A handful of good reads

Not a new release but an engaging story.

I have been on a really good reading run lately, These titles aren’t new releases and have little relationship to each other. They do, however, reflect various times in history. With the exception of Strapless which I read for one of my book groups, I picked them up because they looked good or came highly recommended. Although it’s great fun to read the new release everyone is talking about, I sometimes worry that focusing my reading there eliminates way too many good books. I’m trying to mix it up.

The Golden Hours by Beatriz Williams is one title (and not a new one) in her long series of historical fiction, a genre I really enjoy. This book alternates between the early days of WWII, in the Bahamas, when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were in residence (and they play a significant role in the WWII story) and twenty years before during WWI. Lots of romance and intrigue and — thanks to the Windsors — a fair amount of glam.

The Paris Library (and who even knew there was one) by Janet Skeslien Charles is another novel that moves between two distinct time periods — the Nazi occupation of Paris in WWII and a small Montana town in the early 1980’s. I found the Parisian story fascinating when it focused on the various subscribers to the library and how the staff and subscribers survived during the occupation, although I found the young heroine in Paris was maybe too naive. However, the intergenerational friendship between Lily and Odile in Montana was inspiring.

If you enjoyed watching The Empress on Netflix, you may really like reading more about Sisi.

After watching The Empress on Netflix, the story of Elisabeth “Sissi” von Wittelsbach, Princess of Bavaria who became Empress of Austria upon her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph, I picked up a copy of Siri: Empress on Her Own by Alison Pataki. A friend recommended it a few years ago and I just didn’t get around to it until now, but it picks up where The Empress left off. Despite its fairytale beginning, Sisi and the emperor did not enjoy a happy marriage, but she was beloved by her Austrian and Hungarian subjects and played an often pivotal role in the politics of the day.

I’m sure I shared with you earlier that my book group was reading Strapless by Debra Davis, about Virginie Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent’s controversial painting, unveiled at the 1884 Paris Salon. Both were relatively unheard of at the time, and hopeful that the painting would change that. Unfortunately Gautreau’s reputation did not assume the stardom of Sargent’s. In fact she was shunned socially, though Sargent, of course, eventually assumed a stellar reputation.

The story behind the story 

At the beginning or end of a book do you read the writer’s notes on how they got the idea for the book, did the research, and/or perhaps struggled to get this particular story all on paper? Often these comments are thrown in with long lists of thank-you’s to publishers, editors, assistants, researchers, family and friends. In some respects that makes them somewhat forgettable to the average reader. We just want to dig into the story itself. But then there are the times they reveal so much. I don’t  know how or when i started reading these notes, but this book had such interesting roots, I think they are worth sharing.

Davis happened onto the story when a friend compared a dress Davis wore to that of Madame X, AKA Gautreau.. Curious, Davis researched and discovered the woman, the painter and the painting. And then, of course, the story and the mounting research carried her along. This is more history than novel and unlike historical fiction there is almost no dialogue. In fact another member of the book club and I both wondered when the Preface would end and the story begin, until we realized it wasn’t the preface we were reading, but the book! 

So much of this is so interesting to me: the way Davis discovered the story, the amount of research she did on both of the main characters as well as other, more minor characters, to flesh out Sergant’s artistic background and the world of artists and patrons in which he moved. The same is true of Madame Gautreau who was initially something of a sensation in Parisian society and then, after the painting, led an increasingly circumscribed life. 

The most appealing bookstore

And while we’re talking about books, if you have not yet seen these pictures and many more of Beacon Hill Books and Cafe, You need to up your Instagram game. Recently opened on Boston ‘s Charles Street, photos of the charming, uber-stylish interior (which is apparently also available for private parties) are popping up everywhere. Or just visit the website for a closer look.

You could settle in here to read…
Or you could host a private event.

Looking ahead, one of my book groups has chosen Dinners with Ruth by Nina Totenberg as our next read. Totenberg is the legendary NPR correspondent and Ruth refers to her friend, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I just downloaded this to my Kindle and I can’t wait to read it! These two remarkable women were friends for nearly 50 years. I’ll also be catching up the the Book of the Month Club recommendations of my daughter and daughter-in-law.

What about you? Read any good books lately?

Thanks for taking the time to stop by. I’ll be back again soon!

To be like the Queen

I suppose it helps to have dressers and ladies-in-waiting, but she looks so pretty and perky here.

Have you been watching the reports from Scotland & London on the farewells to the Queen? I can’t tear myself away. I know it sounds a bit silly, but it’s such a slice of history. (And I am an avowed history nerd.) On one hand, so much pomp and circumstance, on the other tradition. And monarchs in the United Kingdom are one of the oldest of traditions. 

