Friday, November 27, 2009

Lancaster: Poetic Archaeology

Ben Leech, has outdone his own artistic discipline with "Subterranean Recovery Crew" posted on Old Weird Lancaster (Nov. 17, 2009) and shown above. Since this summer, Ben has been choosing a building in Lancaster, Pa. and drawing it. The series is called "Building of the Week" and is a regular feature of the Lancaster Building Conservancy blog. In addition to the drawing, each building is thoroughly researched and photographed. So far, the series includes Strawberry Hill Grocery, Groff Funeral Home (one of my favorites), Kepper's Confectionary Building, 302-306 West Vine Street, Fleet Wing, Ashley and Bailey Silk Mill, and the Mayer Farmstead. For those who do not know of Ben, he is a practicing Historic Preservationist that came to Lancaster from Chicago only a few years ago. He is best known in the Lancaster community for two blogs, The Lancaster Building Conservancy and Old Weird Lancaster.

When Ben published the drawing above he entered a new realm: archaeology and archaeological poetics. "Subterranean Recovery Crew" contains 12 drawings of objects that Ben found in his back yard while gardening. The piece takes its name from the hotwheel in fig. 11 that reads "Subterranean Recovery Crew." The drawing was posted just as Ben was storing his garden tools at the end of a productive Fall. I love this drawing, it's loaded with associations. First, it is technically immaculate. It uses all the 19th-century conventions of archaeological illustration (orthographic representation, line-weights, stippling). The style itself hence introduces an element of nostalgia, a common trope in archaeological representation, but the irony here is that the artifacts come from the capitalist present. Discarded in Ben's backyard by the previous occupants, even the "present" of our lives has aged and deteriorated. For instance, G.I. Joe has onions growing out of him (after all, even our current war in Iraq is 6 years old). Although brought together by the chance of archaeological discovery, the 12 objects have a provocative narrative quality. They come out of a dream, a Surrealist assemblage, or a Situationist drift. I honestly, cannot stop from looking at the illustration. Every time, I think I've seen it enough, I click on it again and come up with additional poetic scenarios. I thank Ben for letting me reproduce his drawing here.

At the same time, Ben's drawing is more than poetry, it evokes the scientific discipline of Garbology, created in 1973 by William Rathje at the University of Arizona. Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage (1992) by Williams Rathje and Cullen Murphy is one of the most important American archaeological publications (in my opinion). Excavating our own everyday lives has been beautifully explored in the collection of essay Archaeologies of the Recent Past, ed. Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas (2001). I am particularly susceptible to Ben's drawing because I have been thinking about urban archaeology in Lancaster more broadly. The most recent noteworthy excavation at Lancaster was at the Stevens and Smith House, where a station in the underground railroad was discovered. The project was directed by James A. Delle (Kutztown University) and Mary Ann Levine (Franklin & Marshall College). I would love to see a more permanent F&M excavation at Lancaster and I'm exploring some possibilities.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Hawass, the Greatful Dead, Beyonce

In a recent biographical article on Zahi Hawass, we learn that the most powerful man in Egyptian archaeology attended a Grateful Dead concert at the pyramids during the mid-1970s, see Ian Parker, "The Pharaoh," The New Yorker (Nov. 16, 2009), p. 52ff. A couple of months ago, I posted on the Pink Floyd concert in Pompeii (1971), pondering the connections between rock and archaeology. Parker's reference to Hawass' pyramids concert attendance made a nice match to the photo on the left, from a few days ago, when Hawass guided Beyonce at Giza. Beyonce's "I Am..." tour has raised some controversy in the Islamic world, see Art Daily (Nov. 10, 2009). Although I used this news story as a conversation piece in my Islamic class, I will make no comments on the irony of this picture (the Egyptian cowboy archaeologist and the scarfed sex idol). Hawass spent a few years in Philadelphia as a grad student at Penn. His appreciation of American pop culture is not surprising, nor are his own super-star ambitions.

