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Going against the grain

At least in towns of modest to moderate size, there is a grain, a texture, that grew from some unspoken guidelines or conditions which everyone knew and accepted. Sure, you may be able to find examples where this is untrue now and may never have been. But I think they will prove my point. Today when we insert new elements into existing fabric, or try to reconstruct significant portions of the inner city that has been lost through accident, ignorance or malice, the results are not always what we would have hoped. Often those attempts are feeble if not outright failures. I won’t identify examples, but some are fairly close at hand where I sit writing this entry.

IAonawaLumber

Perhaps that’s why I like this example: an aerial view of the CBD of Onawa, Iowa, a small town along the Missouri River where I’ve stopped before to photograph an especially nice Carnegie library. At first I was attracted by the Bowman Lumber Co., simply because that sort of building is often overlooked by traveling photographers who represent postcard production companies. [More about the business of postcards another time, if you’re interested.] Then I looked at the textures of buildings along main street in the distance: their Queen Anne fronts and Mary Anne behinds, as Pete Seeger the folksinger used to say:

When great grandfather was a gay young man
And great grandmother was his bride
They found a lot, a jolly little spot
Over on the old North Side

It sloped down toward the river
From River Avenue
Great grandma said that it would give her
Such a lovely view

So they took a look in Godey’s Ladies book
To see what they could find
And they found a house, a jolly little house
With a Queen Anne front and a Mary Anne behind

Now great grandfather was a handy man
Who never wasted any time
He found a crew that knew just what to do
With white pine, common brick and lime

He said, “I’ll build a big veranda
Where Amanda can perch
And I’ll sit there myself on Sunday mornings
When everybody else has gone to church”

The neighbors said, “He’s crazy in the head
He’s surely lost his mind
But he built that house, that jolly little house
With a Queen Anne front and a Mary Anne behind”

Now great grandpa at last was laid to rest
With great grandmother at his side
Old Aunt Amanda said, “My land
An empty house I can’t abide”

“I’ll start a ladies’ seminary
It will be very select
Of course, it will be very necessary
That all my girls be circumspect”

As you may guess it was a big success
Those girls were so refined
In that self-same house, that jolly little house
With a Queen Anne front and a Mary Anne behind

Now aunt Amanda’s work at last was done
And she passed on to her reward
Appeared a sign that bore the line
Announcing simply, ‘Room and Board’

The house was soon filled
With roomers of every degree
Red flannel underwear and bloomers
Hung out for everyone to see

The old porch stoop had started in to droop
The house looked so resigned
That self-same house, that jolly little house
With a Queen Anne front and a Mary Anne behind

Now that old house was looking worse and worse
And so was River Avenue
Wooden shacks across the tracks
Spoiled great grandma’s lovely view

A group of very pretty ladies moved in there one day
They were such pretty Sues and Sadie’s
But a wagon came and took them all away

Said one old dame, “Now isn’t it a shame
My girls were so refined
But they closed that house, that jolly little house
With a Queen Anne front and a Mary Anne behind”

I just thought you should know.


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