I haven’t always been a huge fan of Queen Elizabeth. She often sounds very stiff and formal, and for years she toed the most conservative line about marriage and divorce, well after society had clearly moved on. But, we soften with age. The Queen sure did, and I guess I have too. 

Queen Elizabeth’s life was pretty much unlike any other and probably not what she would have chosen, but there she was, at the center of history. Can you imagine a weekly meeting with Winston Churchill when you’ve just assumed a new job? Trying to sum up the Queen’s ninety-six years in just a few words, even a few paragraphs, is impossible. And all kinds of really smart people have been doing it beautifully for the last several days. Look them up.

So, yes, when I grow up and grow old — like into my nineties — I’d like to be like the Queen. I’d like to be stylish and wear pretty colors and matching hats. I’d like to still be wearing lipstick to highlight an impish smile. I’d like to be current with what’s happening in the world. I’d like to have a cheeky sense of humor a la James Bond and Paddington Bear. I’d like to savor the antics of my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. And I’d like to still have my prince at my side to share it all.  

It’s not about the crown or the jewels, the power or the palaces (although given the choice I would likely choose palaces over all of the above). I would just love to be the ninety-six-year old matriarch sharp enough to be current with what’s happening in the world and wise enough to view it from an historic perspective. I would like to be gracious enough to privately manage familial trials, failing health, and whatever other ill winds blow. In essence, that’s keeping the proverbial stiff upper lip. 

So now that I’ve written this all down in black and white, so to speak, I have to wonder: Am I asking too much? I hope not. I’m sure going to try.

Thank you so much for stopping by. I hope I see you again here soon,. 

It begins with a trip to the museum…

Rapgaello Sanzio

Last week we took a cultural field trip, visiting the Columbus Museum of Art to view the Dresden Tapestries, based on cartoons by Raphael in 1515-16 and commissioned by Pope Leo X to hang in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Although we had seen tapestries in French chateaux and other European museums, this was our first opportunity to get a little closer and to learn more about how they are made. The bottom line: they are really art times two, the artist’s initial cartoon and the fiber art of the tapestry produced from it.

What is a tapestry?

The more intimate setting of the Columbus museum and the quiet weekday timing offered a perfect opportunity to view the tapestries more closely. A docent gave the group we were with a basic overview of tapestry weaving as well as the history of these particular pieces. Tapestries are a unique fabric art, woven to portray a scene, story or event, often biblical or historic. These tapestries focus on the ministries of Saints Peter and Paul. But more about that later. 

This is the cartoon by Raphael for the tapestry “Christ’s Charge to Peter.” This is just one in a series of ten cartoons.

In essence the tapestry subject is a woven copy of a drawing (known as a cartoon) created by an artist. Tapestries are painstakingly handwoven — most often by European workshops specializing in this art form — with the design on one side of the fabric. To do this, the cartoon is copied (by hand!) and the copy laid face-down on the fabric. The finished tapestry becomes a complete reverse of the original cartoon. The cartoons for the original set of these tapestries were sent to Brussels to be woven in the workshop of Pier van Aelst. They were probably completed in 1520.

About the Raphael tapestries

My knowledge of Raphael was pretty sketchy, so after the museum visit I delved a little more into his life and his role in the Renaissance art world (Of course, it would have been even better if I’d done this homework first!). Along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael is considered one of the three architects of the High Renaissance, a period from as early as 1495 to as late as 1530 of exceptional artistic accomplishment in Rome and Florence, Italy.

Artistic temperaments played a part in Renaissance art. Historians point out that Michelangelo was no fan of Raphael and openly critical of his work. Raphael was generally thought to be more agreeable and charming, traits that may have played a part in his success in acquiring significant commissions. In developing the cartoons for this series of tapestries, Raphael was very aware that they would be in close proximity to Michelangelo’s famous ceiling in the Sistine Chapel; however, the subject matter — Christ turning over the church to Peter and Paul — was different.

Like many artists, Raphael got an early start; his father was a court painter and Raphael was apprenticed at a young age to another master. After time spent elsewhere in Italy, he found his way first to Florence and eventually to Rome. His reputation firmly established, one biographer noted that Raphael had a workshop of fifty pupils and assistants, many of whom later became significant artists in their own right. This was arguably the largest workshop team under any single master painter. The workshop included masters from other parts of Italy, probably working with their own teams as sub-contractors, as well as pupils and journeymen. There is little evidence of the internal working arrangements of the workshop, but this was the artistic custom of that time. Raphael died quite young (at age 37 in 1520). He is perhaps best known for the frescoed Raphael Rooms in the Sistine Chapel. The series of 10 cartoons for tapestries representing the lives of Saint Peter and Saint Paul was commissioned by Pope Leo X in about 1516. 

“The Miraculous Draught of Fishes.” Like all the tapestries in this series, the subjects refer to Christ turning the church h over to Peter and Paul.

