed the Bowes Building, for the County Commissioner who helped to save it after the library moved out, has been saved again.  Most of us who will pass by it for years to come, will continue to pay the compliment to those many people involved in this effort:  we won’t notice any difference.  The wall is straight and will remain so.

See also:  Behind the Green Curtain.   This post originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.

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Thousands of Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image

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

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

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Behind the Green Curtain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All that behind this green curtain.

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