I will simply take a moment to remember the Grateful Dead concert, which took place in September 1978. The performance at the Giza Light and Sound theater was followed by three shows in Cairo. Interestingly enough, highlights of this Egyptian tour were released a year ago, see David Fricke, "The Dead Rock the Pyramids," Rolling Stone (Oct. 16, 2008). The CD title, "Rocking the Cradle/Egypt 1978," presumably refers to Egypt as the cradle of civilization. I am not a fan of the Grateful Dead, but I appreciate the inclusion of oud player Hamza El Din in their line up. El Din had appeared in the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, and in the 1980s/90s he taught ethnomusicology in various American universities. The 1978 Grateful Dead concert must be added to the saga of rock archaeology.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Churches of Lancaster Postcard

What better way to start an emotional relationship with a city than to start collecting its paraphernalia. I must confess that I have started to collect postcards that feature Lancaster's noteworthy architecture. Considering Lancaster County's tradition as a tourist destination, there is no shortage of postcards. You can imagine how thrilled I was to stumble on "the Churches of Lancaster" on eBay, this being the subject of a class I'm teaching next semester. Naturally, I bid on it and it arrived (above). I am not sure of the postcard's date, I would guess 1950s from the graphics. It proudly shows Lancaster's touristic identity vis-a-vis its historic churches. Considering that Lancaster has 122 churches, knowing which buildings the city promoted as its premier heritage is noteworthy. The churches are the First Methodist Church, St. Paul's Reformed Church, Grace Lutheran Church, Saint John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, and Trinity Lutheran Church.

The postcard will make a perfect conversation piece for the first meeting of my ART271 class, "Lancaster: Architecture of Faith." Pre-registration has just finished at Franklin & Marshall, and I am thrilled to see that the class is registered to full capacity. As I expected, it is a lot more popular than my Medieval Art and Architecture survey.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Airport Chapels on Flickr

Last week, I received some feedback on my last Airport Chapels postings. Blogger Little Ethiopia(n) and Esquire were recently traveling through Washington, D.C. and they spotted the chapel in Dulles Airport. I thank them for sending me the image on the left. This is a fabulous logo with the dome representing holy space and the airplane making a subtle nod to the cross, but not claiming Christian domination. On the subject of crosses, I hope you are following the controversy over the cross at the Mojave National Preserve, see NPR coverage here.

I also want to thank Julia for informing me of a new Airport Chapels Flickr site with 13 contributors and some 186 images. I especially like the group's write up, which I'll quote below:

"Anyone who's spent enough time in enough different airports has discovered that many have small spaces set aside to pray, worship, meditate, reflect, or just find some peace and quiet in. They are often hidden away in lonely corners of the airport, and are often the only place one can escape the incessant noise of a large, busy airport. They may be called chapels, capillas, masjids, mashallah, synagogues, temples, prayer rooms, or meditation rooms. Some are specific to a particular religion or sect, many are not.

All are welcome and encouraged to join this group, the devout, the skeptical, the questing, believers of all kinds, and atheists. But please respect each others' beliefs, whether you share them or not.

Please post your photos of airport prayer rooms and of people praying at airports here! If you can be specific in the captions or comments of your photo about the location of the prayer room, that will help others find one the next time they're traveling. Another source of information is the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains which has a searchable database of airport prayer rooms. Unfortunately, s far it doesn't have nearly as much information on airport prayer rooms in Muslim-majority countries as in Christian ones. Perhaps we can help them expand their horizons!"

Monday, November 23, 2009

West Philadelphia: Transfiguration

The wrecking ball has met the Church of the Transfiguration, on 56th and Cedar Sts. in West Philadelphia. Built in 1905, the church has been vacant for almost a decade. See the Philadelphia Church Project blog (here) for the sad images of demolition. The interior furnishings of the church were stripped last month and can be found at Provenance, the architectural salvage store on 1610 Fairmount Ave. This Catholic church, convent, school and complex was sold by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to Boy's Latin, a charter school that opened in 2007. The school is an interesting, albeit controversial, experiment, see St. John Bard-Smith, "Latin Lovers," Philadelphia Weekly (June 11, 2008). The school will presumably expand in the plot that housed the Transfiguration.

