Thursday, July 30, 2009
Modernity brings its own incipient style. What comes to mind as I sit here on a cool July morning (the rarest of Kansas treats) is a nighttime image of the opera house at the tip of Bennelong Point in Sydney, Australia, with its complex geometric angles and curves, a flowering chrysalis caught in the act of transformation. Though not nearly as recognizable, the Frederic Hamilton addition to the Denver Art Museum is a close second in terms of sweeping lines and glittering grandiosity. On the opposite extreme, MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, styles itself as the iconic vision of everything modern, but its boxy glass frame pales in comparison. There’s something about curvature that appeals to the human senses. Think Twiggy. Now think Anna Nicole Smith.
Call it artistic or architectural evolution, but our idea of what constitutes magnificence in building design has shifted dramatically in the last century. While today it’s all about gravity-defying geometry and mirrored glass, a century ago it was all about marble, granite and neoclassical motifs. I’m no architectural historian, but I sometimes wonder if the killing fields of the Somme, Verdun, Normandy and Iwo Jima annihilated traditional ideals of architectonics, leaving a void that could only be filled with aspirations of flight, flowering or fancy. The unbending gods of Rome and Greece were banished; the great god Pan was dead.
But not too dead, for we were to have a surprise rendezvous with the cloven-footed satyr.
Before the world came together to kill each other, it came together to celebrate.
It’s hard to imagine now standing at the edge of the vast pool spreading at the base of the former Palace of Fine Art in St. Louis that a temporary city once rose on all sides. Temporary as in constructed of woodframe, hemp and plaster of Paris, resembling granite on the outside but with a life expectancy of only eight months. Exceptions were the Palace of Fine Art, a gigantic wrought iron bird cage now housed in the St. Louis Zoological Park, and Brookings Hall on the campus of Washington University. The rest of it, Electricity City, Festival Hall, the Government Building, all 1,200 acres of neoclassical edifices and monuments, soaring bridges and canals, and 75 miles of cobbled streets linking them, were replaced by seemingly endless lawns, a golf course, a botanical garden and zoological park. Enough remains to realize that when the world partied in 1904 for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, it was on a scale rarely witnessed before or since.
I’m more accustomed to wonders of the natural world than anything associated with humanity. The hispid cotton rat that showed up in our yard two weeks ago has given me endless delight, not simply because of its newness—it was, after all, a first for me, and firsts are always special, building blocks to a fully realized life—but St. Louis and its historic architecture had something to teach me as well.
There should be a word for it, that sudden, unheralded shock when coming face to face with something that will forever afterward be essential to your character. Serendipity almost works but doesn’t carry the gravity of a life-altering encounter; fluke, fortuity, fortune, all are weak-kneed second cousins.
Fortunately, the writer William Least Heat-Moon resurrected a word that fits the situation with absolute precision: quoz.
Quoz, for the uninitiated, is a noun, both singular and plural, referring to anything strange, incongruous or peculiar, with, at its core, an inference to mystery. In his latest travelogue, Roads to Quoz: an American Mosey, Heat-Moon devotes 562 pages to the pursuit of quoz, or its pursuit of him and his wife (do we find quoz or does it find us?), with an additional quozicon of quozisms.
My personal quoz was, I thought, our visit to the octagonal dream of Edward Lewis. It was followed in short order by a stop at the St. Louis Art Museum, where the massive monument to classical construction was a riveting second-helping of circa-1904 architecture. If the architect of the Magazine Building took inspiration from Fowler and his eight-sided ideal, the architect of the Palace of Fine Art was squarely in the classical camp, and adorned his work with busts of ancient scholars and philosophers as well as, from what I could tell, Greek and Roman gods. I tried identifying some but finally gave up; back then, probably every student could rattle them off without raising a sweat.
As so often happens with quoz I was mistaken, for once past those doors I was a slack-jawed novice finding, as if for the first time, works of art that defined the course of the human race. Paintings by Matisse, Monet, Rembrandt, Renoir, van Gogh, Bierstadt, Bingham and Metcalf, photography by Ansel Adams, and more, room after room, floor after floor, spanning the earliest recorded artifacts to modern art so modern it doesn’t even look like art (and I’m not sure that it is!), an overwhelming array of form, texture, hue and vision that left us practically intoxicated. And then we turned a corner into a small dim room and there was Pan.
