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Research as Refuge



The phone rang Sunday morning. I got nervous as an unfamiliar voice asked if this was the Ronald Ramsay who is an architectural historian. “Now and then,” I hedged. What followed was forty-five minutes of back and forth on a topic of mutual interest: William Halsey Wood. She is an art historian retired from teaching; I can’t afford to retire (for, oh, so many reasons). We are both from Chicago. We were born within four months of each other. But the meaningful link between us is a passion for an American architect unjustly overlooked by history.

Between us, Gayle and I have visited nearly all of Wood’s surviving buildings — of those that are known. She was impressed that the list of Wood’s buildings has grown from thirty-five (in a 1971 master’s thesis) to more than 105, three times as many, on my WHW blog. We discussed the revolution in on-line resources: OCR-readable databases, the Google Books project, genealogical records, and  newspapers. It’s been a research revolution.

After farewells and promises to stay in touch, possibly even collaborate, I took a step back from my interest in Halsey Wood and considered this project as one of many during my academic life. What they have in common, I realized, is research, the addictive quest for information. The accumulation of information, much of it fairly ordinary stuff, gives me greater satisfaction — outright joy — than anything else I’ve experienced, with the possible exception of the classroom.

Research as Refuge

Frankly, I’m not very well equipped for life. Like Lemony Snicket, mine has been a series of unfortunate events. Humankind makes very little, if any, sense to me. Current events bear that out — in spades. From the ballot box to Aleppo, my fellow creatures mystify beyond the point of disbelief. And when those realities overwhelm me, I seek refuge in my very private world of research.

Actually, research and one other activity, sudoku, exist in ordered, predictable worlds; sudoku because numbers behave, and research in architectural history because questions beget either answers or consequent questions. In both cases, the journey is rewarding for a Capricorn devoted to finding order in what appears to be chaos.

The questions are basic and the sources constitute ground I’ve ploughed for fifty years, and during that time I’ve learned two things: 1) the trick is asking the right question and phrasing it properly, and 2) responses aren’t always “answers” while the actual answers frequently come from left field. Well developed radial vision is no bad thing. Patience is a virtue. I prefer to think of it as an exceptionally long attention span.

I work at an institution where not having a PhD is tantamount to second-class citizenship: if we were the good ship HMS Higher Ed, I’d be traveling in steerage (for those unacquainted with the term, it means below the water line). Which makes all the more pleasurable those cases where street smarts have served me well. I think of:

  • An internationally-renowned architectural historian (now deceased) who wrote of an architectural drawing by H.H. Richardson as illustrating a building for an unknown location—yet a street adjacent to the plan is clearly labeled “Kneeland”, which is indeed a street in Boston fronting a now-demolished Richardson building.
  • Or another HHR drawing in the archival file of a Boston project; the drawing must be an early scheme for the project, because it is “inexplicably” reversed, when that drawing is clearly, to anyone with the skill to read an architectural rendering, the plan of a Richardson building in Washington, DC. The inexplicability is easily dismissed: Richardson sent his Boston client the plan of a recent project in DC to see if its organization might suit the Boston client’s needs.
  • Or a Frank Lloyd Wright perspective drawing in the archival file for a series of spec houses that seems to be of an earlier iteration, when it is, in fact, the perspective of another project illustrated four pages later in the same book.
  • Or the snooty bitch who refused to believe that “Methodist Episcopal” and “Protestant Episcopal” are not interchangeable among American religious denominations of the early 20th century.
  • Or the PhD candidate who transcribed a handwritten letter from someone identified as “Rufsell”, when the “fs” ligature in 18th century orthography continued to be used throughout the 19th century as a convention for double-S, even in printed documents.; an extreme case would be the word “pofsefsion”. Hence the name should have been read as “Russell”.long-s-us-bill-of-rights
  • Or the Frank Lloyd Wright scholar who wrote that nothing would be known about a client until considerable additional research was done; when actually it took twenty minutes to identify the client and print off ten pages of detailed biography about him. Some people are just goddam lazy.
  • Or the same FLlW scholar who doesn’t know what the fuck a drawing for a U.S. Patent looks like.
  • Ask me about Gabriel Spat some time.

Do I sound bitter?

The point is that there is one thing I am exceptionally good at — research — and another at which I am constitutionally impotent: writing. Has the time long since passed for the tiger to change his stripes?


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