Category Archives: buildings

My $1 Summer Vacation

Of Cape Cod and summering there, one man generations ago said, “It is the dullest, flattest, stupidest, pleasantest, most restful place on the whole coast. Nothing to do and we do it all the time.”

Sometime back I succumbed to a book on a topic pretty far removed from my usual interests or experience: the life and history of a summer house on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. This book sat on the shelf for five years or so until for some reason I took it down and put it in my suitcase to read on a trip. How and why I ever came into possession of it, I couldn’t remember. Then inside the back cover I discovered a remainder sticker I had removed and put there, which showed that I had found it in the $1 bin at a local bookstore.the big house image

The author is George Howe Colt, who as I figured out after some chapters is married to Anne Fadiman, writer of essays I first read in her delightful book Ex Libris. As his story opens, he and Anne and their two children are opening up the eponymous Big House for the season, in what might be their last summer as its owners.

Colt writes richly about the history of Cape Cod and summer homes generally, and about his particular family’s particular house on the Cape. It hasn’t been that long, really, that people have lived this Cape-Cod-summer lifestyle that was already near to extinction when the author told his tale more than ten years ago. In the early 19th century Bostonians started building summer homes there where previously it was thought most unsuitable, as Thoreau wrote: “It is a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it.” In previous eras homes were built in more sheltered locations inland from the sea.

I learned that many of our forbears used to think of the ocean unkindly, as a symbol of spiritual barrenness, and not want to go into or live near it — and then over the course of a century they had changed, to the point where they thought that living close to the sea, swimming in it, and even drinking buckets of sea water the most healthful things they could do.

capecod
Aerial view of Cape Cod (from the www.)

I was interested in the architecture and construction of the Big House, so much larger than many summer houses that no way could it be called a cottage. Size is the only luxurious thing about it, though. Residents and guests must wash dishes by hand in a kitchen where crickets abound, sleep between old mismatched sheets, and prop open many of the sixty-seven windows with a wooden coat hanger or a copy of Greyfriars Bobby.

The whole phenomenon of Old Money and what Colt calls the Boston Brahmin is explained: “If one had old money, it followed that one had old things: the wealthier the Bostonian, it has been said, the more dents in his car and the more holes in his clothes.” I know this is common knowledge to many people but the concrete example of Cape Cod lifestyle brought it all home to me.

Of course, summer somehow relates to everyone’s childhood, too, and that keeps the traditions going: “We would never tolerate the Big House’s inconveniences in our winter homes, but this is different: we change in the winter, but during the summer — a season in which we regress to an innocent, Edenic state by replicating the experiences we had as children — change is heresy.”

For the author, the place was such a keystone of his youth that it seems reasonable to him to include in the book many stories and details about the family members who spent their summers there, information that seemed to me often inappropriate, and detracted from the book as a whole. When I read the subtitle, A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, I did not anticipate hearing details about adolescent sexuality, Colt’s grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, and his uncle’s bunions. A little more focus would have been appreciated.

ColtGeorgeH_1l
the author

He obviously cares very much for his whole family and wants to remember every detail for posterity — or is it for the sake of his own sentimentality that he cannot edit out anything? Seemingly no indescretion committed or indignity suffered by any relative can be omitted, and I was very uncomfortable reading much of this material. This kind of authorial behavior kept inserting Colt and his personality front-and-center for me, and I mused that he was really writing not merely The Big House but George’s Big Loss.

I admit that if Colt had strained out more stories not directly related to the house, I would have missed hearing the wonderful tale of how his father during the war was hidden from the Germans by a French family, whose daughters later made their wedding dresses out of his white silk parachute. That was one little part I really loved and had to mention!

And I kept reading because Colt is a very good writer and I was imagining myself there in those halcyon summer days the family spent recreating, whether they were washing dishes or playing outdoors. Fishing, sailing, and tennis each have a chapter dedicated to them. And in a chapter titled “Rain” we get a tour of many of the books that were available and savored, and not only on rainy days. After a mention of board games, Colt writes,

“Best of all, there were books. Although it didn’t take rain to get us reading in the Big House (in fact, reading inside on a sunny day gave us a deliciously guilty feeling), on an overcast afternoon people would be curled up with a book in almost every bedroom, with three or four of us draped over the sofas in the living room, physically proximate yet in separate worlds.”

It’s been almost two years since I finished reading The Big House, but as I worked on wrapping up this review that I began back then I am tempted to start reading it through from the beginning again — well, maybe I could skim over those indecorous parts. Because it is just that kind of book, to be read in summertime as a delicious seaside vacation.

I praise Modoc, and question Jefferson.

Surprise Valley, California

It looks to me like some cowboy lost a piece of his shirt on this barbed wire. I took the picture when we were poking around in Modoc County, “where the West still lives.”

Ten years ago our family met a cowboy who looked like The Marlboro Man himself, as we stood on a hillside watching him lead a string of horses through the sagebrush and across a creek, with pastel layers of aspens and mountains behind him.


