Monday, November 30, 2015

Roan Mountain

Back in June, I spent about ten days down in the Smoky Mountains. My old friend RD, whom longtime readers of this blog will recognize from many posts but especially the summer of 2014 saga in the Hundred Miles Wilderness, was along again, even joining me for the drive south from Washington, DC. I enjoyed introducing my friend to the Bible Belt.

Someone has seen a bear. I have never seen RD get as angry as he did on these occasions.
Unfortunately, our initial plan to do a substantial backpack in the southeast part of Great Smokies National Park was stymied by bear activity. Rumor had it that one had mauled someone sleeping in a hammock tent. Whatever the truth, many of the campsites we had planned to use were closed. Ultimately, we decided to do a series of day hikes, with one overnight on top of Gregory Bald. So we did see a great deal of the park, but we never got too far from the road, which was unfortunate because we shared it with a great many Southerners who were very, very excited about seeing bears from their cars.

Flame Azalea.
Morning tea on Gregory Bald.
Several memories in particular stick with me I fumble toward another winter solstice – the bright red azalea blooms on top of Gregory Bald (they're actually called Flame Azaleas), roaring streams roofed by enormous rhododendron in full flower, and a sense of the deep human history and isolation that still characterizes a few pockets of these southern Appalachians. RD and I also spent a two very enjoyable nights in Asheville, ending, as all good trips should, with a deep and broad exploration of local beers.

Great trail name. 
Rhododendron, but from the National Park, not Roan Mountain.
By far the most spectacular day, both in terms of weather and terrain, was on Roan Mountain. This long ridge, which Wikipedia optimistically describes as a massif, initially caught my attention because a nearby state park hosts a Rhododendron festival in late June, precisely when we hoped to visit. In fact, our arrival coincided with its first day. We enjoyed looking at souped-up birdhouses and snacking on onion rings, but there was no trace of the flower the occasion was designed to honor. Instead, we drove to see it up on the mountain ridge itself, where an extensive alpine “garden” is accessed via parking lots and concrete wheelchair-accessible paths. The dark pink blossoms of the flowers were lovely, however, and with their twisted, gnarled branches and the heavy fog all around us they seemed exotic indeed. 

One of the Roan Mountain locals.
Roan Mountain also has the longest stretch of “grassy bald” terrain on the Appalachian Trail, running for about four unbroken miles. I hadn’t hiked on this kind of terrain before and so will provide a brief explanation. Various southern peaks are trees near their summits, but it is inaccurate to refer to them as being “above treeline” because climatic forces did not create the grassy balds. In fact, it’s not quite clear why they exist. Weather may play a role, but fire, grazing, and human agency are also likely factors. One source I read speculated that wooly mammoths used to congregate near these peaks, munching on their rich pasture.

This fence keeps cattle off of the balds.
In any case, unlike the northern peaks on the AT, balds have good topsoil, making the hiking easy and pleasant. The views are wonderful, and lovely grasses and shrubs line the path. I didn’t have a guide to the flora and fauna, but it would be a marvelous place to botanize.

Our day actually began at the Mountain Harbor Hostel, a welcoming spot where, for a modest fee, we could pitch our tent and have access to the bathrooms in the morning. Catering mostly to hikers, including a great many folks who are on the AT for long haul, the place is surprisingly well-known for its breakfast, which was indeed enormous and excellent quality. No oatmeal for us that morning. We also caught a shuttle ride to our trailhead, up at Carver’s  Pass, near the rhododendron garden we had visited the previous day. Encounters with paved roads are depressingly frequent in the southern Appalachians, at least along the AT, but they can be convenient.

Might as well be Scotland.
The trail began quite near the top of one of the balds, from which we proceeded southwest over Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald, gradually worked out way back to the hostel. People along the trail were friendly. We spoke to a mountain steward about some of the local plants, a dad and his daughter out for a hike with his new girlfriend, and a former thru-hiker who vividly remembered New Hampshire granite. We also came across a group of SCA volunteers mowing blackberry bushes. If succession gets too far, trees will replace these bushes and the balds will be lost. I’m glad the local environmental group does not possess a Manichean view of conservation. In fact, the bucolic nature of landscape was one its great charms, though development, in the form of ridgeline trophy houses, is having a distressing impact on the views.

Hard work...

...with a long ways to go.
We covered the 15 or so miles a lot faster than I expected, especially for the first day of the trip (subsequent ascents were considerably more challenging for yours truly). We picked up the car early enough so that we could explore some back roads on the drive to Asheville, coming across an old tourist village called Little Switzerland. 

Not a bad day.

