More than a bit of serendipity came together to create today’s theme. The tumbledown, early 19th century landmark chosen for rescue by the city, just so happened to be the most recent painting completed by Brett Busang during his last stint in Richmond.
I knew the two stories were meant to go together. Brett was game and wrote one of his trademark essays and local friend Charlie Moeser let me in the studio to get this picture. The two half full bottles of wine with conveniently clean glasses only served to seal the deal. Some things were just meant to be. Strange chance that both an artist and a city bureaucrat were drawn to the same building. I could have passed it by a hundred times and never guessed its value. Today it is the very definition of ugly. One day soon it will be the poster child for historic preservation.
The plainest architecture is generally the oldest. Nothing could be more fundamental than the mounds American Indians built to preserve their remains and connect, somehow, with the afterlife. You can vacation in Europe and rent a small, smooth-sided apartment that’s five hundred years old. No frills here. Just a house that was built for needy people and has been spared the insult of renovation.
Those white-washed Grecian villages we admire in coffee-table volumes look fairly timeless – and almost are. Ulysses set sail from one of them. They are perfect little sundials. They put to shame our tendency to over-decorate. Their interconnected domes are the very essence of shelter. They keep the worst of the elements at bay while reaching out to them. They squat into the earth that provided, with man’s intervention, their shape and form. They’ve got “class” without trying for it at all.
So too our architecture, which is derived from European models, but has always taken on regional flavors that seem, in our rush to homogenize, more distinctive every time we look at them. In the Seventeenth-century, we made our houses out of native materials, but wanted them to look like the Real Things, which is to say country seats and manor-houses. We did them pretty well too. Hand-carved entablatures punctuate the facades of houses all over the State of Massachusetts. Stone was scarce. Local carpenters rolled up their sleeves and tried to imitate it in ash and poplar.
Further south, where stone was really no more available than it was anywhere else, the adaptation game swung into full career. Virginia fashioned its country estates after those in England and did a creditable job with them. They were mostly brick and those that escaped Yankee torches survive to this day. Yet it is the vernacular architecture – our no-frills stuff – that attracts me. I have watched a great deal of it disappear during my years as an urban adventurer. It started in Memphis, where lordly Victorians were struck down for an infamous concept that has been discredited since: urban renewal. In New York City, whole tenement blocks were given the bum’s rush for snazzy developments that now cluster the skyline. And in Richmond, where I came to live in 1996, the damage had, to a large extent, already been done. Huge swaths had been cut through historically sensitive areas, carrying off the irreplaceable forms and images that haunt my dreams to this day. Yet stuck between a Victorian row or a moon-vacant streetscape were – and, to a certain extent, are – a number of the older houses working-people built in the early years of the 19th-century.
In 1996, Jackson Street had quite a lot of them. I think I watched the majority get stuck between the jaws of a bulldozer as the city cleared them away for no apparent reason other than to remove possible “eyesores.” I’m sure somebody knew these eyesores were freighted with history, but the wheels that doomed them were already grinding and there was probably nothing they could do. I still wince a little when I think of a small brick cottage time and the world had forgotten. It was in good repair and sealed against vandals, but it was vacant and therefore fragile in terms of its status and survival. One day, as I was making my rounds of the area, I saw that it had been removed. All that was left was straw, which crews put down to reduce soil migration.
The house in this picture is an old one too. As I was painting it, a neighbor told me that it had been built in 1819, which seems plausible enough. Again, no frills. Just a box with windows. Its parti-colored façade represents an accretion of repairs that were good for their time, but have not taken in the long run. If you toss a deck of cards onto a table, you’ll watch them spread out. A few cards will occupy the table’s wood-stained frontier; others will cluster together; still others resist burial by poking out from a little group that’s fanned out over them. That’s precisely what has happened along this façade. In some places, the bones of the house – its clapboard face – seeps through. In others, the tarpaper shingles that pave it over predominate. Over these, latter-day builders hammered metal siding, which represents a final bid to make the house aesthetically acceptable while sealing it up against rain, cold, heat, weather.
The Victorian cottage next-door emphasizes the plain-Jane look of the place. For me, however, that is its majesty – tawdry as it may look to us today. In terms of geological time, 1819 is an eye-blink. But when measured against human progress – particularly in America – 1819 is ancient history indeed. It might as well, for all it connects to the way we live now, be a spliced-together stoa set down amidst an urban infrastructure its creators wouldn’t have understood. It might as well be a Roman temple – a temple of shreds and patches. It might as well be the half-timbered house Elizabethans shivered and died in.
Yet it is here and that is astounding to me. Even more astounding is its reincarnation – which, as I hear, is likely to occur. Should its benefactors get the money they need, it’ll be fit to live in again. And it will stand to remind those who pass it of the way it used to be here – as it connects with who and what we are today.
Brett Busang Fine Art
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