It was like stepping into a forest clearing, soft light filtering through the canopy, the empty walls a rich hunter green and the wood parquet floor the color of duff and dried autumn leaves. Supine against a fellow goat, the satiated satyr lolled in drunken excess, head tilted back against one flung arm, an empty wineskin in the crook of an elbow, panpipes held loosely at his side. So detailed was the sculpture that one could imagine the echo of reedy music fading in the gloom, and the soft footpads of dryads hurrying away.
In the end, architecture is just architecture, but art is quoz.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
In late afternoon, when shadows grow long and thin, the rabbits come out.
Their entrance is something of a mystery, a magician’s sleight of hand: one minute the yard is empty, the next dotted with the stubby gray forms of eastern cottontails recumbent in the clover.
Sometimes I count them: two, three, five. They watch me watching them and appear indifferent so long as I keep to myself. Their long ears flick this way and that and hear things I can only imagine, a breeze plucking the golden petals of sunflowers, the faint stirring of crickets, the metallic clatter of beetles’ wings, the dull roar of a planet in endless motion through the empty wastes of a cosmic sea.
I imagine the clover soft and cool after the heat of the day. And watching them, their obvious contentment and they way they inhabit our little patch of prairie, how they seem to fill it with their presence, to embody it, parts of a whole so integral that were they to disappear the world would slow to a halt and the tides become unleashed, I imagine them the true possessors of the land. Certainly not me, whose only claim is a legal title and nine short years of stewardship. Mere caretaker. Watcher.
If anything, ours is a contested and shared domain. Mole carves meandering hillocks through the grass, voles scatter before the whirling blades of the lawn mower, deer nibble on the pines and, lately, we share the porch with a hispid cotton rat that loves mulberries dropped from the tree above. Skinks in the garden, a fat Woodhouse’s toad hiding in the tomatoes, milk snake in the basement, jumping spider in the entranceway, recluses upstairs. To claim ownership of this place is a laughable and dubious conceit.
I’m reminded of the Chiricahuas in southeastern Arizona, how when the canyon filled with shadows the javelinas would erupt from the creek bed and filter through camp like a bristly-backed horde, their faint snuffles and grunts, their ridiculously-tiny cloven hooves, their pinkish snouts. And how after they slipped away into the underbrush a single striped skunk would appear at the end of the road where it bent to span the wooden bridge, and the skunk would march through each campsite as if inspecting for permits or compliance to a protocol only it could know. Sitting at the picnic table or in our lawn chairs, we would become motionless to its tuxedoed motion, ignored as inconsequential as it went about its evening rounds. Not long after its departure, when the upper crags burned with an unseen sunset, the air filled with the falling notes of a canyon wren, a twilight nocturne, and muleys descended the rocky bajadas to drink their fill in Cave Creek.
We were transients, nothing more. And perhaps for the first time I sensed how at-home mammals are in their surroundings, not just inheritors of the land but integrated into every fold and crease, every gully and cliff and cave, as the free-tailed bats boiling from the cliffs in early dusk proved. Their movements were always assured where ours seemed unstable, our rattletrap van and flimsy canvas-sided camper no match for their sure footing and effortless gait, our maps no substitute for their intimate familiarity of terrain. They were at home more than we will ever understand the concept of home, though at times I sense it. The raven flying above the canyon rim, the rabbits lounging in the shade of early evening, know their place as we never will.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Mosquitoes brought Edward G. Lewis to St. Louis, but magazines made him famous.
Famous at the time. Ask the average citizen who Lewis was and they’ll say, “Who?”
For that matter, ask the average Blue Rapids resident and the response will be the same. Mention the Woman’s League chapter house, though, and a few will say, “Oh, Betty and Loren’s place.”
Before the chapter houses and the magazines, before the resplendent octagonal monument rose above the rutted scrape of a city in the making, there was a silver-tongued stranger on the run from Tennessee with a carload of homemade mosquito repellant and a crossroads city awash with malaria. Within weeks of Lewis’ arrival in St. Louis he claimed to have grossed $40,000 in “Anti-Skeet” sales, a feat he followed with “Wonderful bug chalk,” a concoction more anesthetic than pesticidal.
There was nothing he wouldn’t try in pursuit of riches. Molasses candy, a pyramid scheme involving watches, a secret substance “discovered” in the jungles of South America guaranteed to break nicotine dependency, each step brought him closer to financial solvency and disaster. And each twist of fate taught him something of the ways of the world. His gift was the ability to convince others of his sincerity. He could, in short, sell ice to an Eskimo. Behind the facade was a cunning mind slowly evolving into what would become his crowning achievement: the publishing and advertising business.