Friday, August 7, 2015

William West Durant and his Adirondack Camps

The main lodge at Camp Pine Knot.
William West Durant was no choir boy. Despite being born into great wealth and receiving a fine education in England and Germany, he cheated his sister out of her share of the family fortune. She sued him, but by the time she won, he was so far in debt that nothing remained for her. Married to the daughter of old family friends, he philandered shamelessly until he and his wife divorced (he remarried, more happily, later on). His personal charm and family connections gained him the favor of several wealthy patrons. He relied on these men, some of whom remain household names today, to bail him out of debt many times over.

William West Durant in 1884.
And yet, Durant’s legacy as the supervisor of a new style of architecture still reverberates, at least in the north woods. His father, Dr. Thomas Durant, a key player in the Credit Mobilier scandal that deeply tainted the Grant Administration, was one of the builders of the Transcontinental Railroad. The elder Durant had purchased land in the Adirondacks to aid the construction of a rail line from Saratoga to the St. Lawrence River, but when the Panic of 1873 ruined the project’s financing, he was left with hundreds of thousands of acres. He put his son in charge of developing tourism for the area, presumably to raise the value of land so that it could be sold off. Over the next fifteen years, the younger Durant developed a rustic architecture that uniquely mediates between the city and the wilderness.

Long Lake, only a short seaplane ride from Camp Pine Knot.
In early July, I attended a week-long NEH workshop that allowed me to observe Durant’s designs close at hand, as well as consider the meaning and consequences of such architecture. We bunked at Camp Huntington, known as Camp Pine Knot until Collis Huntington, another railroad financier and a longtime Durant patron, bought the place in 1890, in part to relieve a portion of Durant’s debts. Each of the three camps that we examined – Camp Pine Knot, Camp Sagamore, and Camp Uncas – bear striking similarities, but it is possible to discern an evolution in Durant’s ideas about what constitutes a pleasant woodland retreat.

The era in which Durant built was one of rapid change, economic and social. Industrialism had created great fortunes for the Gilded Age elite, while cities grew crowded, noisy, and dirty. They were particularly objectionable in the summer; imagine the stench of horse manure rotting profusely in the streets. Moreover, attitudes about masculinity had shifted from favoring Victorian restraint to stress more aggressive character development, especially through outdoor recreation. Teddy Roosevelt’s exhortations on behalf of “the strenuous life” embody this new approach. Remarkably, concerns about deforestation, erosion, and violent flood and drought cycles, as well as a growing appreciation for the value of wilderness, convinced the New York State legislature to preserve the Adirondack region as “forever wild” in its revisions to the state constitution in 1885. Formerly inaccessible due to their rugged and remote terrain, the Adirondacks could now be reached in a day via railway, steamboat, and stagecoach from New York – and they beckoned to those with the money, drive, and leisure to reach them.

Thus Durant built in an era both dynamic and anxious, and his edifices reveal a great deal about how he and his patrons felt about these substantial societal challenges.

Sagamore Lake.
First of all, Durant intended his camps to be fun and restful refuges. Pine Knot is on Raquette Lake, a large, still lightly developed lake that must have been nearly pristine in Durant’s time. Uncas and Sagamore are built on their own ponds, entirely subsumed within the larger Durant properties. They remain the sole developments on the lakes, totally secluded. Much of the Sagamore property was subsequently given to New York State in the mid-twentieth century (after a stint of ownership by Syracuse University), but the constitution’s forever wild clause ensures that the view will remain pristine.

A bed at Camp Pine Knot.
Save for the chimneys, foundations, and various iron fittings, the structures are all made of wood, often embellished with birch bark and furniture fashioned from unmilled branches. The effect is rustic and elegant. Early on, Durant’s builders worked with whole logs, but eventually, they began to add log siding with milled lumber so that walls could be more efficiently built while retaining their rough character. Some structures, especially communal spaces for dining and entertainment, feature extensive glass windows, which had to be painstakingly carried by hand for the better part of a day from the nearest railroad depot. Foreshadowing a favorite strategy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, Durant made sleeping quarters small, encouraging people to gather in larger spaces. They also needed to go outside to reach larger dining or recreational buildings. Consequently, the camps feel more like a village than a country manor in the style of the Biltmore Estate or mansions at Newport. The overall effect is one of close contact and interaction with nature.

