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Architecture

Edgar Allan Poe, Design Critic

A room furnished according to Poe’s “The Philosophy of Furniture” for a 1959 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (Image courtesy the Brooklyn Museum)

In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Landor’s Cottage,” the author paints an idealized picture of his own New York Cottage. He describes the building in painstaking–some might even say excruciating–detail, but Poe also devotes a short paragraph to cottage’s furnishings:

On the floor was an ingrain carpet, of excellent texture – a white ground, spotted with small circular green figures. At the windows were curtains of snowy white jaconet muslin: they were tolerably full, and hung decisively, perhaps rather formally, in sharp, parallel plaits to the floor – just to the floor. The walls were papered with a French paper of great delicacy – a silver ground, with a faint green cord running zig-zag throughout. Its expanse was relieved merely by three of Julien’s exquisite lithographs….One of these drawings was a scene of Oriental luxury, or rather voluptuousness; another was a ‘carnival piece,’ spirited beyond compare; the third was a Greek female head – a face so divinely beautiful, and yet of an expression so provokingly indeterminate, never before arrested my attention.

This description doesn’t exactly match with the spartan furnishings that currently fill Poe’s cottage, nor is it likely that it corresponds with its decoration during Poe’s residency. However, it does line up exactly with Poe’s personal tastes and his very strong opinions on interior design, which he described in his authoritative, humorous, and confidently written piece of design criticism “The Philosophy of Furniture,” originally published in the May 1840 issue of Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine.

In Poe’s view, the interior of the English apartment is the pinnacle of good taste. Everything else is hardly tolerable. With great wit, Poe decries the aesthetic tastes of the Chinese, Russian, Spanish, French, Italians, who “have but little sentiment beyond marbles and colours and Dutch, who in Poe’s opinion, “ have merely a vague idea that a curtain is not a cabbage.” But no culture has worse taste than Americans. Poe believes that because there’s no aristocracy to imitate or aspire to, Americans created an “aristocracy of dollars” resulting in a display of wealth in lieu of a display of taste.

Like any good critic, Edgar Allan Poe doesn’t just condemn, he offers solutions. He describes his ideal room, a place where every piece of furniture, every painting, and every fabric work together to create a harmonic space. And it all begins with the carpet. Carpet selection is of paramount importance. It is the soul of the room, for its color, thickness, and design influence everything else – “A judge at common law may be an ordinary man,” says Poe, “a good judge of a carpet must be a genius.” But an ideal room is more than just carpet of course. It must be shaped to afford “the best (ordinary opportunities for the adjustment of furniture.” Poe prefers “massive” floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto a veranda.

Continue reading on Smithsonian for Edgar Allan Poe’s “Philosophy of Furniture”

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Architecture

From Pits and Pendulums to Pastoral Porches: Edgar Allan Poe’s Bronx Getaway

The cottage rented by Edgar Allan Poe from 1846 until his death in 1849, located in Poe Park in the Bronx.
The cottage rented by Edgar Allan Poe from 1846 until his death in 1849, located in Poe Park in the Bronx.

Once upon a morning dreary, I left Brooklyn with eyes bleary, Wearily I took the subway to a poet’s old forgotten home.

In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe and his young wife Virginia moved to New York City. It was Poe’s second time living in the city and just one of many homes for the peripatetic author. Unfortunately, after two years and several Manhattan addresses, Virginia fell ill with tuberculosis. With the hope that country air might improve her condition, or at least make her final days more peaceful, Poe moved the family out to a small, shingled cottage in the picturesque woods and green pastures of Fordham Village – better known today as the Bronx.