This remote and rugged land is one of the areas that has perpetually been found within the proposed boundaries of The State of Jefferson, a longed-for 51st state that would include several counties in northern California and southern Oregon.

The modern Jefferson includes more counties.

Just last month the supervisors of Modoc and also those of its neighboring Siskiyou County voted to secede from the State of California, as the historic movement revs up again.

The Sacramento Bee reported:

[Mark Baird, one of the prominent activists] insists the State of Jefferson is the answer to revive logging, protect ranching and lure new businesses. He bristles at suggestions that these counties need to subsist on social services.

“It’s absolutely infuriating to people up here, this idea that we’re little children and we must have our hands held out,” Baird said. “Well, we would make our own way. We are intelligent, creative, hardworking people, and without the morass of failed social engineering experiments here, we would do fine.”

Barn in Yreka, in Siskiyou County, California

The Modoc county seat is Alturas, a word that means “valley on top of a mountain.” Much of this country is considered High Sage Plateau, with evidently enough water for many cattle ranches and hay fields.

If I hadn’t had a traveling companion to restrict my stoppings, I’d never have made it home for trying and trying again to get the perfect picture of black steers grazing on varying shades of green and yellow-green, with dark mountains behind them.

Nothing close to the perfect shot was to be mine. Either I was not high enough above the grassland to get the sweeping view, or the steers clumped up close to see if I were bringing their dinner, or, in the case of those next to our our motel in Alturas, they ran away when I was still 50 yards from the fence.

Many of these fine scenes were in Surprise Valley, which is even farther east than Alturas, east of Hwy 395, on the other side of the Warner Mountains. This valley’s elevation, if you drive up and down Surprise Valley Road as we did, is above 4,000 feet.

The photo below looks still farther east, toward a band of tan that might be an alkali lake, and up into the Hays Canyon range of mountains that lie mostly in Nevada.

Looking east from Surprise Valley to the Hays Range in Nevada

Besides your typical mountains, you can find the Glass Mountain Lava Flow on the western edge of Modoc County, though it lies mostly in Siskiyou County. On our previous visit we climbed on parts of that “mountain” and brought home huge pieces of obsidian and pumice. Everyone’s shoes no doubt suffered a month’s worth of wear on that terrain.

Glad kids scramble on Glass Mountain.

Murals on several buildings in downtown Alturas express aspects of the region that the residents appreciate. Modoc County has mule deer, herds of wild horses, Rocky Mountain elk, pronghorn, and birds galore. We didn’t make it up to Goose Lake, but the bird mural makes me think of Goose Lake Valley, rich in all kinds of bird life. The painted fowl look as though they could fly right off into the real sky.

At the bottom of the mural you can see landscape such as we also noticed on our way up to Alturas, when the rich farmland gives way in places to slopes on which the soil is evidently too rocky and poor to support anything more than the occasional juniper tree. But the existence of fencing makes me think that in the springtime they might run livestock on the greened-up grass.

juniper trees
Fisherman
Pronghorn

more murals

We ate breakfast at the Hotel Niles in Alturas.

I don’t know about the Jefferson thing. It’s a nice idea….can you believe we have a lot of family who reside in Jefferson counties both in Oregon and California? Probably none of our kin would be found at either of the cultural extremes within the succession movement, but at least one sports a license plate frame on her car declaring “State of Jefferson.”

Nowadays there is a public radio station that claims the name, and people can attend the Jefferson State Hemp Expo, “…founded on the belief that through awareness, education, and the cooperation and coordination of citizens and public officials, many complex social issues can be solved.” Note the emphasis on cooperation, not separation. Separation was formerly the goal of all Jefferson adherents, and a big part of the content of Jefferson as in its nickname “State of Mind.” Currently it does seem that many of the people who use the name don’t really expect anything to come of it. To at least a few it is probably just a brand they use to sell something.

another Surprise Valley view

At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, are the hunters and most of the ranchers, and the politically conservative. This segment of the populace might include the woman who was noted in the police report column in the Alturas newspaper, which I perused while sitting on the bed in our motel room. She called the sheriff and said that if someone didn’t speedily do something about the dog that was threatening her alpacas, she herself would “dispatch” the dog. I doubt that was the word she used.

Maybe the serious secessionists would include the people who shoot at Belding Squirrels during the Annual Squirrel Roundup. These are a type of ground squirrel that looks like a prairie dog, and their large populations damage the cultivated fields (I’m guessing it’s by their holes and tunnels?), so once a year the residents hold a big fundraiser/pest-control event.

The giggling squirrel-shooter in this video I ran across is embarrassing, but you could turn off the sound, try to ignore the squirrels flying into the air, and see some nice footage of Surprise Valley in the background. The Roundup is held in March, so you will see less yellow and brown than in my pictures. If you make it to the very end you’ll be rewarded with a view of Mount Shasta, something that would not be possible from down in Surprise Valley. The moviemaker must have driven back over the pass to the west at the close of day.

