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Synecdoche 2.1


The only significant difference between me and the students I engage each day is this: there are more cards on my rolodex. Pardon the antique metaphor. (I thought the last of that desktop detritus had found its way to the Smithsonian, but the other day I saw a computer version where virtual cards rotate on the screen; how tenaciously we cling to the familiar!) The forty years of experience that separate me from twenty-somethings may have added information and experience to who I am, but they have also burdened me with preconception and prejudice. I take care to distinguish among them and draw from my better self.


Photograph courtesy of Mr Peter Atwood

This Arts & Crafts window wants a home, and that home can only grow from the cards on my rolodex. Its gentle horizontality; the circular vignette of landscape; its asymmetry fit with my experience of smaller residential work in the U.S. during the gaggle of years surrounding the First World War. They probably account for my attraction to it. But first things first: I need a client. Perhaps it was the link I had made between “synecdoche” and my grade-school education that offered someone: this will be a teacher’s home, and the teacher will be a woman.

Folks of my generation were taught by what I call secular nuns. Teaching was a profession of women, and they were largely unmarried; I was in the seventh grade before I saw a man at the head of the classroom. So my education came from misses: Hletko, Rapp, Piancimino, Piper, Spellman, among others; we had not yet imagined “Ms.” Early in life they had chosen career over marriage, and that career could only have been teaching, nursing or God (though, technically, that last choice does involve a wedding). So my client is a composite of those wonderful women who had helped me learn to think. Let’s call her Rose.

The moment I saw this window, it suggested the work of a Chicago-area architect whose work has fascinated me for many years: Lawrence Buck. Because this teacherage would be small, I recalled two of Buck’s smallest houses–one for himself in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago (demolished) and the other extant in suburban Oak Park; both date from around 1910. These would be my models. Coincidentally, the Oak Park home had been built for a teacher–Miss Rose Kavana (interesting variation of the more usual Kavanaugh)–so now I had my client’s full name: Rose Kavanaugh. Her home would be no more than a block from Darwin School in Agincourt’s northwest quadrant.

There are certain defaults in Lawrence Buck’s houses: asymmetry, compactness, stucco-on-frame construction, clustered windows with small pent eaves, passive solar orientation. I can recognize his work at five hundred feet from a moving car in a snowstorm. In fact, I did just that in Rockford, Illinois, several years ago (minus the snowstorm) driving through with my friend Richard Kenyon. So Miss Kavanaugh’s home came to me quickly. And her window will soon have an outlook: beside the front entry, so she can glimpse her guests and anticipate their welcome. I imagine myself standing there, age twelve, with gratitude for the gift of her teaching.


First design of the Kavanaugh cottage.

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