The six-room cottage was built in 1812 as worker’s housing for farm hands. Poe rented it from landowner John Valentine for $100 per year – no small sum for the constantly struggling writer who sold “The Raven,” his most famous work, for a flat fee of $8. During his time at the cottage, Poe cared for his ailing wife, who died three years after they moved in, and wrote some of his most celebrated poems, including the darkly romantic “Annabel Lee”

This modest building also served as the inspiration for the final Poe story published during the author’s life, “Landor’s Cottage,” which appeared in the June 9, 1849, issue of Flag of Our Union, four months before his death. A far cry from the tales of woe and horror Poe is widely known for, the story of “Landor’s Cottage” is quite simple: a man hiking through the bucolic setting of rural New York comes across a small house and marvels at its picturesque perfection, finding that it “struck me with the keenest sense of combined novelty and propriety — in a word, of poetry”.  What follows is the narrator’s depiction of the cottage. Warning: in the following excerpt, there’s no secret rooms, no woe-begotten protagonists or menacing visions. Just pure, straightforward, even banal description:

The main building was about twenty-four feet long and sixteen broad- certainly not more. Its total height, from the ground to the apex of the roof, could not have exceeded eighteen feet. To the west end of this structure was attached one about a third smaller in all its proportions:-the line of its front standing back about two yards from that of the larger house, and the line of its roof, of course, being considerably depressed below that of the roof adjoining. At right angles to these buildings, and from the rear of the main one-not exactly in the middle-extended a third compartment, very small- being, in general, one-third less than the western wing. The roofs of the two larger were very steep-sweeping down from the ridge-beam with a long concave curve, and extending at least four feet beyond the walls in front, so as to form the roofs of two piazzas. These latter roofs, of course, needed no support; but as they had the air of needing it, slight and perfectly plain pillars were inserted at the corners alone. The roof of the northern wing was merely an extension of a portion of the main roof. Between the chief building and western wing arose a very tall and rather slender square chimney of hard Dutch bricks, alternately black and red:-a slight cornice of projecting bricks at the top. Over the gables the roofs also projected very much:-in the main building about four feet to the east and two to the west. The principal door was not exactly in the main division, being a little to the east-while the two windows were to the west. These latter did not extend to the floor, but were much longer and narrower than usual-they had single shutters like doors- the panes were of lozenge form, but quite large. The door itself had its upper half of glass, also in lozenge panes-a movable shutter secured it at night. The door to the west wing was in its gable, and quite simple-a single window looked out to the south. There was no external door to the north wing, and it also had only one window to the east.

The blank wall of the eastern gable was relieved by stairs (with a balustrade) running diagonally across it-the ascent being from the south. Under cover of the widely projecting eave these steps gave access to a door leading to the garret, or rather loft-for it was lighted only by a single window to the north, and seemed to have been intended as a store-room….

The pillars of the piazza were enwreathed in jasmine and sweet honeysuckle; while from the angle formed by the main structure and its west wing, in front, sprang a grape-vine of unexampled luxuriance. Scorning all restraint, it had clambered first to the lower roof-then to the higher; and along the ridge of this latter it continued to writhe on, throwing out tendrils to the right and left, until at length it fairly attained the east gable, and fell trailing over the stairs.

The whole house, with its wings, was constructed of the old-fashioned Dutch shingles-broad, and with unrounded corners. It is a peculiarity of this material to give houses built of it the appearance of being wider at bottom than at top-after the manner of Egyptian architecture; and in the present instance, this exceedingly picturesque effect was aided by numerous pots of gorgeous flowers that almost encompassed the base of the buildings.

Despite the patoral setting, it seems clear that Landor’s cottage is an idealized vision of Poe’s own Fordham residence. Beyond the formal resemblance, the interior layout of Landor’s cottage, described briefly by the narrator, is very similar to Poe’s cottage, with a kitchen, main room and bedroom on the first floor. Poe ends his architectural fiction by noting that another article may elaborate on the events that transpired at Landor’s cottage. Had he not died, perhaps we might have discovered more about the kind but enigmatic residence and his picturesque cottage.