The Dresden tapestries are one of numerous sets woven from these cartoons after Raphael’s death. Seven of Raphael’s original 10 cartoons for the series have survived and are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The tapestries woven for the Vatican no longer hang in the Sistine Chapel but are displayed on a rotating basis in the Vatican Museum. They returned briefly to the Sistine Chapel in 2020 in honor of the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death.

This is the cartoon for the tapestry above. Note the images are reversed.

The impact of the tapestries and Raphael in the art world is evident in the second part of the exhibition, which includes drawings by Raphael that were studies for his cartoons. Numerous other works—paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture—were created by artists influenced by Raphael’s designs. The artist’s style and in some cases entire images were lifted from the much larger tapestries to become art on their own or to be worked into other pieces. Noted renaissance and baroque masters such as Rubens and Poussin are among the artists who incorporated Raphael’s work into their own.

The Columbus exhibit is comprised of six works from the duplicates ordered by the Prince of Wales (later King Charles I) about 100 years after Raphael’s death. (Here’s where the world history kicks in.) They were produced by tapestry makers in Mortlake, England. Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, brought the tapestries to Dresden, Germany in the 18th century. The tapestries were restored in the late 20th and early 21st century. The Columbus exhibition is the first time they have been displayed outside Europe. 

Two lessons in one

I think I always looked at tapestries as works of art, but certainly without appreciating the entire process. First, the artist creating the cartoon has to plan the scene, starting with a series of rough sketches that are refined into final drawings to be included in the cartoon. These are huge works with significant detail and background scenery. This is where the other artists in the master’s workshop came into their own, copying the master artist’s style and intent. This is the first art lesson. The artistry of the tapestry weavers is the second lesson. Perhaps time for more research?

I don’t know about you, but I love when a “field trip” of some sort sets me off on subsequent pursuits. I’d like to know more about the lives of Raphael and Michelangelo. Can you imagine these men elbowing their way for favor among the papal and royal interests of their day? I know Francis I lured Leonardo da Vinci to his chateau in Amboise, France, where da Vinci (and the Mona Lisa) remained until his death. What story lines would you pursue?

Thank you so much for stopping by for my impromptu art history class. See you again soon!

Guns & fireworks

This week, on our first July 4th in Ohio, I was feeling a little nostalgic. For most of our 40 years in Wheaton we celebrated the 4th at least in part with the community’s traditional, homegrown parade, which always began with a few dozen firetrucks blasting their sirens and waving to the crowds. Then came the local politicos, the high school band, the boy scouts and girl scouts. The local VFW usually showed up, as did the Shriners in their mini race cars and Uncle Sam on stilts handing out candy.

For several years, beginning when my son was a toddler and my daughter a newborn, we attended the parade with a handful of neighborhood families, always gathering on the same corner. As with all things, time marched on. The kids grew up. Some of us moved away. But these memories remain a part of the fabric of our family.

Yesterday, on our way home from our first July 4th celebration in Ohio, I heard what had happened in one of those other Illinois communities, hosting their Independence Day parade. A young gunman sat atop a downtown building and used a powerful weapon of war to shoot and kill at least six parade attendees and injure more than two dozen more.

Please re-read that last sentence. I can hardly believe it. What have we come to?

This isn’t just about Illinois or the 4th of July. In days, it seems, we have moved from Buffalo, New York, to Uvalde, Texas, to Highland Park, Illinois. How did a mass killing we once would have thought of as a frightening aberration become a weekly occurrence?

If you have followed this blog at all, you know it isn’t political (Okay, sometimes personal bias does seep in.). It’s books and cooking, decorating and some travel. But the reality is too heartbreaking to ignore. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. We must also admit that recent legislation, though well-intentioned, would not have stopped this shooter. (Another heartbreak — finally one step forward and now back again.) How does this country separate our fundamental belief in a militia from this love affair with weapons of war?

What will become of us if we don’t?

I have no answers, but I believe it’s time to put my money where my mouth is (my vote is already there) and now I’m lending my modest financial support to Everytown for Gun Safety. You might want to check them out. And thanks to Julie at Creating This
Life
for suggesting it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. And thanks for listening.

June reading: history, mystery & gossip

 Wow! How did it get to be almost-July already? For me, June begins like a sweet promise — long, sunny days strung out for months. Then that image is interrupted by the flash, sparkle, and bang of July. It’s hotter, and the beach seems like a really good idea, but if you don’t act fast August is here and summer is waning. It’s back-to-school time and hay fever. Yikes! I’m making myself older just sitting here on my laptop. 

