Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Category Archives: Uncategorized

Mount Vernon Living

I have not commented much here on my time at Mount Vernon. I have been in residence here since the start of December and loved every moment. As this phase of my work winds down it is time to share some thoughts and insights. First some background. On September 27, 2013, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association cut the ribbon on the new Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. It is a long title, true, but it is a pretty impressive place so it is worth enunciating all the syllables. The idea was to create what amounts to a presidential library for Washington—an idea he actually imagined before his death. The result is a gentle modern toned glowing paneled library with a subtle W footprint, nestled amidst some tall trees on a rise of ground across the road from the entrance to the Mount Vernon grounds.

2015-12-14 14.39.29.jpg

The main reading room of the library. Even though fellows have fine offices in the wing off on the right, I prefer to be here as much as I can. Wouldn’t you?

The collections digital, special, and circulating are large—although much of what Washington wrote and owned (book wise) was scattered soon after his death. Bit by bit, elements of that collection are returning home, and when they do, they are housed in a state-of-the-art facility managed by a professional staff as committed to collection management as they are to facilitating scholarship. Everything about this place is both an exhortation to produce scholarship and an efficient organism for making it happen. I have been blessed to meet many wonderful and highly engaged people—both on staff and passing through—during my six months living “on campus.” My work has developed and matured, my horizons widened, and my friends list lengthened. While my focus is GW and details of his world, the library really is rapidly becoming a hub for all manner of issues related not just to GW, but the founders and the founding largely. A short review of the cast of fellows past, present, and future shows the kind and quality of work happening here. The energy is so strong that the place almost hums aloud!

Mount Vernon’s Rev War Weekend

This weekend is Mount Vernon’s “Revolutionary War Weekend.” This is a new event MV is putting on for the visiting public and the visible glee of about 700 Rev War reeneactors from all over the land. I took a pleasant walk over the grounds in the company of several thousand visitors and caught the tail end of the afternoon skirmish of what I called the Battle that Thankfully Never Happened, or HMS Savage Day. Reenactments need not a battle site to be visually compelling and educationally engaging for the general public, and I would be lying if I said that I did not feel just a little bit homesick walking quietly amidst the wall tents and the cook fires. I never dabbled though in Rev War eventing. When I was more active it was a much smaller hobby dominated by older men in glasses. In those days it was rare to see three men in a company in the same uniform—and they would usually be highlanders in full kit! One of the main appeals of Civil War reenacting—particularly in portraying United States soldiers as I invariably did—was the very real possibility of massing together lots of men attired in almost identical kits.


That’s me on the lower left in this iconic Claude Levet print with (clockwise from me) Paul Carter, “Reservetta” painted by Ron Tunstall on Mike Thompson’s blanket (an admittedly singular object if ever there was one), Mike Thompson (with frying pan), Mark McNierney, and Hugh Cadzow. The camp hats that Paul and I have were knitted by his grandmother–half the company had one by her hand. Fabulous uniforms being put to no good purpose.

I know that is an odd thing to care about, but anyone who served time in the Pretend Army knows that I mean. It was the plainness of the ten-a-penny United States soldier in a regular issue sack coat and trousers that was worth emulating, and then using the tiniest of details to be distinctive and express individuality. The angle of a hat, a camp hat at night, or the carefree cuffing of trousers—these are what soldiers did to say “I am me” and that much is clear in so much war time photography. The more flamboyant the uniform, the more it was disparaged by others with this mindset. Be plain or go home!

To me, the Rev War hobby always suffered a bit from a lack of the repeatable. A mix and match company made up of two guys in kilts, three with buff facing, two with yellow and bastion lace, one loyalist in green, two Hessians in mitres, one grenadier with a bearskin, and three light infantry—oh, and maybe a jaeger too—was a sight that made me cringe. So, I was sort of pleased by what I saw at Mount Vernon today. For one thing, this was a major event. It was nothing for there to be a few thousand men at a Civil War event, but Rev War has always had a hard time reaching anything close to that scale.


Another Claude Levet classic of me. This one made the cover of Camp Chase Gazette–the reenacting equivalent of Time Magazine.