The original dining room at Camp Pine Knot. Note how close the lake is.
From the outside.
Durant included this breezeway at Camp Pine Knot, but he generally avoided using them because they allowed fires to spread between buildings.
In contrast to architects who designed more opulent Gilded Age resorts, Durant took great pains to nestle his buildings within the larger forest environment. Neither Pine Knot nor Uncas has unrestricted views of the water; instead, they are mostly hidden in the woods, painted in dark browns and greens to blend in (Sagamore is a different story, and I’ll get to that). Durant may have operated under a different set of ethics than his peers in New York City in this rustic setting – or maybe he wanted the understated layout to make it appear that he and his patrons eschewed ostentatious displays of wealth, much as a tech mogul today might enjoy being photographed in a t-shirt and jeans.

Bowling alley exterior.
The lanes.
One of the smaller fireplaces at Sagamore.
It goes without saying that these camps could not have operated without a small army of servants – at least three times as numerous as the people they served. Since the camps were so remote, they essentially functioned as self-sufficient farms, with vegetable gardens, dairy animals, forges, and carpentry shops on site, and they required year-round caretakers, in addition to the seasonal staff. Durant carefully placed the living quarters for servants away from the main buildings, an easy distance by foot but far enough to delineate social boundaries and ensure privacy. Interestingly, the drive to both Sagamore and Uncas goes right past all these auxiliary structures – a convenient arrangement for getting horses into their stables, to be sure, but also a surefire way to highlight the size of the domestic infrastructure, as well. Thus the layout and architecture of the later camps mixes restraint with reminders of affluence, signaling refined taste and education within a larger context of wealth.

Servants' quarters at Camp Sagamore.
Sagamore, by far the grandest of the three camps, also includes a sort of recreation hall and a bowling alley, as well as a private retreat for male guests nestled on the edge of the woods. These features were added by Alfred Vanderbilt after he bought the camp from Durant in 1901 (JP Morgan purchased Uncas in 1896, as well. Durant simply could not help overspending wildly on his projects). Like many of Durant's original touches, they seem to have been designed with an eye toward male bonding and entertainment. At Camp Pine Knot, where Durant lived for several years, he gave his wife a houseboat via which she and her friends could escape the bugs. Apparently he took advantage of her absence by cycling off to visit his mistress at an adjoining property.

The chalet at Camp Pine Knot.
Another of Sagamore’s most notable features is its Swiss-inspired main lodge, designed to resemble a chalet. In fact, Durant and his architectural collaborators – the exact process by which Durant translated his general ideas about landscape and building design into reality is obscure – had already experimented with a much smaller version at Camp Pine Knot. After constructing Camp Uncas, which is relatively stylistically understated, Durant returned to the Swiss theme on a much larger scale. We were only able to tour the lodge’s main room, notable for its fireplace and tree-trunk ceiling beams. Outside, bright red paint applied as trim to the window frames contrasts strikingly with the dark brown of the wooden siding. The overall effect is impressive; the camp is the grandest of Durant’s designs and lacks the more modest, richly sylvan character that distinguishes Pink Knot and Uncas. It looks and feels more like a hotel than a camp for a rich family.

The main lodge at Sagamore. 
Sleeping cottages adjacent to the main lodge.
Many of my colleagues on the workshop were impressed by the illusion of wilderness that Durant created. At both Uncas and Sagamore, Durant even included lean-tos where people could go to snooze or enjoy a campfire (amusingly, they look exactly like the gritty specimens one sees at steady intervals along the Appalachian Trail). My own feeling is that Durant, Vanderbilt, and their buddies were well-aware of the artifice, and while they liked the proximity to the outdoors, they were fully conscious that they also appreciated luxury. It’s nice to enjoy fresh trout and the smell of pine needles without having to dig a hole to take a crap or actually cook the fish yourself. Whatever Teddy Roosevelt might have thought, for them, the intermediacy of the experience was exactly the point.

A lean-to at Camp Uncas, evidently still in use.
During our visits to these sites, and especially as we got underway on our analytical group projects, it was interesting for my program colleagues and me to negotiate our unease with the class and gender implications of the origins of these camps (as well as the Adirondack State Park itself, its founding deeply resented by locals and a continuing source of regional conflict) with our very real enjoyment of Camp Huntington. For our group, at least, Durant’s design worked as intended – we mingled in common spaces, wandered the woods and paddled the waters, and left in an excellent frame of mind. We enjoyed our hot showers and internet service, clean drinking water, and regular meals, even using Chinese-made, globally-sourced iPads to produce videos for our group presentations at the end of the week. The artifice of wilderness endures. In other words, even for a group of people who outspokenly profess to be progressive and highly invested in societal equality, it is hard to resist having it both ways, at least for a week. Ironically, two of these camps (Durant was involved in building several others that we did not visit) now serve educational and non-profit uses. I have not yet made up my mind if this twist, along with the general spread of tourism to the ‘Dacks, represents the democratization of the wilderness experience or fealty on the part of the middle class to lifestyles copied from the elite. Probably it is something of both.