The likelihood of all these diverse Jefferson people agreeing to secede seems slight to begin with, and that’s not the only challenging aspect of the project. Perhaps the nickname The Mythical State of Jefferson is the most appropriate. Whatever you call it, I do love this country.

On Cedar Pass, between Alturas and Surprise Valley

Advent Retreat in San Francisco


The skies were gray above, the asphalt and sidewalks dark and wet below, but colors jumped out at me as we were leaving Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco this afternoon.

 Two of us had traveled to attend lectures by Father Alexander Golitzin on “The Advent of the Christ.” Father Alexander is Professor of Patristics at Marquette University, and the lectures were rich with references to ancient Judaic texts, little-known Persian Christians in the 4th Century, the Dead Sea Scrolls, New Testament scriptures and the beloved liturgical hymns that tie our salvation history together into a whole.

My heart and mind didn’t want Fr. Alexander to stop, even though I had the feeling as of a voice saying, “Whoa — that is a bit much to feed me all at once.” I left the cathedral worn out and happy, holding my notebook full of scrawls that I hope to meditate on further.

The flowers, though….they must be part of the large family of metaphors that tell about God taking on human flesh, entering our world as an infant at a particular point in history. Something about beauty and color and brightness breaking into the winter.

War and Architecture – Part 2

My recent posting about how cities memorialize their history in the buildings they renovate or build from scratch generated comments that added a great deal to the discussion going on in my own mind.

Emily at Back Bay View is “suspicious of postmodernists like Libeskind who want to make their patrons uncomfortable and to force them to think. Granted, trying to recreate the past too precisely sometimes results in a sentimental/themepark like effect. But, on the other hand, for how many years can you exist in/with a building that is a criticism of the human person? At some point, I would think, the discomfort will fade and the intended self-conscious effect won’t take place.

“Wouldn’t it be more healing to build structures that promote healing, rather than criticism? Couldn’t you say that the old building doesn’t represent a severe authoritarian past, so much as an orderly past, a past that preceded the Nazis by centuries, and an attempt to restore order is an act of hope? Whereas the architect who intends to break self-delusions promotes a discomfort with the self that leads not to hope but to melancholy?”

Frances informed me that Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-5 is about the bombing of Dresden, and also shared her experience of living and traveling in Germany: “I’ll always remember Freiburg, which was heavily bombed during WWII. When they rebuilt it, they used the original, medieval plans, so that it was exactly the same as before.”

Emily’s comments sent me back to the review I wrote of Architecture of Happiness, and I figured out that one basic reason I couldn’t like the new military museum was its failure to abide by the first principle of good architecture laid down in that philosophical book:
“Order. But not over-simplified. We like to see complex elements arranged in a regular pattern. What the author calls the ‘perverse dogma’ from the Romantic Period, that all edifices must be of original design, led to chaos in the landscape. ‘Architecture should have the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring.’

“I was wondering if perhaps a museum might get away with such a brash statement, where being made to think isn’t a bad thing, but you are probably right, the statement will lose its effect. (I hope in the meantime it squelches those Neo-Nazis a bit)…and yes, the jarring buildings fail to offer hope or show harmony. But without reference to or undergirding by the Christian gospel, an artist is unlikely to find those elements, and will drift from melancholy right on to nihilism.”

We have to ask, as Jody did, “If you were to rebuild Dresden and not look back, but forward, how would you go about it? I agree that “onward and forward” is the best, but would there not be little bits of the past that one would want to honor, I wonder? (not the ugly, of course)”

Emily also “…went to the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, VA, which has a very similar slanted pyramid design which is supposed to recall the photo of marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. (and a statue is right in front of the museum so that reference isn’t missed). But in the case of the MCM, the glass pyramid doesn’t interrupt another building like Libeskind’s design, since it’s located outside the city and rises above the treeline and catches the sunshine. So a very similar design in a different context has a completely different effect.

“Likewise, I couldn’t help thinking of another glass pyramid, the one designed by IM Pei as an additional entrance to the Louvre. I don’t know the philosophy behind it, but it just strikes me as out of context and so a little silly, like a non sequitur comment. Maybe there is some reason for its being, but it was lost on me, your average tourist.”

Kari hopes that “we can find a way to heal the past without forgetting, and to go forward in peace, love, harmony. The Holocaust brings us face to face with forgiveness and with how to forgive in the face of the unforgivable.”

I wanted to share this discussion with anyone who might have been interested in the topic but who didn’t get in on the ensuing and improving thoughts. Since I wrote the original post we had the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which got me thinking about further aspects.The Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse page now has an article on the subject, wherein the author points out links to the whole Allied strategy. Consequentialism is a word that was new to me, discussed here on the Witherspoon page and on Touchstone’s Mere Comments. The Ochlophobist questions our utilitarian mindset that can’t tolerate the absolute moral principle.

I’m in over my head as usual, but it’s obvious that some of my readers are good at this kind of swimming. I hope I am learning something from them as I flail about.