There have been five moments in my life that qualify as “optimal.” I’m happy to report having been present and conscious at all five of them. Lacking the ability to have borne a child, I can only imagine what that is like; these may have been similar.
I’m embarrassed to admit that each of these was a lecture, which certainly says a great deal about me that is not flattering. The first was in 1988 at a convention of architectural historians in Washington DC. I presented my research on Frank Lloyd Wright’s so-called “textile block” construction system developed in the 1920s for that series of block houses in greater Los Angeles beginning with La Miniatura for the widowed Alice Millard. My scholarship has improved since then, but it was a good paper, well received and suitable for publication. Then again, you know me: always a day late and more than a dollar short. My research has never been published.
Number Two was another SAH conference a few years later. This time it was Cincinnati and my friend Richard Kenyon had driven out to attend and then travel a bit when the conference was over. My topic was the so-called Akron Plan, which is too complicated to explain here in any detail. Suffice to say it also has something to do with innovation (like the Wright block system) and the paper was even better received. Margaret Henderson Floyd—don’t you know someone with a name like that actually amounts to something—rushed forward at the end of my session, thrust a card in my face, asked for a copy of the paper and thanked me for explaining something that had eluded her: a simple and orderly treatment of the complicated issues involved in the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon. Dr Floyd was working on a book about Longfellow, Alden & Harlow, an architectural firm in Pittsburgh who spun off from H. H. Richardson’s office and designed a number of churches in greater Pittsburgh that bear the Akron stamp. I am acknowledged in her book.
The third optimal moment happened in Madison, Wisconsin, which hosted a “Breaking New Ground” conference co-sponsored by the state historical societies of Wisconsin and Minnesota. The paper at Madison was indelicately titled “Who was Albert Levering and why are they saying those terrible things about him?” Ask me about it some time and I’ll give you a synopsis. Suffice to say there were three people in the audience who mattered to me: Peter Vandervort and Steve and Joanna Martens. Mine was the last paper of the session, so it surprised me when people arrived rather than left just before I began my presentation. Despite running at least ten minutes overtime, I got rousing applause. Later Steve said he’d regretted not bring a tape recorder; it was by his estimation perhaps the best presentation I’d ever made. No notes. Without a net, as they say in the circus.
Number Four was the opening of the first Agincourt exhibit, on 25 October 2007. It was a Thursday night—a school night—but the Rourke Art Museum was packed with an estimated 200 people wondering why the hell a town in Iowa had decided to celebrate its sesqui-centennial in Moorhead, Minnesota. We didn’t have the heart to tell them. I dragged myself into that event but floated out on a wave of good feeling that I have yet to experience again. World premiers of musical commissions will do that to you.
And the last was over a year ago, again at the Rourke in Moorhead: the first public showing of my antique architectural drawings collection. The members’ opening on Friday night was OK. But those who attended the public opening and lecture on Sunday afternoon—despite the smallish turnout—were eager to hear the stories that each of these drawings tell. I did my best to satisfy them. And though I knew most of the folks in the audience, it was to a handful of close friends that I spoke. One of them—a recent graduate of our program and a friend, I am pleased to say—thought it may have been the best public presentation of mine that he’s ever heard. Why does no one ever have a tape recorder when you need one?
The bottom line here is that I am a lucky man. I have a brain. I have insatiable curiosity. I have good research skills and the investigative grip of a pit bull. And I’m a showman the likes of Ed Sullivan, for crysake. In sixty-seven years, I should count myself fortunate to have had five such moments—and to have had them in the presence of people I love, who are kind enough to tell me it was good and honest enough to tell me when it wasn’t, is more than anyone can ask in one life.
So now let me rethink that childbirth thing. Perhaps I do understand what birth mothers are talking about after all.
PostScript: My friends in attendance: Richard Kenyon (3 out of five); Peter Vandervort (3 out of 5); Steve & Joanna (2 out of 5); Jeremiah Johnson and Dan Salyards (2 of 5). I appreciate and, in fact, count on their support. What I also note with interest is who was not at some of these events, when they certainly could have been.