The going count of 700 participants is impressive and the afternoon’s showing had a few hundred in evidence. Best of all though, there were a few groupings that had good numbers. There was one company of British Light Infantry who really looked great. Their coats were non-synthetic in color and tightly cut. They were mostly young guys so they were appropriately skinny and one of their number was black—adding a nice hint of the war’s underlying racial politics. It helped that one or two of the gents had faces that could have been drawn by Hogarth—the 18c equivalent of all of that Civil War photography. They were not as many as one might hope, but enough to convey scale, and they cut a good form (no pictures from me though since it was Saturday–maybe tomorrow).

I am not called back to the ranks—it is hard to imagine what that would take. But, Mount Vernon’s event was, so far, a really big hit for both participants and spectators.

A Maddening Experience to Which all Historians Can Relate,

Here Told in Narrative Form and Entitled The Hunt, or, a Tale of Relentless Page Turning in Order to Find That Which Should Have Been Made Clearer at the Outset, or, To Every Quotation There is a Citation Which to Locate I Must Turn, Turn, Turn.

Dedicated to the irritating writers everywhere who feel a need to cleverly reinvent to their own purposes and in their own fashion the perfectly fine system of citations outlined in that Good Book from Chicago.

Zounds, says I, Indeed, a more helpful quotation on this topic I have not yet seen. Let me stray from my reading and peruse the origin of the handy tidbit so as to read more of it from its place of origin. I see it is listed here as endnote two. Two? I muse—that seems odd as it appears on page 50—surely mine good literary host has included citations before this one in 50 hearty pages of writing? Lo—he has! But he has chosen to begin the numbering of each chapter’s citations anew chapter by chapter! What purpose does this lunacy serve? No matter, all I needs do is look at the top of the page to see what chapter I am amidst and then turn as needed. But what is this? No indication at all on the page to show in which chapter we the poor readers are marooned! I must turn back to the start of the chapter to know its designation. But I know not where it began, for it is the index that is my native guide though this texta incognita—or was the author so arrogant as to think that we readers would actually slog though his prose to find what we want? Each page must be carefully turned back lest I miss the one place where the chapter name in listed. At last, here it is, and written in Roman Numerals—what a kindness Tullius Maximus Iackuss has offered to those of his readers who, by some miracle, hail from antient Rome. There it is, Chapter XIV. Now all I needs do is turn turn turn to locate the vicinity of the book where the notes are hidden—what a lucky hap for me that I have nine fingers on one hand so that I can keep my increasing number of places. At last, I arrive at the citation—and what do I see? GHY: 20: 7. What on earth is that supposed to be? Ah! It is an abbreviated indication of some larger collection, and in goes another place marking finger and begins again the turning turning turning, this time back to locate the start of the series of citations to find my goal. But what is this? Our author has chosen to divide his list of abbreviations into three separate subgroups aligned along category lines that he, and only he, could find meaningful. To your beleaguered correspondent’s chagrin, each of three different alphabetical lists must be consulted before the arcane reference is finally spied in the third of the three lists. At last I have the citation—it of course, is for something singular and housed only in an archive across the sea in England!

With a heavy heart, I move to write down the reference, but find that my fingers are twisted in knots and bound up within the execrable monograph to such an extent that it takes the aid of a comrade to extricate the poor curious digits.

The lesson is clear dear friends, and please let my sad experience be a warning to all who venture into the game of citation production. For the love of all that is holy and good in this weary world, create citations that will help and not hinder

Barbados, Day Four.

Today was more local and less busy than the other days. I spent much of it in Bridgetown looking (and largely not finding) certain older buildings. Washington’s Barbados diary does not offer much to show where he was, and even though the town’s street plan is more or less the same, there has been considerable replacement of older buildings. One nice exception what is locally known as the Gedney Clarke house on his Belle Plantation just outside of town. With some help I was able to locate the home and even wander around inside of it. IMG_2988.JPGClarke was a member of the Governor’s Council and a prominent merchant planter on the island. He also was the brother of Deborah Clarke, William Fairfax’s second wife and mistress of Belvoir during Washington’s visits there. This connection made Clarke the Washington brothers’ main contacts on the island. On arriving they were welcomed by Major Clarke–Toner’s transcription of the GW Diary identifies him as Somers Clarke, but there is good reason to think that it was actually Gedney Clarke. As a side note here, we can all be thankful that the Washington Papers at UVa are right now in the process of re-transcribing and annotating a new edition of the Barbados Diary. It will prove invaluable and correct many of Toner’s foibles.

