About 800,000 new houses are built every year: but about 50,000,000 were built more than a generation ago, over the last few centuries: all these homes have had past lives within their walls.
The older a home, the greater the provenance, the more baggage comes along with living in it. For homes “style” is the least important aspect of your accommodation: for most living in older homes it’s the poignancy of living where others have previously had their lives: triumphs, tragedies and the mundane, prosaic acts of the day-to-day.
Cooking, eating, bathroom duties, sleeping all have ways of creating, them changing a house. Unless you have built your house for you – as I and my wife have – someone else is usually living right there with you. The kitchen may have a sink facing a wall, the tub may be tiny, the bed in your bedroom may have a perfect place – because someone else designed those things that way: and you are living with them.
In Studio with Duo was the Rev. Ellen Tillotson, a homeowner of an ancient house of great provenance in Guilford – who has spent over a decade living in a place of many previous lives – and she has endeavored to engage in many subtle and sensitive interventions to heal and adapt the home to her occupancy.
Joining us via phone was a remarkable group who are keenly aware of the past lives of those who built and lived in our heritage. William Hosley is a cultural curator of architecture in Connecticut, who has engaged in sweeping curatorial exercises of our built resources. Jay Bright is an architect who, among other devotions, has spent a lifetime engaging in the past lives of homes in deeply sensitive renovation and adaptation. Lastly Susan Odell is a preservationist and architect who lives in a home with her organ builder husband – in an antique dwelling that may just be haunted….
In August of 1978 I returned to my Westchester, New York childhood home.
I had not lived there since 1969, as I was off-loaded to Buffalo for high school and during college I had lived on campus through all but one summer (and that one was spent in Buffalo). I was home because I had failed – and had gotten the A.
The failure had been recent – the A, quite distant at the time. 9 months prior to coming home I had finished my course work in architecture school. Between getting my degree and the return I addressed the fact I owed Cornell $2,300 by retiring my academic debt on a scallop boat off Cape May, New Jersey. Post pay-off I then attempted to sustain my post-collegiate relationship in a hot summer in Philly. I failed.
But the culmination of an academic rollercoaster ride that leveraged my return home had manifest the worst and best in 22 year olds – and me. Essentially my last act of education was a 16 month effort at designing and presenting a design that came to a conclusion in the fall of 1977 – but a temporary one.
All 4th year architecture students at Cornell had to take a 2 credit hour course that was the mandatory prep for the Thesis Project that loomed before all of us. The course created the Design Program that the Thesis Project was to follow during its design. So at the conclusion of the course in the fall of 1976, the director of the entire Thesis Program, and teacher of the course, Alexander Kira, pulled me aside.
“Mr. Dickinson,” (he never called anyone by a first name, and No One, even in the 1970’s, Ever called him “Alex”) “we want you to ponder the possibility of endeavoring to attempt something the faculty have not permitted in a decade.” He had an elliptical style of speaking that reflected a very well crafted sense of himself. At that moment he was at peak fame, having just written a best-selling book, “The Bathroom”.
He always wore a stylish tie. He wore tailored blazers. His shoes were shined to a high reflectance . His cologne preceded him wherever he went. His hair was shiny black, combed tight back – flush with product. His cigarette lighter was brightly enamelled Deco, as was his matching cigarette case. His manner embodied a man who knew himself, liked himself and expected you to be impressed at this burnished presence.
I, on the other hand, was a mess. Clean, but ever in ragged shorts, rumpled shirt, knee socks and hair randomly wild – a perfect symbol of my complete over-efforting everything: Resident Adviser, Student Senator, drinking to excess often, delivering Cornell Daily Suns at 6:30 AM after said nocturnal imbibing, acting in plays, producing arts activities, and ever deeply involved with a usually terrific female co-conspirator or in search of one
So, when Professor Kira pulled me aside in my 7th semester, having accelerated to get out in 9, versus 10, I was both bemused and intrigued – knowing, by then, I could deal in this world.
“The faculty is suggesting that you do a full year, two semester thesis.”
Wow. That meant I had spring, the summer break and the fall. “Ummm, I am honored, but why would you suggest this?” (trying to be coy).
“We feel your program is so rich, so densely defined, we feel that the extra time would do it justice.”
He smiled. For my thesis design program I had simply taken where I lived, a Residential College for the Creative and Performing Arts: burned it down – keeping its tower – and proposed a complete replacement incorporating the arts facility the university wanted and built 10 years later elsewhere. It was a complex proposal, but I knew where I lived and I knew the performing arts.