Many thanks to the Necessity of Ruins for recording the processes of Philadelphia's own ruination. I was also deeply saddened to see the wrecking ball meet another West Philadelphia monument, the Drexel Shaft on 30th Street. The demolition took place on Sunday (Nov. 16); for more information, see, Eulogy for a Shaft and Drexel Shaft Implosion (Necessity of Ruins, Nov. 12 & 16). The smoke stack was designed for the 30th Street Station Steam Heating Plane by the office of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White in 1929. This Chicago firm was the successor of Daniel Burnham's office and their ambitious urbanism is legendary. Their plans for Philadelphia's 30th Street resembled the Terminal Tower project in Cleveland. Unexpectedly, the Great Depression kept the full urban scheme from materializing. The smoke stack was an orphan, a monument to a lost moment. The boiler was last used in 1964 and, I agree with The Necessity of Ruins, it was an icon of West Philadelphia. Crossing the Schuylkill River or entering the city by train was always marked by this vertical monument rising over its cubic base.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

House Preservation: Greece

Houses are a difficult building type to preserve. They are typically not unique, not monumental, and victim of continuous alteration, repair, and changing ownership. Houses gain notoriety when someone of importance lived in them. Think of all the "George Washington slept here" houses in the U.S. This is the case with three houses in Greece that have received the recent attention of preservationists, the houses of Paulos Melas, Menelaos Lountemis, and Demetris Ronteris.

Balkan War hero Paulos Melas lived at Tatoi 50, Kephissia, during the last few years of his life till 1904. As an abandoned structure, the house has received gratuitous vandalism by all kinds of people emotionally invested with Melas from militant right-wingers to militant left-wingers. The house is currently owned by Melas' grand-daughter. On Sept. 16, the Council of Newer Monuments placed it in the national registry. The Ministry of Public Works also began its restoration. The structure is a small suburban one-story house built in 1895. See report by Giota Sykka, "Σχέδιο σωτηρίας της οικίας Παύλου Μελά," Kathimerini (Nov. 11, 2009).

Greek author Menelaos Lountemis was born in Asia Minor but spent his teenage years (1923-1932) in Exaplatanos, Pella. His house (top) was declared a national monument in 1985 and Melina Merkouri guaranteed the funds for its restoration. Nothing happened in the last 24 years and last February Lountemis' daugther initiated a call to action through Facebook to save the house from collapse. Over 1,000 Facebook supporters seem to have pressured the government into action. Last week, the deputy minister of Interior announced plans to restore the house. For a full report, see, "Αποκατάσταση της οικίας του Μενέλαου Λουντέμη," Kathimerini (Nov. 12, 2009).

The third house to be saved this Fall is the house of theater director Demetris Ronteris in Glyfada. I haven't been able to find further details about this project. I don't know much about Ronteris. He studied (among other things) art history in Austria and became a student of Max Reinhardt in Berlin. In 1932, he returned to Greece and directed in the National Royal Theater. His house in Glyfada hosted a saloon of luminaries, including Elia Kazan and John Steinbeck. Ronteris died in 1982 and his house has been under threat since then. In 2007, it almost went into auction.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Lancaster Vibe

I don't know what it is, but Lancaster has a distinctive vibe. Although I still feel like an outsider looking into the city from a great distance, new information and exciting events trickle to me every week. Lancaster's vibe is hip and it travels well on the internet. I feel progressively rooted into Lancaster's virtual community just as this very community appears aggressively connected to the textures of daily life rather than the zapping of virtual space. I'll give some examples. My colleague Linda Aleci has invited me to a city walk organized through Facebook. It's called the Lancaster Photo Walk. A number of people (who presumably don't know each other) will meet on the corner of Market and Queen Sts. at noon on Monday, Nov. 30. We will all wonder through downtown taking photos and collectively discover the rich architectural heritage in an impromptu kind of way.

On the night before, Sun., Nov. 29, 6-10pm, the Creative Works of Lancaster and the Lancaster Building Conservancy will be hosting their first movie night entitled "Love, War, and Architecture." I haven't seen any of the featured films and look forward to attending. The films are as follows:

1. Lost Buildings
A collaboration between Ira Glass (This American Life) and master illustrator Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth), this short animated documentary tells a heartbreaking story of beautiful buildings, the people who love them, and the people who tear them down. (2003, 22 minutes)

2 Little Castles
An irreverent history of Formstone, the fake stone veneer we love to hate. Shot in and around Baltimore, the birthplace and undisputed Formstone capital of the world, this short film includes a hilarious cameo by John Waters. (1998, 30 minutes)

3. Los Angeles Plays Itself
A critically-acclaimed portrait of Los Angeles as depicted (and distorted) by Hollywood's mythologizing lens. (2003, 160 minutes)

At this event, Ben Leach will conclude his Lancaster Kodachrome Campaign. A bunch of folks have gotten the last surviving samples of Kodachrome film, which the Eastman Company stopped producing this year. We're all using this suddenly archival medium for the last Kodachrome impressions of the urban fabric. Ben will collect all of our rolls and send them for batch processing. My roll is actually in the mail. My friend Matt Milliner spotted an old roll at a camera store in Cyprus. For those interested in the Kodachrome legacy, Ben recommends this video.