The Washington brothers dined at Clarke’s home several times despite the fact that someone in the family had small pox. On one of these visits GW caught the illness and by Nov 17th 1751 he recorded in his diary that he “was strongly attacked with the small pox.” He lay in bed for close to a month attended by local physicians and visited by local friends. It is not clear just which of the Clarke homes the Washingtons visited, but this Clarke home is a contender.

A quick look about showed it be what may be an 18c core with extensive later additions off the back. The stairway was clearly 19c but could easily have replaced an earlier one. Whatever the date, it’s clear that the home had undergone extensive renovation and had things like door hinges and fittings replaced. Nevertheless, it was an impressive place and though derelict, in pretty good condition in most important respects.

After poking around I wanted get a good look at the GW House cellar. So headed back and Martin escorted me below stairs. One thing I had not thought about was that these cellars had to be carved out of the island stone. The GW House has carved wall and bricks-in-course to fill the gap up to the framing members.


Carved stone in the GW House cellar with whitewashed bricks visible on the left above the stone.

I spent part of the afternoon back in Bridgetown and eventually wended my way back to the synagogue to get a few more gravestone pictures. The less maintained yard has a large number of stone fragments just scattered around. A few have a word or two—most do not. It is clear that the whole are though is filled with graves, mostly unmarked now. I gathered up a bunch of the little stone orphans and arranged the to form the word “Chai” (life) in Hebrew. Now there is something more intentional than a scatter sitting atop the graves.


…ve kayam!

After that and with only a little daylight left, I went back to where I am staying and went—for the first time—to the nearby beach. I am not a big beach fan, but it was nice.

Fredericksburg’s Farmers’ Bank: History vs the Tarmac Desert.

In the summer of 1862 President Lincoln visited the city of Fredericksburg. Soldiers of the United States had recently captured this hub of rail, road, and river virtually without incident and the President was in town to meet with his theatre commanders and to see the prize. Halfway between Washington and the Confederate capital of Richmond, Fredericksburg’s capture was one of the last moments when rational people could imagine that the war would be short and relatively painless.

Lincoln held meetings and visited local sites—including George Washington’s childhood home. In town, he met with General Marsena Patrick in the two-story neo-classically inflected Federal style Farmers’ Bank. The bank sat on the corner of Princess Anne and George Streets right across from St George’s Episcopal Church on its front and the town’s Presbyterian Church on its eastern side.

This section of the much-discussed 1888 St George Church panorama of Fredericksburg shows the roof and chimneys of the Farmers' Bank on the left foreground. Note the use of the lots that are now mostly tarmac deserts. This section of the panorama came from Fredericksburg Remembered.

This section of the much-discussed 1888 St George Church panorama of Fredericksburg shows the roof and chimneys of the Farmers’ Bank on the left foreground. Note the use of the lots that are now mostly tarmac deserts. This section of the panorama came from Fredericksburg Remembered.

Though lacking the adornments of ecclesiastical architecture, the Farmers’ Bank’s facade, style, and placement was nevertheless itself a statement of faith, solidity, and the American way. General Patrick’s selection of the bank as his own office—and a nerve center of the city’s occupation—enlisted the existing architecture of trust, power, and commerce for the for the cause of the Union.

The Farmers’ Bank has survived to today.

The Farmers’ Bank as it looks today. Image from Mysteries and Conundrums

It has been a bank and office suites most of this time and is now one of Fredericksburg’s best historical buildings. Indeed, Fredericksburg NPS Battlefield Park Historian John Hennessy recently highlighted this fact for his blog readers reminding all that the bank is the only existing building we are certain Lincoln entered, walking over the bank’s worn Aquia sandstone steps and entering through the elaborate alcove entrance. The bank’s northeastern corner is especially notable for the large amount of Civil War graffiti resulting from bored soldiers carving their names and regiments into the brick (Other Civil War graffiti). In the 1930s, Historic American Building Survey architects studied the bank (then called the National Bank) and added it the list of the town’s charms. A 1990s drive through window and cash machine addition south of the bank are the only externally visible changes to the building which otherwise has maintained its historical feel capped off by a wooden Civil War era style sign.