Read the full article at Smithsonian

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Architecture

The Abandoned Cathedral

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We were sketching outside the Eglise Sacré-Cœur de Casablanca when a small man slowly shuffled out of the strange, Deco-Gothic structure and gestured for us to come inside. How could we resist? We stepped through the enormous cathedral door and our host smiled wide, saying in hesitant English, “a church with no chairs,” before disappearing. It was a profound sentiment but one I think probably sounds more poetic in arabic.

We slowly strolled down the empty nave, letting ourselves feel the full scale of the vaulted space and looking up at the surprisingly secular stained glass windows, which depicted the flags of every nation. We felt compelled to speak in whispers, telling each other tales of the abandoned cathedral and its protector. Maybe he was a homeless man who, only seeking shelter, was inspired to become the guardian of this forgotten space? Perhaps he was a priest unable to abandon his church though his congregation had long ago disappeared? A human relic and this his reliquary? Was there ever a congregation? Or was this just some mad architect’s folly?

A strange humming filled the cathedral, a constant white noise. At first we assumed it was the wind, but outside all was still. Not a leaf was rustling in Casablanca. Suddenly a pigeon flew down from the rafters. Another glided across the nave. Dozens of others followed and we realized that the noise we heard was an endless echo of coos and fluttering wings. The cathedral was filled with a perpetual avian hymn. Inspired to contribute my own verse, I whistled the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The abandoned cathedral repeated the tune in medley and the echo hung in the air for an impossibly long time. Surprised by the response, I laughed a true, honest laugh and the cathedral laughed with me.

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At the conclusion of our service, we climbed the narrow, spiraling stairwell leading to the top of the church’s tower. It was the first time in years that I felt really scared. The stairs were bordered on one side by enormous unobstructed air vents designed to release the sound of ringing bells, and on the other by a very low railing that looked—and smelled!—like it was built from pigeon shit. There was very little separating us from a very, very long fall. What’s more, every turn brought some unexpected hazard – a kit of surprised pigeons flying past our heads, some twisted rebar, or a giant hole in the floor. We walked slowly. Halfway up, we stepped through an empty doorway and onto the roof of the church, standing eye-to-eye with the top of its buttresses before continuing our dangerous trek up to its bell tower. Finally, the stairs led through another empty door and suddenly we were blinded by the blue sky and radiant white city. There were no guards, no railings, and no tourists. It was just the two of us and Casablanca. In the distance, the mosque and the ocean beyond. I stuck to the wall for a few minutes, afraid some misfiring synapse might compel me to leap over the edge. As my nerves faded, I felt exuberant and kissed her at the edge of the world and started laughing again. There was no echo this time, just the sound of ringing joy calling out to all parishioners.

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Architecture

The Architecture of Assassination

 

Texas Schoolbook Depository Dallas

The former Texas School Book Depository, now the Dallas County Administration Building (original image: Jim Bowen via Wikimedia commons)

On November 22, 1963, a pall was cast over the country that some people say we’ve never emerged from. It is thought to represent a loss of innocence, or at the very least, a loss of naiveté that forever changed the country in a profound way. But on a more local level, it also also changed Dallas’s Dealey Plaza – not physically, but symbolically and emotionally. It changed the meaning of the urban park.

Dealey Plaza

Study for a proposed civic Center in Dallas, Texas. Dealey Plaza at top right. (image: Dallas Public Library)

Dealey Plaza wasn’t always a symbol of loss or a sight of conspiracy. It was built in the late 1930s as a symbol of optimism, an Art Deco, automotive gateway into Dallas that was part of a larger, only partially realized Civic Center Plan designed by city engineers. Though parts of Dealey Plaza (named after an early publisher of the Dallas Morning News) are still quite beautiful, especially after a recent renovation by architects Good Fulton & Farrell, the area is forever marred by Kennedy’s assassination and visited by thousands of curious tourists each year hoping to get some insight into this particularly dark point in American history. Perhaps no other place in America has been as thoroughly documented, as exhaustively measured, mapped, modeled, photographed, and even acoustically tested.

