Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Greek-American Vernacular 1: The Coin

While proceeding with some long-overdue home improvements in Philadelphia, I've had opportunity to contemplate the transmission of architectural ideas through immigration. The house in Philadelphia (which I continue to call "my parents' house" although it now belongs to me and my sister) is located in West Philadelphia, an early garden suburb. It is a typical Philadelphia row house from ca. 1896 with some of its original decoration surviving. Unlike many of its neighbors, the house was never converted into apartments. My parents bought it in 1989. My father was extremely diligent in the building's maintenance. Most poetically, he was carrying a bag of concrete when he had his fatal heart-attack in 1993. Once my father passed away, the house lost its vigilant care-taker; my mother carried out some necessary repairs but lacked the overall vision. As a result, the house started to look shabby.

Now that the house has passed on to the children, I can no longer avoid it. Keep in mind that through the years of growing up I explicitly avoided any involvement with the house; from an early age I did everything possible to escape any of my father's handy projects. Like every inheritances, it comes with new responsibility towards both the future and the past. The real reason for home improvement is very similar to my father's. Issues simply needed to be taken care of in the most economic fashion; so one learns. Working on the house has become a laboratory. While taking the original fabric apart and repairing it, I am learning about 19th-c. building techniques, but I am also discovering my father's interventions. Archaeologically, it is a time capsule with messages from multiple periods.

Through his own craft techniques, my father has left an interesting (if not amusing) testament of migratory practices. The first archaeological message came in the form of a foundation coin. In Greece, it's common to insert a coin within the construction of a new house. This ritual gives the structure "iron strength" (siderenio) and good luck, but also commemorates the monetary sacrifice involved in building. In North of Ithaka, Eleni N. Gage discusses the discovery of a coin in the corner of her grandmother's house in Epirus, the famous Eleni from the 1983 documentary book. The coin was brought to the U.S. and deciphered as 1856 by a grocer in Worcester, Mass., where Eleni's family had immigrated.

While removing the base of a column, I exposed the concrete steps of our house and found a penny dating to 1992. I remembered that my father had the concrete re-poured around that time. The coin took my by surprise. What a fabulous ritual to transplant to a new context even for a humble operation of making new steps. Knowing my domestic reluctance, my father would surely never had imagined that his foundation coin would be discovered by his own son. Tragically, this was his last home-improvement and the concrete he was carrying for some future project likely contributed to his heart attack.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a fabulous post!

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States