But changes in the larger lot have left the Farmers’ Bank an isolated historical Island in a tarmac desert. Beginning at least as early as the 1950s, Fredericksburgers transformed open in-town spaces into parking lots.

Seen in order on the right, the 1990s drive through bank addition, the south wall of the Farmers' Bank, and the steeple of St George Episcopal Church.

Seen in order on the right, the 1990s drive through bank addition, the south wall of the Farmers’ Bank, and the steeple of St George Episcopal Church.

In the nineteenth century, open lots were needed as work yards, kitchen gardens, and animal residences. But in the automobile era—and particularly after the 1960s when I-95 passed just west of town—the storage of temporarily dis-used cars became a primary concern. Property owners paved open lots and, as older buildings came down, their empty lots also joined the ranks of parking lots often in the shadow of roughly constructed side walls of remaining buildings meant to be seen only from the front. The result of this was to leave town feeling cold and gap toothed and filled with unplanned areas of undesirable, mostly unused, open spaces.

A Tarmac Desert on Sophia Street.

A Tarmac Desert on Sophia Street.

Once a lot is paved, the city or the owner are now committed to a never-ending maintenance regime as cracks have to be filled and holes patched. Paved lots also force collected rainwater to funnel into streets thus stressing removal systems, increasing flooding, and accelerating the erosion of older cobbles. The answer to this is of course more paving, so that over time, more and more of the cityscape became a tarmac desert. Whereas earthen lots absorb rainwater and produce greenery even when left alone and require no maintenance other than occasional mowing (or goat keeping), tarmac deserts produce nothing other than that distinctive smell in the heat and make corners for the collection of wind-borne trash. On top of that, the in and out flow of cars provide visible markers of when people are in a building and when they are not. The absence of cars signals a building’s emptiness to burglars while a dark lake of tar is itself an inviting terrain for all sorts of mischief. Nothing feels emptier than an vacant parking lot—and in Fredericksburg, most parking lots are empty most of the time and, being paved, can do nothing other than wait for the next car to park there. Paving a cityscape makes it an uninviting alienating tarmac desert that seems dark and dangerous most of the time.

The Farmers’ Bank sits now at the corner of just such an in-town desert. That makes the bank feel isolated and even irrelevant. This is just one of many ways whereby reliance on automobiles and that dependency has remade the landscape in ways that challenge preservation and a place’s historical feel.

The west wall of the Farmers' Bank with the drive through on the right. Note the sale sign.

The west wall of the Farmers’ Bank with the drive through on the right. Note the sale sign.

But now the bank faces a new threat—one worse perhaps than the shells and pocket knives it endured during the Civil War. When the economy bottomed out in 2008 most of Fredericksburg’s development project ground to a halt New condos near the rail tracks which once boasted signs claiming “Starting at $400,000!” soon boasted starting prices of $150,000 before being cut up into apartments. Subdivisions simply stopped with streets half fleshed out and stripped fields were left alone to regrow what grasses they could. Businesses failed and storefronts replaced displays with For Rent signs and papered-over windows. But all of that is over, and the development economy is once again booming. In a very short period of time the city saw a massive new courthouse constructed, a new downtown hotel right across the street, and many new homes fitting in between older ones. In just this last year new in-town projects have piled high-end housing into town and added eateries and even a glittering south-western styled brew pub.

Postmodern newly built townhouse filling in open spaces on the left and the stunningly out of place brew pub sitting on the corner of William and Winchester streets.

Postmodern newly built townhouse filling in open spaces on the left and the stunningly out of place brew pub sitting on the corner of William and Winchester streets.