Grassy Knoll

The ‘X’ painted in the center of Elm Street where Kennedy was sitting when he was killed. (original image: Bradipus via wikimedia commons)

A long time ago, on my own first trip to Dallas I was shocked to see a small ‘X’ painted in the road, marking the precise spot where Kennedy was sitting at the moment he was shot. At the time I thought it was an official monument but I’ve since learned that it is maintained by one of the conspiracy theorists who holds court near the assassination site. From the grassy knoll, you can see the X, the permanently open window on the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository building from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shot that killed the President. Along the perimeter of the plaza were vendors selling books, magazines and DVDs describing myriad conspiracy theories, some of which were elaborated on in posters and flyers. It seemed to me that Dealey Plaza had become a built manifestation of one of those obsessively assembled conspiracy maps that TV detectives inevitably find in the apartments of psychopaths. The only thing missing was string connecting everything together.

texas book depository

The book depository circa 1963. The giant Hertz sign that sat on the top of the building in 1963 was removed in 1978 because it was found to cause structural damage. The sign was dismantled, put into storage, and is being maintained by The Sixth Floor Museum, who recently restored the original Book Depository sign. (image: Mary Ferrell Foundation)

Every visitor to the plaza is drawn to the former Book Depository, a building that came close to becoming another casualty of Dealey Plaza. Originally erected in 1901 as a warehouse for the Chicago-based Rock island Plow Company, the seven-story brick building was built on the foundations of a previous structure that burned earlier that year. Its architect is unknown, but the masonry-constructed Romanesque building appropriately bears some resemblance to very early Chicago skyscrapers, exemplified by H.H. Richardson’s Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store and the work of Adler and Sullivan (which, though visually similar, was pioneering in its use of steel-frame construction). Rock Island owned the building until 1937, after which time it was sold and changed hands, housing a variety of tenants. By 1963 a tenant was in place in that would forever be associated with the building: the Texas School Book Depository.

texas book depository dallas

Interior of the Book Depository circa 1963 (image: Mary Ferrell Foundaiton

The Texas School Book Depository operated in the building for 7 years after the assassination, and after they moved out the building gradually fell into disrepair. For years after the assassination, there were those people who believed that the building should be razed, but the city wouldn’t grant demolition permits even as local politicians were doing everything they could to discourage further associations between the city and the assassination. Their efforts were, of course, in vain. The site was heavily visited throughout the 70s and there was intense curiosity about the building and the assassin’s perch.

In 1977 the building at 411 Elm Street was bought by Dallas County, renovated, and reopened in 1981 as the Dallas County Administration Building. But the sixth floor remained unoccupied. According to the National Register of Historic Places (pdf), which recognized the Dealey Plaza district in 1978, “it’s strong negative historical associates made it unsuitable for use as County offices.” Plus, there was already talk of opening some sort of museum to answer the questions of the many visitors while also preventing “the proliferation of private ventures” looking to capitalize on the area’s historic significance.

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The preserved sniper’s perch in The Sixth Floor Museum (image: courtesy The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza)

That wouldn’t happen until 1989 when The Sixth Floor Museum finally opened, restored and adapted under the general supervision of architects Eugene George and James Hendricks. A collaboration between Dallas County and the non-profit Dallas County Historical Foundation, the Sixth Floor Museum “chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.”

It is a way to partially transform the building from a place imbued with malice, regret and morbid curiosity, to a place of education, understanding… and morbid curiosity. The museum has been designed to maintain the integrity of the building and the feeling of the warehouse space, as well as the views out onto Dealey Plaza. Though no original evidence is on display, two areas–the sniper’s perch in the far southeast corner and the spot where the rifle was found–have been authentically restored to almost exactly the way they looked on November 22, 1963 using original photos and duplicate book boxes. These two areas are protected by glass walls, preserved as a piece of American history.

The assassination of President Kennedy charged the area with new meaning. Once nothing more than an ambitious piece of urban planning, Dealey Plaza and the former Book Depository building now make up the most famous crime scene in America. 50 years later it remains a symbol of a national tragedy and the failure of one of the world s greatest powers to to protect its leader. To close, this excerpt from the National Register of Historic Places seemed quite apt.

