Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My eyes were opened

Norval White has died. On our shelves sits a copy of the first printing of the AIA Guide to New York City, a tall but skinny hard-bound book. It's one of the few books that has a bookplate in it. It's very well worn. I read it cover to cover and from it learned that I had grown up (elsewhere) in a built environment that was predominantly of the nineteenth century, with a bit of construction from between the turn of the century and the Great War and traces of other eras. I learned that I was working in a Saarinen Building. The Guide even mentioned Knoll, but not the delight of using all that furniture that's now considered classic or the pleasure of the weekly floral adornment for my desk or the art on the walls or the music in the halls. I learned that I wanted to make my home in Park Slope, and I did, within a half a block of Prospect Park, in a beautiful limestone row house shared with just one other household, that of our landlord, who had bought the house from the estate of a daughter of the family that had built it. The house had been her home to the end. It would not have been possible, even thirty years ago, to rent a doghouse in Austin for what we paid in rent for an entire floor, plus a basement, shared use of the stoop, and exclusive use of the back yard. Most of the buildings on the block had been divided into rooming houses, and the children of the families who lived in them had never been more than about a block away so of course they'd never been across the river to Manhattan. This was long before gentrification set in. We were within walking distance of the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, Grand Army Plaza, a movie theater, the F train (which may have been the only air-conditioned line at the time), the butcher, the fishmonger, the hardware store, the drugstore, Farrell's bar, the formation of the West Indian Day parade, the zoo, the carrousel, and much more. Green-Wood Cemetery, Coney Island, and shopping and movies in Flatbush or in downtown Brooklyn were never far away. Of course, we saw most movies at the New School (William Everson) or at the Museum of Modern Art, and spent more time than that at the Fillmore East. From the roof, we could see the Statue of Liberty, among other sights. St. Saviour was just down at the corner. We always said that our cat Spike was a Methodist, because she followed me all the way home from the Methodist Hospital. She immediately got along well with our other cat and our two dogs. We could always park in front of the house, either on our side or on the other side of the street, depending on the alernate-side parking rules, which were governed by the day and hour. The F train was so much more comfortable than the elevated train that I'd been riding in from Brownsville. I bought the Guide at the Doubleday bookstore, the one with the stairs to the second floor that used to attract male observers hoping to catch a good look up one or more miniskirts. Anyhow, thanks to the AIA Guide, I began looking at buildings and built landscapes of all kinds with greater awareness and realized how my entire life had been influenced by the vernacular and more grand buildings that had surrounded me from my earliest days.


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