The two decades between 1885 and 1905 saw the golden era of periodicals—almost 11,000 were circulated during that time. Selling advertising space was the key; with enough paid advertisers, magazines could be sold below cost. Sensing a greater calling, Lewis purchased an inexpensive magazine called The Winner, along with its publishing plant and offices. His business plan was as simple as it was effective: by drastically reducing the cost of subscriptions, thousands more would be sold.
He also targeted rural readers. Almost two-thirds of the population lived in rural communities of less than 3,000, and the 1897 Rural Free Delivery brought those numbers into his grasp. But perhaps his most brilliant move was in catering to female readers of such magazines as Cosmopolitan and the Ladies’ Home Journal. The Winner was changed to Woman’s Magazine, subscription and advertising rates slashed and samples mailed out with an emphasis on rural homes. And the money rolled in.
Within four years, he claimed to have the largest circulation of any magazine in the world. Purchasing the Woman’s Farm Journal cemented his capture of the rural market. Other magazines followed, and soon his publishing company was swamped.
Others might have settled for larger quarters and more modern equipment; Lewis designed a city.
University City, as it was named, remains. Lewis is long gone.
If the very abruptness of that passage is jarring, so, too, is the historical record. Lewis’ empire lavished no expense on his university, his office building, his publishing house—which contained the largest printing press in the world—or on his Woman’s League, whose chapter houses dotted the nation. (Two exist in Kansas, one in Manhattan, the other in Blue Rapids.) But within a decade he had fled to California to start a new planned community at a sleepy hacienda called Rancho Atascadero.
Fame is an unforgiving mistress. And if for Lewis it was fleeting, though not without a small measure of resurrection in the cities of University City and Atascadero, it was doubly so for the architect who designed and built Lewis‘ crowning achievement: the Magazine Building.
Herbert Chivers, a Topeka architect and tireless self-promoter, is remembered now only for that one structure, though his obituary on June 5, 1946, mentioned that he also assisted drafting plans for St. Louis’ Union Station. Why he chose an octagon decades after Fowler’s Folly became a laughingstock is a mystery. Perhaps Lewis had a hand in the decision, for the building was constructed on high ground and the eight sides offered expansive 360-degree views of a city slowly taking shape. It’s doubtful that he was familiar with the Chinese aesthetic philosophy of feng shui, for whom the octagon represents the perfect shape and center of energy, or the I Ching with its eight compass points.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Or maybe it matters but in ways we can never understand but only glimpse through cultures not our own, such as the Chinese and their bagua, or the Hopewell cultures with their octagonal observatories charting the lunar standstill, or geomancy and ley lines and energy centers and harmonic convergences. Perhaps Fowler tapped into something when he wrote his seminal book, and the founders of Octagon City, though inept and criminally ill-prepared, discerned the potential of perfection through an eight-sided form. Maybe Chivers was merely an instrument of some greater power, his drafting pen divinely ordained. Maybe, just maybe, it’s right there in front of us and we’re too blind to see it, too set in our rectangular ways, too dependent upon our own oblivious senses.
All I can say is this: on a hot, humid summer day Lori and I stepped past the flanking lion guardians into Chivers’ masterpiece and climbed the flowing staircase to the central landing, itself encircled in white Italian marble so that we stood within a circle within an octagon, two universal symbols of perfection, and if the wonder we felt could barely be translated into written language, beneath or beyond the wonder was another response, intangible, wordless, more vibration than sensation, as if we stood on the brink of a doorway into another dimension.
Chi. Bagua. Octagon.
Thursday, July 09, 2009
As a historical rule, utopias are rarely successful. The frontier, at whatever ill-defined patch of land it happened to occupy at the time, served not only as a jumping off point for western expansion but as a breeding ground for social reform movements, whether from religious, cultural, sociological, ideological or theosophical doctrines. Within those geological petri dishes every manner of community was founded and foundered, their remains now little more than half-remembered names on ancient maps or notations in history books, something to fill the margins and add spice. Something to prove the folly of human nature.
Brook Farm, Oneida, Harmony, Zion City, the Amana Colonies, Kaweah, Nashoba, Halcyon, the list goes on and on, but it would be a mistake to consider these and others merely the outer fringes of a society and culture in flux dating from the early-1800s to the early 1900s. A certain segment of society will forever try to set themselves apart. The communes of the Sixties and Seventies come to mind. So does Jonestown.
A betting man would lay odds not on their success but on the brevity of their lifespan.