The main lodge at Camp Uncas - yours for $2.95 million.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Notes on the Motor City

Already overgrown.
Detroit is a big place with a vastly smaller future ahead. Don’t get me wrong – I had a tremendously enjoyable time visiting in early July, meeting many interesting and friendly people. There are some signs of hope around downtown, where many of its stately skyscrapers have been or will soon be refurbished, and it seems that the auto industry, which is still fairly active around the city, has recovered from its nadir. But Detroit will never approach its past glories. The process of demolition has already gone far. Derelict buildings remain, but now, for the main part, they exist singly or in pairs. Their neighbors have already vanished, leaving the city’s inner ring a grassy checkerboard of streets. Here and there, enterprising homeowners, whose houses are also lightly sprinkled about, have annexed adjacent vacant lots. Mostly, however, the old city simply relapses into prairie.

Corktown, north of I-75. Michigan Central Station is in the distance.
Curb cuts.
Telephone wires, street lights, and a fire hydrant.
Another view of Michigan Central Station.
The Book Tower is entirely vacant.
The base of the David Stott Building, almost totally unoccupied.
Detroit is reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City ideal – an ordered, austere theory that imagined towers of apartments, separated by swathes of open greenspace. His reaction against the cheek-by-jowl industrial squalor of nineteenth-century urbanism profoundly influenced mid-century modernism, but Detroit is not evolving into a Radiant City by design. As older, lower neighborhoods flicker out, they leave tall, compact areas such as Lafayette Park, New Center, and the downtown as the city’s functional remnants. The city's many highways, rarely clogged by traffic, are actually quite efficient at speeding cars around the metropolis, despite their usual pernicious effect on neighborhood cohesion.

The Renaissance Center, built by GM in the 70s as a new headquarters and shopping center, is notoriously fortress-like.
An empty greenhouse. Several rows of vegetables were growing outside, however.
Many writers have expounded on the potential for urban gardening and art spaces to provide an economic and social spark for the city. Few farms were actually visible during our visit. Apart from the difficulty of training urban gardeners, rural producers pose daunting competition, especially those already established as sellers at Eastern Market, Detroit’s weekly emporium of produce. There’s more to be seen in terms of art and design, though I remain skeptical about their potential to form a regional economic engine. What entrepreneurs gain in cheap land by moving to Detroit they lose in access and connections to their clients. 

This house is part of the Heidelberg Project, the brain child of a local man to reclaim several blighted blocks. Arsonists have lately torched over half of the buildings that he transformed.
An artist's backyard. Note the full sequence of bike somersaults.
If Detroit were a country instead of a city – and it certainly is an unusually large for an American urban center – most development theorists would suggest that its competitive advantage lies in an abundance of cheap labor. Textbook recommendations would feature attracting footloose industries that provide lots of poorly paying jobs. Indeed, GM survived beyond its bailout by slashing wages and health care packages for new employees. However, labor costs are prohibitively expensive for any businesses that seek to move there because of minimum wage laws and the expense of providing mandated health care. The auto companies remain only because their sunk costs are so high: no one will ever build another vertically-integrated auto factory like the Ford’s River Rouge Plant in the United States.

A small section of the River Rouge plant. Ford is very proud of its green roof, but the project only covers the top of the building closest to the visitor center.
Corktown's main drag, with downtown in the distance.
One afternoon, Christopher and I visited Slow’s Barbecue, a relatively new joint in the Corktown neighborhood just west of downtown. Newcomers to the area will recognize the Michigan Central Station, at this point probably Detroit’s best-known landmark, which sits just across Roosevelt Park in a state of glorious decay. A pleasant, somewhat pricey spot, Slow’s anchors a block or two of new development that features prominently in documentaries and articles touting a Motor City turnaround. There’s a distillery, a chic second-hand clothing store, and a couple other restaurants that play heavily on historical themes. Close-up, this section of Corktown is on the move, and it’s a good thing that these businesses pull suburbanites back into the city. However, the block is simply a drop in the bucket – even within its immediate neighborhood.

Michigan Central Station up close. Note that workers are beginning to replace its windows.
Detroit does have a few other things going for it, which should be noted as its residents forge a new future. First, the abundance of open space is an opportunity for hard-working and creative minds – especially the former. Next, the city’s legacy of Americana and industrialism gives it a strong sense of authenticity and character. We noticed a number of t-shirts and graffiti that read “Detroit Against the World”, an exceptionalist statement of solidarity that suggests considerable pride of place, if also a willful ignorance of challenges elsewhere in the Rust Belt.

