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Time Travel

October 15, 2016

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I design for people, mostly homes.

That means when not attending events of children or friends, I work weekends, as thats when most others do not work. Not having a “weekend”, or even, typically, a day off is an unthinking reality for me, as any missional devotion is for the devotee.

So when when a recent Saturday trip happened – an arc of visitation starting an hour from home, then an hour north, and thence 30 minutes south thence 2 hours back home to visit four places and people it was one of a few thousand days over the last 38 years I have taken a trip to move the mission forward.

The trip was typical of the 21st century kind: unceasing communication via the internet at every stop sign, early moment or post meeting pause, an oatmeal cookie in the car to help focus, several prostate relief breaks – all over a 9 hour unremarkable day.

But the last meeting rendered the first two, and the rest of the day, and today, different. It was to see 2 sites with a woman I have worked with for over 25 years. She and I have walked through perhaps 100 places together. Dumps, sweet relics, empty lots, churches, garages, tenements. In the nicest towns, sketchy neighborhoods and in the middle of nowhere.

But this was different. Two places in a nice town, owned by the same family. What made them different was we had a window into their unique circumstance, and that perspective turned my eyes back to the previous day’s meetings, and the thousands that preceded it over the last 38 years.

These two homes were from the 19th century, hard by the 1990’s MetroNorth Train station. But unlike others my friend and I have seen so often they were built as apartments.

Unlike so many others they were largely unrenovated/remuddled. Ever. A few apartments had had tenants in the 1980’s but they were largely time capsules. Museums by neglect.

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Bought by a family that collected places, and then seemingly warehoused them – unoccupied.

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Small interventions over the last century were there – cut-in ducts, a bit of plastic pipe replacing lead, some dramatic cracking where wetness had made rot that allowed gravity to win against structure.

But these places were stark sentinels of the attempts humans make to create a place. To see time have its way with these noble, well built places was not tragic – they were still noble. But there had been no life in their harbor for 50, 60 years – it was the embodiment of another world left alone in its skin – mustily present in a frozen, slowly degrading state.

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Our tour was lead by the son of the woman that bought these places 40 or more years ago – my entire 38 years of traveling to see places and people I had listed prior to this.

You might find tragedy in the sad, slow loss of vitality, usefulness, even potential structural viability – but these places were, and are, well-built – and not defiled by subsequent thoughtless wood butchery. Their elegance remained amid cracks, fallen plaster and some rot.

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The failure to use them in any productive way, the fact that they have lain fallow for 2 generations out of the 6 or 7 in their existing held a mirror up to the motivations of my life.

I live to build things, mostly homes.

Part of me knows that an Ice Age will scrape everything away in a few dozen thousand years if fire, profit motive or the Zombie Apocalypse  don’t come first. Everything I have spent a life working on could very well be rendered a memory. I also know I will die.

But the proud, engaged energy that created those buildings and then left them, frozen in abandonment, held a very clear mirror up to the net-net of much of the life of buildings.

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We create these things for families, for institutions for beliefs, but we create them out of ourselves: humans – mortal, flawed, but hoping, knowing its worth the effort. That effort was the medium of my previous 2 meetings that day, and the thousands that preceded it.

But that effort was frozen in these two buildings – living dead in real time – not unearthed archeology of a dead human endeavor, but the living dead of unused, but perfectly untouched, existence. The folk that built these places cared to do more than the minimum. The owners paid for craft and material and structure that could last for 60 or 70 years without love our attention. The hands that laid the stone, milled the wood, joined the lumber, set the lath then lovingly applied all the finishes were alive in these silent husks.

Oh, all those folk are long dead. Except in these silent places.

The results of these devotional acts of building are not simple, let alone obvious. The results of what I do are not obvious beyond the buildings that result.

The results, and the reasons for building beyond the necessary – beyond the cave, the ant hill or hive, to build what is human into a construction is so poignant in these starkly ignored beauties that I came to a thought I was surprised to think, given the 38 year trip: visiting is necessary, but connection is the reason for this mission.

Work is necessary – applying skill and effort to make things better is the essence of humanity, but it is the connection to that essence that made these long frozen buildings completely alive in their dead state.

I get it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary Zahl permalink
    October 15, 2016 12:52 pm

    I love this piece, Duo. I’ve read it before without the photos. Thanks for the offer of dinner Thursday night….Betsy and I had eaten before because we needed to get home 10ish. David Brooks’ talk has given me a lot to mull over the last two days. BTW, if David Zahl ever wants to contact him, you may be his best link. Love, Mary >

  2. October 19, 2016 11:31 am

    This piece brought me back to some of the remodel and upgrades I have done and worked at over the years. Yes, it is run down and neglected but the line I like most “the folks that built these places cared to do more then the minimum” is to the work ethic of the tradesmen long gone. When in the process of refinishing, you can usually find the testament to their exceptional and caring work. and may I say built with tools considered relics when compared to today’s. Thanks for the article.

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