One year or two, maybe less. The defining crucible in many such separatist communities (after personality conflicts) was winter, once the harvest was gathered and the nights grown longer, and the land hard as iron. The months of planning, plowing and producing were put to the ultimate test. Many, such as Nicodemus in western Kansas, would never have survived that first winter if not for the benevolence of Native American tribes. For Octagon City, winter was merely the final nail in the coffin. In reality, it was dead long before the first snows raked down from the north.
The city, to use the word loosely, was the brainchild of Henry Stephen Clubb. A reformer of the first magnitude, and one who ardently believed that the future of American could only be guaranteed through vegetarianism, he and his adherents eschewed meat, alcohol and social vices, preferring instead hard mattresses, cold showers, open windows and bread at least 12 hours old. Possibly from an association with Fowler—whose publishing company printed many of Clubb’s tracts—he lit upon an idea of a vegetarian community built in the shape of an octagon. The village would encompass four square miles, with room for 16 families centered around a large central tract where a village green and community center would reside. Four such villages were planned, each accenting the other, and each representing a slight lessening in doctrinal rigidity. Once land was found in eastern Kansas, two companies were formed: the Vegetarian Kansas Emigration Company and the Octagon Settlement Company.
The latter would allow the eating of meat and was the first to become occupied. Settlers who paid their dues to join were promised an Edenic Kansas countryside, fresh water, fertile soil, tools and implements for every farmer, and a central octagonal community house for all. What they found at the end of their long journey was nothing like promised or depicted in the woodcut illustrations in Fowler’s Phrenological Journal.
Miriam Davis Colt, who made the overland trip from New York in 1856, wrote in her journal that upon reaching the city her party, consisting of two or three families and several single men, were dismayed to find a single log cabin, approximately 16 feet by 16 feet square, plastered on the inside but not the outside, with neither window nor door. The roof was covered with rough-hewn shakes.
The hundred or so settlers were provided with one plow and two stoves. The promised saw- and gristmill never materialized. Residents threw up lean-tos and bark shelters, and struggled in mud and dirt while the stream went dry and Indians raided their scant vegetable crops. Malaria swept the camp, inflicting heavy mortality among children and the elderly. Among the victims were Mrs. Colt’s husband and son. The few survivors lacked enough wood for coffins for their children, and most of the remaining members left before winter set in. By the following spring Octagon City was abandoned.
Back East things weren’t much better for Octagonians. Fowler’s business was crippled in the Panic of 1857, and he was forced to rent out his palatial octagon house. Unfortunately, the cement walls were improperly sealed, and fecal matter leaked from the cesspool into the drinking water.
“The tenants of this octagonal palace,” wrote Paul Collins in The Trouble With Tom, “the healthiest building in America, died in fevered agony, killed off in a horrific plague of typhoid.”
It’s safe to say that after the spectacular failure of Fowler’s octagon dreams and Octagon City, architecture reverted back to square one, or the rectangle, at least. Fowler’s own mansion suffered through a series of owners until in 1897 it was condemned by the city of Fishkill, N.Y. Fowler’s Folly, as it was known by then, was dynamited into rubble, and carted off piecemeal.
But the octagon as structural composition never fully disappeared. Something about that shape, each wall equidistant from the other, its angles constant at 45 degrees, appealed to those who, like Leonardo da Vinci, saw in its utilization of space the ultimate geometric expression of grandeur and function.
And if its heyday was past, if it was already relegated to the dustbin of history as one more minor blip of stylistic inconformity, it had one last gasp before slipping away.
On the outskirts of St. Louis, Mo., a new type of city was being planned. It would wrap around a vast publishing conglomerate and university, and incorporate many of the finest architectural details of the time, including vast gardens along the lines of Frederick Law Olmsted, the world’s largest printing press, gargantuan temples and, at its heart, a towering five-story octagonal structure dedicated to women’s rights. It was 1902, the World’s Fair only two years away, and Edward G. Lewis, former charlatan and patent-medicine peddler, had found his niche.
(To be continued)
Thursday, July 02, 2009
Time is linear but memory is not. And yet in the case of octagons there was clearly an initial, if scant, revelation, a mere four pages in Paul Collins’ The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine, followed in short succeeding steps of interest, discovery, research and desire, only to incrementally erode as old interests succumbed to new. Which might have been the end of the matter—would have been the end—if not for a narrow gravel road twisting through dense woods on the far side of the Missouri River, and a grassy incline leading from the road’s shoulder where the trees thinned and broke on open fields imprisoned by a rusty barbed wire fence. Dominating the patchwork clearing was a blocky rectangular church, and past it, half-visible in the woods, the old Watkins schoolhouse. The low sun slanted through the trees, warming the red bricks and pooling in the tall windows so that they smoldered with an interior fire. There was no mistaking the octagonal shape. Unexpected, serendipitous, here in this forgotten forest stood the incarnate vision of Orson Squire Fowler.
Phrenologist, reformer, champion of women’s and children’s rights, marriage counselor, advocate of healthy living and cleanliness, author of books on phrenology, gardening, vegetarianism—even a steamy Victorian sex manual—failed minister and visionary, Fowler was a man of the times, and the times called for grand schemes and noble ideals.
And if not for a lecture on the new science of phrenology, Fowler might have disappeared into history as just another unknown preacher. Such was his calling, having left his home at the age of 17 for private tutoring from two Congregational ministers in Massachusetts. With four dollars in his pocket and all his worldly possessions on his back, he walked the 400 miles there from his home in western New York, and afterward entered Amherst College in 1929. He graduated five years later, but his ministry plans steered awry after attending a lecture with a classmate, Henry Ward Beecher.
It was mostly poppycock to Beecher, but Fowler saw revelations of another, more secular, kind. Phrenology held that one’s character could be ascertained through the topographical features of the skull. Its creases, gullies, hillocks and knolls were indicative of certain characteristics that, when known, could lead to a more fulfilled life. The movement swept the nation (though it had its detractors), but among Fowler’s clients were such luminaries as Horace Greeley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Brigham Young, President James Garfield, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Brown the abolitionist. Walt Whitman’s noggin was examined, leading to a partnership where Whitman became an editor for Fowler’s writings and Fowler a publisher of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Mark Twain wrote scathingly, but with his usual dry wit, of visiting Lorenzo Fowler’s office where he was diagnosed as possessing an utter lack of humor. Lorenzo was Fowler’s brother and himself an established phrenologist, and, at the time, Twain a visitor under an assumed name. Twain returned three months later under his own guise and was found to have so much humor it was positively Himalayan.
“These experiences have given me a prejudice against phrenology which has lasted until now,” Twain wrote. “I am aware that the prejudice should have been against Fowler, instead of against the art—but, I am human, and that is not the way prejudices act.”
But if phrenology was rapidly becoming known as a pseudo-science, more lunatic fringe than medical fact, Fowler’s next foray into better living struck a nerve that send shockwaves across the country. In 1848 his book, The Octagon House: A Home for All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building, rolled off the press to an eager audience.
Octagonal structures were nothing new. An “elegant and safe” octagonal magazine for gun powder was built in 1715 in Williamsburg, Va., a shape adopted by George Washington for his threshing barn and garden house at Mount Vernon. In 1812, Thomas Jefferson got in on the act with a house he called “Poplar Forest,” replete with eight-sided rooms. Even the Russians used the form for block houses in Sitka, Alaska, in 1804.
What possibly set Fowler apart was that his blueprint could be adapted to any size, for rich or poor, using inexpensive materials of lime, gravel and sand to create concrete that could be poured into molds. An octagon house was more energy efficient, provided better air circulation and allowed more light, thus making it a healthier building. Indoor plumbing—almost unthinkable at the time—rounded out his vision for better living through form and function.
There was something about the shape, too, that appealed to people. One minister wryly said he preferred the shape because the devil couldn’t corner him, and another because he could see the Lord coming from any angle. Beecher built an octagon house; so did P.T. Barnum. Clarence Darrow was raised in one.
Fowler’s own octagonal home was the pinnacle of the art, containing 60 main rooms and 40 lesser rooms and closets, with indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water, central heating, natural gas lighting and a central spiral staircase rising 70 feet to a glass-enclosed octagonal cupola.
All of which, as far as I was concerned, would have been merely a side note to history, one more interesting tidbit gleaned from Collins’ fascinating literary search for old Tom Paine’s bones, a journey that begins in a gay bar, spans two continents, includes Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Walt Whitman, Charles Darwin, Lord Byron and William Cobbett, and ends on a lonely country road outside New Rochelle, N.Y. But within those pages was a mention of a utopian community based on Fowler’s octagonal concepts, a city of purity without slavery, alcohol or meat, with octagon houses on octagon plots surrounding a central octagon center, located near the Neosho River 10 miles south of present-day Humboldt, Kansas.
It was called Octagon City, and it was anything but.
(To be continued)