“Thesis” was nominally a course, but it was a monstrous 12 credit hours – 3 or 4 courses worth. Since I was accelerating to graduate early to save money I had to take 3 other courses in the spring and 1 or 2 in the fall, so that continued the overload. And I was 21 then 22, breaking up with one girlfriend, starting up with another (from Philly) and was without counsel.
There were no points of reference for perspective in my life. My parents, for reasons not clear to me, had refused to pay for any part of my last year of college, so I was essentially on my own. I had not talked to my older siblings in years. My friends were just like me: balancing extreme over commitments with humor, alcohol and not sleeping much – but were not architecture students. In my final semester I roomed off campus with a fellow jackass 5th year architecture student.
The bromance between Professor Alexander Kira and me continued as he declared himself to be one of my 2 Thesis Design Critics and gave me my first choice for the other: my choice, hubristically enough, was virtually a legend: Colin Rowe. Everyone else wanted him, but he could only take on a few, and Professor Kira was the Sorting Hat of critics.
Colin Rowe had an english-y accept, had fled north from Texas with several other super intense high-level intellectual architecture professors. Rumpled in his 50’s or early 60’s, usually hungover or drunk, usually with a grad student girlfriend, he simply gave the most incredible time-traveling lectures and crits of anyone I had every heard.
Colin (I could call him Colin) was also at peak fame as he had written a book as extremely meaningful in architecture as Alex Kira’s was trivial –
“The Mathematics of The Idea Villa” – that connected Corbusier and Palladio in exquisite depth and creativity. I tried to bring a bottle of Lafroaig 10 year scotch to my first design meeting, but Professor Kira nixed it: I sensed who was in charge.
Needless to say: given my insanely untethered/ungrounded/thoughtless 21 year old life not much got done in the spring: “INCOMPLETE” was my thesis grade for the semester. I did, despite all good intentions, even less in the summer. Nothing, really. So it came down to the Fall.
I worked better in those first months, but not as needed, got another “INCOMPLETE” at the midterm. I realized a C- was failing and I had no grade to bank against any final falling short: so it all came down to the final review. Colin had taken my ideas to good places in our limited encounters and Professor Kira gave me pointers.
But I knew its was up to me. My roommate helped, but it was reciprocal: I pulled 2 all-nighters working on his studio final project – he then spent 2 all-niters on my presentation. I gang-pressed 3 freshman into pulling an all-nighter (their design reviews were a week earlier) to finish the drawings.
I had a friend calligraph labels on the 20+ huge illicit pencil drawings (ink was a requirement) and the full pull-apart model was done after the midnite deadline for drawings to be submitted in the 30 hours before my jury. I had drawn every plan, section, elevation and some seminal details of a complicated project – but had presented it in a ragged, informal manner. My fellow 5th year students could not restrain their disdain for my Diazo printed pencil drawings – those type of drawings were normally underlaid for final inking: I, once again, had allowed a crazy life to impact on others’ expectations.
I had failed, for an entire year, to have my act together enough to do the killer presentation the rest of the presenters had. I simply had to trust that the meal I was serving tasted good, even if the plating was hideous.
It took a full hour to pin up the drawings that completely covered two walls of a medium sized crit room. Standing alone in front of 3 jurists (Kira and 2 others – no “superstars”) (Colin was “not going to come”) (for one of several reasons easily guessed) I had had 7 hours sleep in 6 days. I either passed or I had to repeat an entire year – costing money that I did not have.
I talked for 50 minutes without stopping except to answer questions.
When I stopped, the room had a heavy silent pall. I did not know what they thought. They stared blankly at walls full of huge, sloppy drawings.
A small British critic, calmly said, hesitatingly, “I think, actually, I think its actually, its actually quite remarkable.” I plotzed. Heads nodded, more nice things. More head nodding. When hands were shaken, I left the room to walk thru another thesis jury that was looking at 6 perfectly rendered ink drawings of a student who was everything I was not: focused, supported, together.
He really did not like me very much. I really did not care. He had worked all 4.5 years in studio, gaining friendships and support. I worked in the the residential college I knew and loved, with non-architects. He had, against policy, invited about 20 of his friend group to view his triumph. As I was walking out, his hero critic, a Superstar, then and even now, said simply: “Tom, I think you simply missed the point.” I felt a mixed stew of irony, shadenfruede, and relief.
But in the end we both got a B. We knew this because back then names and grades were posted the next day for public view for all to see. But, next to my “B” was a little phrase: “(marked down from A: due to presentation)” so I had garnered the only A in the class. Sort of.
Upon delivering my faulty drawings to Professor Alexander Kira, he grabbed my arm: looked me in the eye and said: “You are going to give us fully drafted drawings, correct?” “Yes, Professor Kira.”
As I was turning to go, he pulled me back, and locked eyes: “Duo” (he called me by my First Name!) “That was the best verbal presentation I have ever heard in the 20 years I have been here.”
I had to honor that positive regard – not his words, but that I was the only student he had ever called by his or her first name in the 5 years I was there with him. So 9 months later, after failing at so much, atonement was made; 5 weeks of 12 hour drafting days in my parents’ attic, listening to broadcast black & white reruns – and peeing myself in extreme suppression of laughter at Dan Ackroyd being Julia Child at one midnite Saturday Night Live, with my parents sleeping below me.
I used the last money from being a clerk in an art supplies store in Philly to get perfect xerox reductions of 20 crisp pencil drawings, including the axonometric drawings (seen in this piece) that stood in for the long destroyed model, and then had them bound, per specs, and sent to the architecture school library.
Atonement was all about in that fall of 1978. That “A” is what mattered most: My parents who refused to cosign a loan to spring me out of academic debt (and visited me once in 5 years as they drove back and forth between Westchester and Buffalo) harbored me for several months when I had nothing. They had a faith in my ultimate diligence, just like Professor Kira.
I had failed at so many things, but others had forborne it. I had finally tried to fill up the hole I had dug. But in truth, it was not me that got the hole filled, it was something I never asked for, expected or merited. I believe its called Grace.
Honored to be a Fellow in the AIA
(I came late to the party, so this is pretty swift)
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Archive: Real Life Survival Guide
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Once a year about a billion people watch about a hundred men play a game for about 4 hours.
For most it’s just a TV show. For some it’s a video game. For a relatively small group it’s a distant connection to youth. It is technically a football game, but the hype and ignorance overwhelms a simple game enough that it becomes a distinct reality only resembling what the one million young men in America play every year.
At any given time, but more often in the crescendo of Football’s hyperbolic Last Annual Act, the Super Bowl, I remember the last game of my Junior year in Snyder, New York in 1971. Three months earlier I had become, surprisingly, a 2-way starter on my high school football team.
But my coach was excruciatingly fair. He had started me over seniors and better athletes who played less well in practice – some of those better players were lesser than me in August because, following the traditions of the era, athletes went to preseason in every sport to get in shape – not working out before the practices start.
I knew I sucked, and simultaneously, at 16, far more than any other thing in my life, I wanted to play. My only option was to get better, So all the summer before practices began I wore 5lb ankle weights 24/7, lifted for hours in the Downtown Buffalo YMCA and ran on the ancient oval banked track suspended above its basketball court.
I came in ready. 180 pounds of fearful rage I knocked older, better, larger players down, and I started at center and nose guard the first three games. As a senior rounded into shape, I lost the nose guard gig when I could not play thru double team blocks.
Then, by the seventh game, a much better, larger sophomore athlete became the starting center when I missed a few more blocks than he did in practice. So for the last game of the season I was relegated to playing on every special team – those receiving or dispensing kicked footballs. My coach was excruciatingly fair.
I was broken and angry. I had tried my best and was legitimately inadequate. I had failed after thinking I had succeeded. I was 16 and effectively living alone in Buffalo and I did not succeed at the thing I cared most about in front of a team I was devoted to, for a coach I wanted, desperately, to please.
I was not injured. I threw myself into every practice with every ounce of fury in my 180 pound frame. And it was not good enough to keep what I had once earned, because others were simply better than me at what I wanted to do more than anything in the world.
So I was motivated to make the tackle on the second half kickoff on that November Saturday afternoon 45 years ago. I was absurdly slow but the rage against revealed incompetence propelled me down the field first, the returner had the ball drop into his hands 5 yards in front of me. Instead of “breaking down” – widening my legs, lowering my hips and getting under control to react to the moves of the returner I accelerated into him.
And bounced off of his frame, falling to the turf – screaming the loudest F-Bomb I have ever oathed before or since.
The returner was tackled 5 yards later. It meant nothing. We won the game convincingly.
I had failed on a single play after being inadequate on the thousands of plays prior to help the team and please the coach. I had failed.
The next summer was perhaps the most intensely focused time in my life: rendering me as good an athlete as I could be in that moment. I played every play of every game my Senior year save one – and the opponent scored while I was out so I went back in.
I was captain, I set the school record for tackles in a game, and even though we lost every game my senior year, I remember the failed tackle in 1971 more often and more clearly than any other memory from that time of extremity.
Any sport comes down to each human playing it. Each of our memories are the game for us. The non-player fan remembers images – pictures in the mind. The rest of us, a small group compared to the hundreds of millions of fans who “know” the sport, remember the emotions, the pain, and some good moments.
But the unshakeable memories are when you fail.
These are deep scars: completely irrelevant to anything anyone does after football.
Why do they stay with us?
It’s not about football, it’s about extremity in youth. The first breakup. The rejection from your first choice school. For some, just the first bad grade.
But football failure memories are a distinct subset because the memories are woven into physical pain, amid the completely interwoven love and devotion to those around you, in a very public scene. The extreme failure event hurts in front of everyone, and hurts those who you care deeply for, when you are too young to have much perspective.
It would be like a love relationship breaking up by having your ex punch you in the face in a stadium filled with your best friends screaming your inadequacies over the sound system.
Pain in youth seems to be wired into the hard drives that store our memories – and our software refreshes those memories regularly, capriciously and undeniably.
My son was a very good college athlete at a very small school. He started for three years, played over 1000 plays. He played well enough to be honored on his team, in his league and nationally. In his last 2 years his team passed over 750 times. He successfully kept angry young men off his quarterback for all but one, single, play.
He took the wrong step at the wrong time, and the opponent planted his friend – the quarterback. Hard. It was in the first half, it did not change the outcome of a winning game.
And he remembers it like it happened a minute ago.
And he will for the rest of his life.
Even though we both love this sport deeply, the love is tinged with shame. For everyone who does anything with passion in youth, the failures are remembered more often and more clearly than the successes.
If you could break the veil of bullshit surrounding the Super Bowl and grab any player off the screen and look him in the eye and ask what he remembered most from his time playing I am sure great things would be recounted – these are super humans who have done extraordinary great good things.
But, if he was honest, he would also tell you how he had failed.
Because we all fail.
Its the time of year in New England when homes “feel” the climate most: we need to generate enough heat to feel OK and prevent pipes from freezing – this means the machinery of that has many controls & moving parts: our windows and doors need to close TIGHT.
Our homes manifest the consequences of much larger realities, and weather is one of the largest realities we all are subjected to – each day, each season, each year – and now progressively – the climate is changing in a way that trends to higher temperatures, tides and insurance costs if you live anywhere where storms have impact. Whether “climate change” is a Chinese Hoax or the End of The World As Murdered By Capitalism we have to see our homes existing in some climate: and it is changing: MEANING: our homes are changing:
Joining Duo Dickinson in studio was Joe MacDougald: A law professor in residence and Strasser Fellow in Environmental Law at UConn: Joe is also the Executive Director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Law and the director Program in Energy & Environmental Law there – but more he has been the chair of the Madison Planning and Zoning Commission and is now the chair of its Finance Commission.
John Connell from Vermont called in to talk about about how he sees homes responding to the climate – an architect, author & artist, founder of the Yestermorrow School in Vermont http://www.yestermorrow.org has art and architecture degrees fro Penn, Yale, Sheridan College – he makes what he designs – helped found both the Custom Residential Architects Network and the Congress of Residential Architecture – and wrote both “Homing Instinct” and “The Inspired House”.
Dr. Rebecca French – A Native Nutmegger called in to give the uber overview of where houses are in the Big Picture of sustainability in a changing climate. She has worked at the EPA, been a Congressional Science Fellow, but most importantly she is currently the Director of Community Engagement at the University of Connecticut, Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation. http://circa.uconn.edu
Every Saturday I look forward to working out: not because the joys of the BowFlex are thrilling, but because I love the dull repetition of cable TV Law & Order reruns that are on from 5am till midday.
Every Saturday I also look forward to going to church on Sunday and being part of services that are as unchanged as are each of the hundreds of Law & Order episodes I grind away to (sometimes while I write) (this piece, for example) (these golden offerings are rendered during the in-prison murder arranged by a guard episode) (he gets off).
But more, the Law & Order I watch is the original, vintage: just humans doing bad, and good – no affected overlays of personalities and premises of the zillions of the series’ spin-offs. I know each ending upon watching the beginning, always framed by crime scene and verdict: it is a rigid 52 minute dramatic straightjacket of common characters and infinite evolutions within the straight jacket.
The church services I love the most, in an autonomic devotion at the first words spoken, are from the 16th century: the Original Series of Episcopal services: Rite 1. They have the same beginning, middle and end. I know them like my 35 year old tweed jacket, inside and out, and the love grows each time I put it on.
The gut connect to repeated sounds and stories are not just the comfort tools of parents for the crying child, they are the engrained associations of sights and sounds to the things we do. I do not particularly like baseball – but I love listening to Yankees games on the radio: specifically the artisanally homer announcers- who repeat calls of homers and outs and innings and beginnings and endings of games with ritualistic consistency that soothes my savage brow into sleep – or mowing the lawn with a small amount of patience.
Similarly, I am incapable of planting annuals in the 20-plus garden attempts at my home: the idea of spending any time without investment seems silly. So perennials are the way for 30 years. (Except for pachysandra – too easy – it’s giving up, like wearing sweat pants.)
If I was under 40 I would stream and download the weekend cable TV episodes off some web provider and watch them every day, pre-sorted to eliminate the undesirables. But that would be insanely boring: having watched each episode scores of time, watching them 3.5 times as often would take a lite obsession into compulsive binging. Besides waiting to see which episode follows another is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: I know they are chocolates there but each one is a (very small) surprise.
If I wanted to be thrilled and surprised by the presentation of the Prayer Book I would simply go to a different church every Sunday, swapping denominations, settings, music and words every week.
But I am deeply delighted to be married for 37 years and counting: a lifetime of momentary thrills in a change for change sake ethic is for rush junkies: therefore No Annuals.
Am I boring? Probably. Am I the future of the Episcopal Church? Absolutely not: but should all the perennials, the original Law and Order of the Prayer book be part of the Episcopal Church? It will not live through this arid secularity without roots. The future of any devotion that sustains connects with breadth as well as spark: first dates can be electric, but lifelong happy marriages share more than electricity.
We are becoming a binary place: Red/Blue: dueling Inauguration attendance reporting wars, inverse interpretations of same facts – not unusual for America, especially in the InterWebNet Age. We have “our” teams rather than enjoy the sport. Church is becoming lamer by the minute in the northeast as inverse interpretations of meaning become our cultural priorities: soccer practice, brunch, and planting annuals offer deeply compelling distractions.
I think very few of us watch the 5am episodes of the artisanal original Law & Order series. Probably fewer every ratings period. That programming is not the future of cable TV. But Shakespeare is not the future of theater. Emily Dickinson is not the future of poetry, Bach is not the future of music.
But music, poetry and theater are lessened when what they are is edited to that loved in any given moment.
There is joy in looking at my week and knowing, knowing, what happens on Sunday – a thing I have had in my life for over 60 years. Rite 1 services, especially Morning Prayer, are time capsules, just like those perennials, and those old Law & Order episodes. Beyond what they are in the moment they embody the entire history from origin to the moment you experience them, once again, – it adds a lustre no marketing or newness can simulate.
I could be sleeping (if I could sleep) instead of working out every early AM. On weekends I could watch MSNBC like every weekday morning that I crank away on the recumbent bike: but living only in the moment loses something: something that is unavoidable. What made us.
Law & Order episodes have been at the periphery of my life for 25 years, Morning Prayer is a recurring beat in the baseline of 61 years dancing to what life is at any given week. I cannot avoid their reality in who I am, so I embrace them.
I did not choose to believe in God. Part of me thinks everything would be easier if I could just plant annuals. But God was planted in me, He is perennial, I cannot avoid Him, no matter what the distraction. I guess the means of planting are pretty Mid-Century; suburban low church episcopalian ritual, but it’s now woven into my genome.
As Joni Mitchell warbled “You don’t miss what you’ve got till it’s gone.” The canary in the cave is Morning Prayer, Rite 1 just beyond, and further away the Episcopal Church as I knew it may succumb to the vapors of indifference, irrelevance, and the easy rejection of its assumed lameness in the effort to compete with brunch.
“Nothing focuses attention like the hangman’s noose.” And some in the Episcopal church think Rite 1 and especially Morning Prayer are toxic poison pills forcing people out of pews and into their gardens. But rejection is just the easiest form of change.
The binary of exclusive win-lose dooms each side to temporary victories that are only good for the victor in the death match. If nothing of “the other” is acceptable, any validity in the “the other” is summarily dismissed. Hillary must be locked up. Trump must be impeached – now. In the death match between legacy and relevance for all things cultural I think there is greater relevancy when legacy is celebrated amid the flow of moment. Either/or picks a side and rejects another, stuff dies: but in a both/and mindset much is sustained.
Beauty is undeniable in all forms because we do not choose to be moved by beauty: it simply moves us. Annuals are beautiful: I love them: in other people’s gardens. I am going to hear Keith Jarret play music at Carnegie Hall in 2 weeks that has never been heard until he touches the keys that night. Assuming that 16th century language and 17th century music is toxic may be true for more people than ever, but no one can honestly say there is no beauty there…
….Oh, wait, it’s the episode with the adopted kid in the family that owns the leather coat shop that murders his grandfather…gotta go.