The good news (perhaps) is that much of this new development is taking place in lots that were previously tarred over. That addresses some of the aesthetical problems posed by tarmac deserts, but none of the environmental or historical preservation ones. The bad news is that all of this is happening so quickly that thorough archaeological is very challenging—and it seems in many cases that significant finds would not be enough to slow down the pace of building or even redirect it. Speed also leaves preservation–of buildings as well as less tangible but nevertheless important things like view sheds and historical feel– left in the dust and crushed by the bulldozer’s treads. Right now the future of the Farmers’ Bank is in question. A developer had bought the lot and received initial approval to fill the desert with condos. But the plan bogged down in levels of city government and all is on hold for now.

New construction on William Street right next to 19th century rows

New construction on William Street right next to 19th century rows

At this year’s Council for North Eastern Historical Archeology conference in Fredericksburg, there was discussion about how the city, still lacking a protective archaeological ordinance, may be turning a blind eye to the destruction of the town’s material patrimony–a patrimony daily stewarded by Fredericksburg, but in reality owned by the nation. Again, the good news is that the city is on the way to hiring a preservation specialist to monitor work. Again, the bad news is that no one knows just how influential that person will be once hired and how much we may lose in the meantime.

Meanwhile though, decades’ old bad car-driven choices are still felt in a town walking the line between protecting its past and building for its future.

The Floods

It is still one of the most persistent indicators and one that shows the best view right now of what is at stake. Kudos to Reuters for tabulating data and not falling prey to fake “balance” reportage which only muddies the (as it were) waters.

Not agreeing with Tony Brown

Ok–this is sort of off the mark. The point of the Anthropocene language is not to offer a “solution,” but rather to galvanize discussions across disciplines and force new coalitions. The idea is to recontextualize discussions. 

Garden Planet Infoshop

This is weird. This line in particular bothered me: “If we do indeed now live on a garden-planet in which civilization has eclipsed nonhuman nature…” I think the whole point is that the artificiality of the Human-Natural dichotomy is challenged by the Anthropocene itself.

Anthropocene Econonomics

How a Museum Dies

Austerity means losing things. The Anthropocene means that the world is not the one for which we are prepared. Both of these are meeting at New York’s South Street Seaport Museum (SSSM). James Lindgren has a new NYU Press book entitled Preserving South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District. Disclaimer here: I am really psyched about this book. A brief quotation from page 135 will reveal why. In discussing the challenges in restoring the three-masted ship Wavertree, Lindgren writes:

“Few people realized how deep the Wavertree pit was. ‘Covered in construction materials,’ said young volunteer Philip Levy, ‘it was really a hulk.’ Deep below, ‘it was musty and very creepy. Older folks told stories about dead bodies hidden in the ship.’” SSSM was where my life in museum land began. I was a weekend and sometime afternoon volunteer interpreter starting at the age of 15 (pictured below on the Peking), Imageand as I get older I realize more and more just how much my time on the ships, the dock, and the buildings nearby made me who I am. I was thrilled to have been asked by Jim to jot down my ‘seaport memoir’ for his book, and doubly thrilled to be now inscribed in the history of that wonderful place.

None of that happiness overshadows the fact that the SSSM is dying—killed by neglect, avarice, and climate change (itself a product of neglect and avarice). We are seeing now the narrowly avoided fate of the USS Olympia which the Philadelphia seaport claimed it could no longer afford to keep up and now there is an active effort to evict the SSSM and remake the whole historical area in the bland model of Manhattan’s vast creeping blandness. I find this particularly tragic after seeing the scale of UK preservation museum magic on display at Greenwhich’s Cutty Sark (which even a catastrophic fire did not stop) and Bristol’s wonderful Great Britain. Both are massively rebuilt, housed in accessible drydocks and are dry restored gems.

But New York has turned its back on SSSM and its ships, so no one can claim that its impending demise to be a shakedown. The whole neighborhood has been a problem area for decades and the mix of dreadful 1960s-to-today new construction, lack of a local population, and disasters have long made the area marginal to the life of the city. But if indeed the city looses SSSM, it will be the largest loss of its kind. A big factor though in all of this, and a reason that the UK does this so much better than does the US is real and cultural investment in maritime history. Ships are big, corrosion prone when in water, and often heavily regulated by the Coast Guard even when they are museums. Losing SSSM is tragic and hopefully avoidable, but its story touches on so much of what is happening right now.

%d bloggers like this: