Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Holman Bible Iron

Steel Beam Vernacular has been generally interested in the incorporation of metal into vernacular architecture. With Frank Furness as a pioneering figure, Philadelphia is well endowed. But I think I have ran into the grandest iron installation. It carries the masonry load of the whole facade (four stories) and opens up the first story in order to reveal the merchandise to the viewer. In this case, the merchandise is .... bibles. Philadelphia used to be the publishing capital of the U.S. before New York took over in the 20th century. The most profitable best seller was naturally the Bible, and Andrew J. Holman was one of its manufacturers. The Holman Bible Factory was designed by the Wilson Brothers in 1881 and located at 1222-26 Arch St (see here for details). The cast iron piers incorporate decorative elements from the brick facade (rosettes, mouldings, rustication, etc.) and dramatically express the pneumatic forces (notice Furness's trick of double-piled columns that refer to steam machinery). The iron facade is unique also in that they taper in at the base, making the building tilt towards the street. I had to stop for and take stock of the piers' complex elements.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Texas (inside) versus North Dakota (outside) man camp insulation

The North Dakota Man Camp Project had a productive research trip a couple of weeks ago, where we documented evidence of abandonment and scaling-down (see here). This phenomenon corresponds with other oil fields, where the decrease of oil prices, exaggerated further by the Iran deal, has caused a clear decline. It's in this general context that Karnes County, Texas, made the news this Sunday: Clifford Kraus, "Sinking Oil Prices Are Lowering Boom in Texas," The New York Times (Aug. 15, 2015), A1, A3.

The article included a photo of an oil worker walking out of his RV. See photo hereThis has become a standard oil boom image, partially canonized by Kyle Cassidy (landscape view, right frame cuts through the middle of RV, resident walking or standing at entrance). 

Beyond its human content, the New York Times photograph highlights strategies of vernacular architecture. I did a sketch above to illustrate a subtle detail from the photo, the use of reflective insulation on the windows (marked in black). Whereas in North Dakota this material is placed on the outside of the RV, in Texas it is placed on the inside of the RV. The same material (available at any construction store) insulates against the cold in North Dakota and the heat in Texas. This is one among many regional variations.

I quote some relevant passages by Clifford Kraus below that make the man camp situation in Texas similar to that of North Dakota.

Workers whom migrated from far and wide to find work here, chasing newfound oil riches, are being laid off, deserting their recreational vehicle parks and going home. Hey farmers who became instant millionaires on royalty checks for their land have suddenly fallen behind on payments for new tractors they bought when cash was flowing. Scores of mobile steel tanks and portable toilets used at the ubiquitous wells are stacked, unused, along county roads. 'Everybody is waiting for doomsday,' said Vi Malone the Karnes County treasurer.

Just five years ago, Karnes County was a speck in the oil patch, its production a rounding error in a state historically tied to oil. Then came hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and teh sure in oil production it unleashed. Crumbling towns here reinvented themselves with new restaurants, markets and hotels as money and jobs poured in....

Friday, August 14, 2015

Ouranis Fireplace

After surveying many fireplaces in deserted Greek houses, I have been thinking about the representation of desertion in Greek literature. After the iconic fireplace of Papadiamantis (see here), I turn to one of the clearest expressions of fireplace nostalgia from a posthumously published piece by the poet Kostas Ouranis. I had blogged on Ouranis's poem "Frangissa" back in 2009 (see here). "The Fireplace" was written sometime in 1928-29. At that point, Ouranis had spent a large period of his life abroad, at Davos Switzerland recovering from tuberculosis, or as Greek Consul in Lisbon. In "The Fireplace," he revisits his locked up paternal home in Leonidio, Arcadia. In some ways, the fireplace of his youth is the same as the hundreds of abandoned fireplaces in our survey. The essay was published posthumously by his wife (under a pseudonym) in 1956, and I give the original Greek below. Below I translate it loosely in English. The piece confirms a sentimental reading of this architectural feature. As a modernist poet, Ouranis' expresses the great space that separates the space of the rural Greece of his youth and the alienated cosmopolitanism of his modern Greek existence. The essay is sentimental and it offers a reflection of an eloquent poet who returned to the space of his youth. 

The Fireplace

It's winter outside, and I sit by a miserable stove that is stingy with its heat. I reminisce nostalgically over the fireplace, the heart of happy houses and the source of tranquil joy.

The fireplace belongs to my paternal home in provincial Arcadia! Long winter nights, the rain burst on the paving of the courtyard, a mad wind shook the windows, and the terrifying sound of the flooded river could be heard outside. But the fireplace shone brightly, illuminating with its luster both my face and my soul. Cross-legged, I once sat by the fireplace and listened to my grandmother's fairy tales, while the chestnuts crackled on the fire. By its light, I read my first Arabian Nights full of fear and seduction, as I grew older. In its flames, I saw genies and Sinbad come to life. 

Poetry woke my soul next to the fireplace. I lamented the withering flowers in the garden, the dead cicadas, and the poor who felt cold throughout the world. I had my first dreams at the fireplace, always dreams of migration. I pondered large hyperborean seas, always deserted and turbulent. I pondered distant lands that had green and rosy borders in my geography. I pondered snow covered forests where fairy princesses hunted deer with golden horns. And I pondered foreign ports, where I would one day embark as a ship's captain, pipe in mouth and a tame red-green parrot perched on my shoulder. 

Years later, every time that I returned from aboard, I would bend over and stir the hearth of the paternal house. And I would stir those early memories and stir the melancholy felt earlier. I would feel the warmth around me as an armor protecting me in life, or as a forgotten pier in the seas, where the waves serenaded the boats into sleep.

The grandmother who once told those tales and the mother who once kept the fire are now buried underground. The house is locked and the fireplace is extinguished forever. I remember those old days of warmth as the winter now rages outside. The wind outside stirs my heart like a scrap. I am cold. I ponder my life that has passed, the closed house, and the dead under the snowed earth.

Το τζάκι (1928-29)

Χειμώνας έξω κ΄ εγώ, μπροστά σε μιάν άθλια σόμπα που φιλαργυερεύεται τη ζέστη της, συλλογιέμαι νοσταλγικά την ψυχή των ευτυχισμένων σπιτιών, την πηγή της γαλήνιας χαράς : το τζάκι ...

Τζάκι του πατρικού σπιτιού, στην αρκαδική μας επαρχία! Μεγάλες χειμωνιάτικες νύχτες, όταν στις πλάκες της αυλής έσκαζε με δύναμη η βροχή, και τράνταζε τα παράθυρα ο φρενιασμένος άνεμος κι ακουόταν η τρομερή βοή του πλημμυρισμένου χειμάρρου – και το τζάκι φεγγοβολούσε, φωτίζοντας με τις ανταύγειές του το πρόσωπο και την ψυχή μου ... Καθισμένος σταυροπόδι πλάϊ του, είχα ακούσει τα πρώτα παραμύθια της γιαγιάς, ενώ τρίζαν στη χόβολη τα κάστανα που ψήναμε. Αργότερα, είχα διαβάσει στο φως του, όλος τρόμο και γοητεία, τη Χαλιμά – κ’ είχα δει να χοροπηδάν στις φλόγες του τα τελώνια κι ο τζουτζές του Σεβάχ Θαλασσινού.

Πλάϊ σ’ αυτό ξύπνησε η ψυχή μου στην ποίηση, ενώ θλιβόμουν για τα μαραμένα στον κήπο λουλούδια, γιά τα πεθαμένα τζιτζίκια και για τους φτωχούς που κρύωναν μέσα στον απέραντο κόσμο. Από κει ξεκίνησα τα πρώτα μου όνειρα – όνειρα αποδημίας πάντα. Συλλογιόμουν τις μεγάλες υπερβόρειες θάλασσες, έρημες και φουρτουνιασμένες· τις μακρυνές χώρες, που είχαν πράσινα και ρόδινα σύνορα στη Γεωγραφία μου· χιονισμένα δάση, όπου παραμυθένια πριγκιπόπουλα κυνηγούσαν ελάφια με χρυσά κέρατα – και ξενικά λιμάνια, όπου θα ξεμπάρκαρα μιά μέρα καπετάνιος με την πίπα στο στόμα κ’ έναν κοκκινοπράσινο, ήμερο, παπαγάλο στον ώμο...

Χρόνια αργότερα, κάθε φορά που γυρνούσα από τα ξένα και, σκυμένος μπρος στή φωτιά του πατρικού τζακιού, ανάδευα, μαζί με τη χόβολη, τις αναμνήσεις μου και τις μελαγχολίες μου, ένοιωθα τη ζεστασιά γύρω μου σα μιά πανοπλία ενάντια στη ζωή και τη φωτεινή του ειρήνη σαν ένα λησμονημένο από τους ανέμους μώλο, όπου νανουρίζονται απαλά τα θαλασσοδαρμένα καΐκια ...

Σήμερα όμως η γιαγιά που έλεγε τα παραμύθια κ’ η μητέρα που φρόντιζε τη φωτιά κείτονται από καιρό μέσα στο χώμα και το σπίτι είναι μανταλωμένο και το τζάκι σβησμένο – γιά πάντα. Και γι’ αυτό, τώρα που έξω είναι χειμώνας κ’ εγώ συλλογιέμαι περασμένα εκείνα, νοιώθω να κουνάει σα ράκος την ψυχή μου ο αέρας και να κρυώνω – και για τη ζωή μου που πέρασα και για το σπίτι που έκλεισε και για τους πεθαμένους κάτω από τη χιονισμένη γη ...

Ouranis, Kostas. 1956. Αποχρώσεις, ed. Eleni Ouranis[= Alkis Thrylos], Athens: Estia, pp. 148-149.

Monday, August 03, 2015

O Young Building, Grand Forks ND

Cast iron transformed commercial architecture in 19th-century American cities. Affording greater span for less footprint, they increased the space for windows and window-shopping. In corner properties, the iron column was capable of supporting the entire weight of the residential upper floors and open up the corner to the public, placing the entrance diagonally to the corner, and allow passage and view from both streets. Cutting the corner gave back space to the public street (experientially but not legally) and literally syphoned the shopper into the store. Decorative detail on the prefabricated iron post, moreover, attracted attention the store.

The "corner store" is, thus, an iconic installation in any19th-century American city. But since this paradigm does not work anymore, many of the old corner stores have closed their original public offering to increase their private real estate. When American cities went into depression in the 1960s, the iron posts stopped being maintained, rusted, and generally proved inefficient. So few of them actually survive in situ.

This morning, I took a walk through Grand Forks' beautiful main street (3rd Street) to see a beautiful iron corner post on 2 S 3rd Street and Demers. Originally the "O Young Building" it sat on a prime location with Demers Street crossing the Red Rive into Minnesota. The post had no information about the foundry that produced it (sometimes they are stamped) but, I would guess, it was manufactured in Minneapolis. It is divided into two parts with triple fluting, a base, capital, and a simple middle block decorated with disks. The pier is decorated on only two of its four sides, which suggests that originally the corner was not fully open but must have had some adjacent framing.
The entrance to the upstairs residential floors is on the other side of the facade and it is framed by decorated piers that match the iron post. From the distance, it looks like they are iron, too, but they are not. They are made out of wood, but carved so to match the iron prototype in the corner. This is pretty interesting. The carpenter (surely local) is completing here an architectural composition whose vocabulary was established by the foundry. Painting both white makes them indistinguishable. I was excited to discover this bi-materiality. On the East Coast and other midwestern cities, decorative details of this period are made in pressed zinc and do away with the carpenter altogether.
The Young store had an iron post on its other back corner, but it has been replaced with a newer steel column. A staircase leading to the basement on Demers Street features another iron element, a beautiful post for the railing, most likely manufactured by the same foundry (below):

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States