“Dictators and emperors have leveled cities and sown their ground with salt for acts of regicide. But a democracy may [face] a harder test. It may encourage the preservation of sites of pain and horror, as well as triumph and grandeur. Dealey Plaza’s sad fate is to have the former far outweigh the latter.”

 

This article originally appeared on Smithsonian.com 

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Architecture

Design Decoded: The Daring Escape From the Eastern State Penitentiary

“How 12 convicts escaped by tunnel from Eastern Penitentiary,” Diagram of the Tunnel published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, April 3, 1945 (image: Philadelphia Inquirer via Easter State Penitentiary)

Eastern State Penitentiary opened its gates in 1829. It was devised by The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, an organization of powerful Philadelphia residents that counted Benjamin Franklin among its members and whose ambition was to “build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart.” With its hub-and-spoke design of long blocks containing individual prison cells, ESP could be considered the first modern prison. There are many, many stories told about the prisoners that have been incarcerated here over its nearly 150 years of operation–some inspiring, some horrible, some about Al Capone–but none of them have captivated the public more than the 1945 “Willie Sutton” tunnel escape.

Photo of Willie Sutton’s in 1934; a photo taken mere minutes after his escape in 1945; Sutton’s post-escape mug shot; the wanted poster issued after Sutton’s escape from Holmesburg. At the time he was one of the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives (image: Eastern State Penitentiary)

The most famous escape in the history of Eastern State Penitentiary was the work of 12 men – they were like the Dirty Dozen, but less well adjusted. The most infamous among them was Willie Sutton aka “Slick Willie” aka Willie “The Actor” aka “The Gentleman Bandit” aka “The Babe Ruth of bank robbers,” who was sentenced to Eastern State Penitentiary in 1934 for the brazen machine gun robbery of the Corn Exchange Bank in Philadelphia. Those nicknames alone tell you everything you need to know about Willie Sutton. He was, by all accounts (especially his own), exactly what you want a old-timey bank robber to be: charming, devious, a master of disguise, and of course, an accomplished escape artist, who in 11 years at ESP, made at least five escape attempts. Sutton’s outspoken nature and braggadocio landed him a few stories in Life magazine and even a book deal. In his 1953 autobiography Where the Money Was, Sutton takes full credit as the mastermind behind the tunnel operation.

Clarence Klinedinst in the center (image: Temple University Archives via Eastern State Penitentiary)

Though the personable Sutton may have been critical in managing the mercurial tempers of his fellow escapees, the truth is that the escape was planned and largely executed by Clarence “Kliney” Klinedinst, a plasterer, stone mason, burglar, and forger who looked a little like a young Frank Sinatra and had a reputation as a first-rate prison scavenger. “If you gave Kliney two weeks, he could get you Ava Gardner,” said Sutton. And If you give Kliney a year, he could get you out of prison.

The entry to the escape tunnel, excavated by a team of archaeologists and researches in 2005.

Working in two-man teams of 30 minute shifts, the tunnel crew, using spoons and flattened cans as shovels and picks, slowly dug a 31-inch opening through the wall of cell 68, then dug twelve feet straight down into the ground, and another 100 feet out beyond the walls of the prison. They removed dirt by concealing it in their pockets and scattering it in the yard a la The Great Escape. Also like The Great Escape, the ESP tunnel was shored up with scaffolding, illuminated, and even ventilated. At about the halfway point, it linked up with the prison’s brick sewer system and the crew created an operable connection between the two pipelines to deposit their waste while ensuring that noxious fumes were kept out of the tunnel. It was an impressive work of subversive, subterranean engineering, the likes of which can only emerge from desperation. As a testament to either clever design or the ineptitude of the guards, the tunnel escaped inspection several times thanks to a false panel Kliney treated to match the plaster walls of the cell and concealed by a metal waste basket.