My introduction to the Lancaster vibe is also flavored by David Schuyler's A City Transformed: Redevelopment, Race, and Suburbanization in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1940-1980 (University Park, 2002), which I have just began. The book is a MUST for unpacking Lancaster. Schuyler is a colleague at Franklin & Marshall, professor of American Studies. In addition to being an incredible scholar, Schuyler is exemplary in involving undergraduate students in his research and co-authoring books and articles. Schuyler reassured me that he became a Lancaster expert only after arriving at F&M. His book rose out of his teaching, which is just an amazing pedagogical notion and something that F&M seems to do quite well. So, I can't wait to work with my first Hackman Scholar.

Lancaster's postwar urban renewal is a typical story of the American city. The wholesale demolition of the blighted inner city took place in the 1950s. City Transformed tells an incredible story. Suburbanization, federal funds managed by city official, modernist architecture, and race politics transformed an attractive Victorian city into a fragmented faceless place. Lancaster's low urban density did not warrant the same kind of revival that other downtown experienced in the 1990s (e.g. Philadelphia). The city, thus, remains as a laboratory caught in various historical moments. The Lancaster vibe measures its pulse. I'm really glad to be here and virtually surrounded by a crowd I haven't even yet met.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Islamic Art and Pennsylvania

During my interview at Franklin and Marshall College, I showed material from my excavations of an Arab/Norman house in western Sicily, including an almost complete Green-and-Brown plate. Having spent a few minutes in F&M's Phillips Museum before my research talk, I came across this Pennsylvania Dutch plate from 1816 (left), which I photographed and inserted into my presentation as a distant cousin to medieval Mediterranean ceramics. Early American pottery belongs to medieval ceramic traditions, indirectly influenced by the pottery of Islam and Byzantium. Clearly, I was stretching myself to make my research relevant further closer to home.

Now that I am actually teaching a class on Islamic Art and Architecture at F&M, I had a chance to research the local traditions and substantiate my claims. I am also thrilled to see that I was right and my intuition was not too far off. The medieval Mediterranean ABSOLUTELY influenced Pennsylvania Dutch ceramics. The plate at the Phillips belongs to a type known as Tulip Ware. An article from New England Magazine (March, 1895) explains this fascinating transmission of Islamic notions in the New World.

"This was a favorite flower with the old German-Americans, not only on account of its beauty and characteristic form, and the ease with which its simple outline could be represented in slip-painting, but because of the associations surrounding it. The tulip, a native of the shore of the Mediterranean, in the Levant, or the region to the east of Italy, extending into Turkey and Persia, is said to have been brought from Constantinople to Augsburg by Konrad von Gesner, a noted botanist and zoologist of Switzerland, in the year 1559, where it soon came into a popular favor. In the 17th century the cultivation of this plant developed in Holland to such an extent that it became one of the most remarkable horticultural manias in the world's history, and fabulous prices were frequently paid for the new and rare varieties. The Tulpenwuth, or 'tulip madness,' extended into Germany and continued to rage for many years. The German potters of the 18th century, particularly throughout the Rhenish Palatinate, used the tulip extensively as decorative subject on their slip-ornamented earthenware ... It is remarkable that the Persian name of the tulip, dulband, should have retained through nearly three and a half centuries, and that the plant should be known to the Pennsylvania Germans to-day as the Dullaban."

The passage from 1895 is quoted in Edwin Atlee Barber, Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania German Potters (Philadelphia, 2003), pp. 82-83. Tulip Ware pottery is also discussed in John Sweetman's classic study, The Oriental Obsession: Islamic Inspiration in British and American Art and Architecture 1500-1920 (Cambridge, 1988), p. 213.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States