Comerica Park, a bulwark of the downtown.
Finally, in the admittedly limited five days I spent there, I was taken aback by the placid, cooperative nature of social relations. I had thoughtful and candid conversations about race with several casual acquaintances, in a way that I could not in Washington, DC or Baltimore. Locals know well how much the city has suffered and realize there’s more than enough blame to go around among its many constituencies. A legacy of several decades of black leadership in city politics, as well as a population that is 80% African-American, also relieves tensions, though I should note that animosity between Detroit and its far whiter and more prosperous suburbs remains strong.

The Packard Plant, looking south. This is only about half of the complex.
Let me conclude by relating a specific case-study about why I am skeptical of a Detroit renaissance. One afternoon, we visited the old Packard Plant, which shut down in the fifties and has remained derelict ever since. A couple miles northeast of downtown, it’s totally open to the public, with only a single security guard who advised us about parking and safety (explore at your own risk). A couple other groups were climbing around on the structure while we were there – the place exerts a strong fascination for tourists and locals alike. The site is vast, with a series of five-story buildings stretching about three-quarters of a mile, and its interiors are totally open, stripped bare of wiring and anything else remotely valuable, while the walls are splattered with graffiti and rubble from decay and dumping. The hundred-year old factory is literally falling apart.

Local social analysis.
Last winter, a Peruvian developer named Fernando Palazuelo bought the entire property for a few hundred thousand dollars, touting a plan to transform the complex into a mixed-use array of apartments, retail, art studios, and tech spaces (of course). Locals whom we met later on that evening were excited, or at least that was the impression they tried to give us. Palazuelo’s first project: draping fabric over a factory bridge so that it appears renovated. It’s only another $350 million, he estimates, to refurbish (refurbish?!) the whole plant. Good luck, Mr. Palazuelo.

An interior courtyard.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


Moontower in Zilker Park
Strange to say, I never noticed Austin’s moontowers during my two years in grad school at UT. Being a great fan of Dazed and Confused, I knew exactly what they were, and even that the movie’s director, Richard Linklater, used Austin as the setting for his film. I guess I never thought to look up very much while I was there.

Before flying down for spring break last month, however, I mentioned the visit to a friend of mine, who began talking a blue streak about the spindly metallic structures. Between his enthusiastic explanation of their technology and a thorough perusal of the relevant Wikipedia Page, I learned just how odd the towers are. Originally relying on arc lights, a form of electrical lighting that predated the incandescent light bulb, several cities built the towers to illuminate whole neighborhoods. Those that Austin put up, which the city acquired from Detroit, rise 165 feet high – imagine looking up at their striking glow in the 1890s, before light bulbs even featured in domestic settings.

Chicon and MLK.
The towers became obsolete quickly, presumably after streetlights became commonplace. They were so bright that they must have become a nuisance to the people living beneath after the initial excitement wore off; the glow stayed on all night. Austin, which originally built 31 towers, took down fourteen and eventually moved all but six. Still, they achieved listing as historic landmarks in 1970 and have steadily gained appreciation in the decades since. The timing of their recognition, in the midst of Austin’s metamorphosis into a center of counterculture and general weirdness, seems appropriate.

Moontowers became part of popular culture’s vernacular due to a memorable party scene set at the base of a tower (specially built for the movie, alas) in Dazed and Confused. Early on in the movie, a much anticipated house party is spoiled by a suspicious father. After several hours of cruising the town’s strips and pool halls, Wooderson, played by Matthew McConaughey in his archetypal role, rolls up in his car, the Melba Toast, to announce the party at the moontower to an intrigued, bookish female. “I love them redheads,” he intones with wonderful insouciance as he turns away, much to the disgust of her companions. Later on, after the keg is well on its way to being tapped, several upperclassmen take the movie’s freshman protagonist along with them as they climb to the top of the moontower.

Guadalupe and 9th. There's the state capitol to the right.
With my mind on the moontowers, I saw them everywhere on my recent visit. They’re all close to downtown, seeing as Austin was a small city in the 1890s when they were built. There’s one right in the middle of Zilker Park, where my host Tom and I tried to go swimming at Barton Springs (closed for cleaning; we repaired to Deep Eddy Pool). One cropped up just south of where I used to live in the Cherrywood Neighborhood. And one afternoon, when Tom, Lynda and I went to the top of a parking garage for a city view as part of the Servant Girl Annihilator Tour (don’t ask), we came practically face to face with one on West Twelfth. The handful that remain are like prehistoric beasts, lonely and somewhat ignored, at least in day-to-day existence, but shining on despite their irrelevance to the modern city.

Looking towards the Hill Country. I believe the the moontower visible is at West 12th and Blanco.