Home » A few figs from thistles » Architecture is always better than it looks

Architecture is always better than it looks

…and more important, too. My life-long love affair with architecture taught me ages past that buildings are better than they appear–and far closer than they may seem in rear-view mirrors.

A visit (dare I say pilgrimage) to LeCorbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp in the foothills of the French Alps demonstrated the multi-sensory nature of architecture in skilled hands: I discovered a building known only through still images that demanded my total participation for its fullest enjoyment and appreciation. I’ve rambled on at great length elsewhere about the role of time and the five senses required by Ronchamp’s designer, the Swiss-French architect LeCorbusier (a.k.a. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris). [A prospective faculty member once gave a lecture during her interview and also proved that it is, indeed, possible to come away from Ronchamp with only the dimmest and most superficial understanding, so my own visit had taught me about both architecture and myself.]

Howard is engaged with is own forensic encounter just now–restoration of the Wasserman Block–and wants to share his own observations about a building more beloved than its appearance might seem to warrant.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Meier and Son and Son and Son

Restoring an old building to productive life is infinitely more rewarding as an investment of sweat equity.

We could, I suppose, have got a bigger construction loan and hired out all the labor, but Rowan and I would have missed all those hours of therapeutic stripping, scraping and spackling each evening and weekend for the past six months. Quite aside from such intimacies, we’d also have learned nothing of the building’s narrative, its story.

We’ve taken special pains with Rooms 205-207, a five-room suite half way down the second floor corridor but substantially different from the clusters on either side. Not only did it bear the stamp of its architect-occupant, that architect was my great-uncle Anson Tennant.

a.c.tennant architect

That’s what the small print says in stained glass in the office door (recently restored by our friend Dan Salyards). But, carefully removed form its frame (the upper panel of a Dutch door), we also found the carpenters names who had built and installed it. Mr Salyards has signed and dated his restoration of the window, just as Meier & Sons had branded their work ninety-nine years earlier. We should all take such pride in our labors.

I didn’t recognize the names, so a 1910 city directory satisfied my curiosity, if only just enough to want more information. The Plantagenet archives yielded more information and led me to a family descendant.

John Meier & Sons were listed in 1910 as both contractors and carpenters with their shop on the southwest side of Agincourt in the old Syndicate Mill. Scattered news items and occasional obituaries offered the identities of other family members and ultimately brought me to Beverly Brandt, John Meier’s granddaughter and, it turns out, a near-neighbor at Sturm und Drang. Small world. Beverly lives in Sioux city, so our paths have only crossed at the lakes’ general store, provisioning for the weekends.

Names and dates are useful but good and worthwhile history always has a face. Beverly gave me a postcard view of her ancestors and another example of their work: the whole crew building a house circa 1910.

Child-labor

In the dining room window is John Meier himself and standing just outside is his father-in-law Jacob Weise. On the scaffolding above are son-in-law Michael Schutz (part of the Schutz clan who built the original Saint Ahab’s, I’m guessing) and John Meier Jr. While up in the dormer are two younger Meier children, Henry and Rolf. Michael Schutz’s younger brother stands at the right of the house with Joseph Connaway, an employee not (yet) married into the family business. This corporate portrait is rounded out with its motive power, two horses named Sally and Gert.

Looking at this job site I had to believe OSHA would have shut them down in a heartbeat. And though the photo is undated, the two boys in the gable cannot be more than fifteen and probably violating some child labor law, now if not then. Life has changed since this innocent photograph was taken a hundred or so years ago, and for some much more than others. What strikes me here is the image of an era where both kinship and pride matter; stable relationships grounded in community and concerned with the quality of work and good repute.

Saturday I went shopping for socks (a preoccupation of mine) and was astonished how difficult it was to find 100% cotton socks, American-made and branded with a family name. I found them—Cabot & Sons of Northfield, Vermont—and rewarded all concerned with my custom: me, because they look and feel so good; deBijenkorf’s Department Store for stocking them; and Ric Cabot, their manufacturer, for holding fast to tradition in tough economic times. Kudos to us all.

Now I wonder what’s become of Meier & Sons.


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