After months of painfully slow labor, the tunnel was ready. On the morning (yes, the morning) of April 3, 1945, the dirtier dozen made their escape, sneaking off to cell 68 on their way to breakfast.

Two of the escapees, including Sutton (at left), are returned to Eastern after mere minutes of freedom. (image: Eastern State Penitentiary)

Like most designers, Kliney and co. found that the work far outweighed the reward. After all that designing, carving, digging, and building, Kliney made it a whole three hours before getting caught. But that was better than Sutton, who was free for only about three minutes. By the end of the day, half the escapees were returned to prison while the rest were caught within a couple months. Sutton recalls the escape attempt in Where the Money Was:

“One by one the men lowered themselves to the tunnel, and on hands and knees crept the hundred and twenty feet to its end. The remaining two feet of earth were scraped away and men rumbled from the hole to scurry in all directions. I leaped from the hole, began to run, and came face to face with two policemen. They stood for a moment, paralyzed with amazement. I was soaking wet and my face was covered with mud.

“Put up your hands or I’ll shoot.” One of them recovered more quickly than the other.

“Go ahead, shoot,” I snarled at them, and at that moment I honestly hoped he would. Then I wheeled and began to run. He emptied his gun at me, but I wasn’t hit….None of the bullets hit me, but they did make me swerve, and in swerving I tripped, fell, and they had me.”

The first few escapees to be captured, Sutton among them, were put in the Klondikes – illegal, completely dark, solitary confinement cells secretly built by guards in the mechanical space below one of the cell blocks. These spaces are miserable, tiny holes that aren’t big enough to stand up or wide enough to lie down. Sutton was eventually transferred to the “escape proof” Holmesburg Prison, from which he promptly escaped and managed to avoid the law for six years. Police eventually caught up with him in Brooklyn after a witness saw him on the subway and recognized his mug from the wanted poster.

The map of the 1945 tunnel made by guard Cecil Ingling. In his larger-than-life account of the escape, Sutton claimed the tunnel went 30-feet down. “I knew that the prison wall itself extended 25 feet beneath the surface of the ground and that it was fourteen feet thick at the base.” Clearly, that wasn’t the case. (image: Eastern State Penitentiary)

As for the tunnel, after it was analyzed and mapped, guards filled it with ash and covered it with cement. Though it may have been erased from the prison, its legend likely inspired inmates until Eastern State Penitentiary was closed in 1971. And despite the failure of the escapees, the tunnel has continued to intrigue the public.

Archaeologists use ground-penetrating radar and an auger to detect the remains of the 1945 tunnel on the occasion of its 60th anniversary. (images: Digging in the City of Brotherly Love)

The location of the tunnel was lost until 2005, when the Eastern State Penitentiary, now a non-profit dedicated to preserving the landmarked prison, completed an archaeological survey to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the escape. To find the tunnel, the prison escape preservationists created a search grid over the prison grounds near the entrance, the location of which was known from old photos. Using ground penetrating radar, the team was able to create vertical sections though the site in increments corresponding to the suspected width of the tunnel. After a couple failed attempts, the archaeologists detected a section of the tunnel that hadn’t collapsed and hadn’t been filled-in by the guards. The following year, a robotic rover was sent through the tunnels, documenting its scaffolding and lighting systems. While no major discoveries were made, curiosity was sated and the public’s imagination was newly ignited  by  stories of the prison and its inmates.

There’s something undeniably romantic about prison escapes – perhaps due to the prevalence of films where the escapee is the hero and/or the pure ingenuity involved in a prison escape. The best escape films –A Man Escaped, La Grande Illusion, Escape from Alcatraz, The Great Escape, to name just a few–show us every step of the elaborate plan as the rag tag team of diggers, scavengers, and ersatz engineers steal, forge, design, and dig their way to freedom. Without fail, the David vs. Goliath narrative has us rooting for the underdog every step of the way, even when the David is a bank robber.

The article originally appeared on Design Decoded.

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