Forget the calendar, what I really meant to report on today are some books I’ve read over the last several weeks. My reading life has finally moved on from a seemingly endless stream of Stephanie Plum mysteries. I was just digging into London: The Novel by Edward Rutherford (a slow start but it does get better) when I was side-tracked by Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers. The hoopla surrounding the Queen’s Jubilee got me started on this. (I’m a sucker for the Queen, the rest of the royals not so much.) I’ll be honest — it begins with Camilla and Diana and ends with Kate and Megan. And the Queen is always at the center because, well, she is the Queen. Charles, Andrew, William and Harry play their respective parts, because no soap opera is complete without the men.  There is definitely a soap opera quality to the book. 

Brown draws from credible sources, though she rarely ever names them relying instead on her reputation as a journalist. What did I glean from this besides a lot of juicy gossip? First, power is everything in royal circles. If you have it, you need to keep it; if you have no power, you need to find some. It’s pretty simple. Second, a lot of this power is granted to secretaries, schedulers and PR teams (and, yes, everyone has one of them too). In fact it seems the royals often communicate via secretary to secretary. And if you have ever played telephone, you know how that goes. What a complicated life!

After that read I needed a bit of a palate-cleanser, so I picked up A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham. My daughter-in-law gave me this book for Christmas, along with a membership to the Book-of-the-Month Club, but then I got so focused on moving I put it aside. It was the perfect read! The story focuses on Chloe Davis, whose father was jailed 20 years earlier for a series of murders of young, teen-age girls. Now, after two decades and just as Chloe is about to marry, two more young women die in the same way. Chloe is oddly connected to these victims and forced to revisit the earlier murders to resolve the current ones and clear her own name. Solving the crime isn’t simple, and the mystery takes a number of twists and turns. I thought the unexpected ending was a stunner — when I finally got there. If you love a good mystery, this is for you. 

Looking ahead, this is my to-be-read stack, above. I’m really looking forward to This Tender Land by William Kent Kruger. I read and loved his earlier novel, Ordinary Grace, more than a few years ago. It’s one of those books that just stays with you. Read it if you can. My daughter gave me The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s one of her recent favorites. We both loved The Invention of Wings, also by Kidd. Finally, I’m looking forward to All That She Carried by Tiya Miles, a true story of an enslaved woman in 1850’s South Carolina and the bag she prepared for her nine-year-old daughter before they were separated. The bag continued to be shared thru subsequent generations. This may not be a “summer read,” but I’m looking forward to it. 

And that’s my summer reading plan for now. How about you? Any recommendations?

I’m so glad you stopped by & wish you a star-spangled July 4th holiday. 

See you again soon. 

January landed with a thud

CherryBlossoms2I had planned to talk about the to-be-read and to-be-cooked lists I’ve been compiling for the new year, along with a few stabs I’ve made at de-cluttering and the other ways in which I was planning to entertain myself while we wait out the pandemic. (In the county were I live the Health Department describes the risk of infection as “substantial.” I don’t know what that means but it doesn’t sound good, does it? 

Then, on last Wednesday afternoon while I was on a Zoom call, my husband passed me a note that read, “The protesters have breached the capitol, and Congress is under lockdown.”

When my call was over and I joined my husband in front iof the television, we both watched, jaws dropping, at the sight of protesters over-running the Capitol Police inside that space. What a stunning violation in the seat of our democracy!

My husband and I have personal connections to the Capitol. Steve grew up in suburban Washington D.C. and spent a fair amount of time working summers on The Hill. I spent a semester off-campus in Washington, where my roommate and I had little blue passes that got us into the House and Senate visitors galleries whenever we wanted. As political junkies we spent a lot of time there. Obviously security has necessarily grown tighter since then, but Steve and I have visited with our son and daughter more than once. On our last visit, my daughter actually led the tour as a summer Senate intern.

I can’t explain the sinking, sick feeling I had when sign-carrying protesters, some of them wrapped in flags, wandered on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, sat in the Speakers’ chair, and pushed and shouted their way thru Statuary Hall. I can count a number of friends from both political parties who I’m sure had the same gut reaction. It was so out of time and place. But that was just the beginning.

Sadly, as the news continues to unfold, the dark, dangerous intent behind this protest becomes darker and clearer. And that raises even more questions. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating, ugly and frightening.

This blog is intended to weigh in on life’s lighter side — on looks, cooks, books, and occasional travels — and I’ll certainly get back to that soon.  But January 6, 2021,  is a seminal moment in American history, as stunning as 9/11. This time the enemy came from within. That it was endorsed by a sitting president makes it unspeakable.

I realize we all have a lot to unpack and sort out here. I just had to pause.

27 Books…and counting!

 

IMG_4555
Except for the Marie Benedict book on top, the rest of this stack is “to be read.”

The reading app that I use on my iPad gave me a remarkable report the other day: I’ve read 27 books on my electronic sidekick this year! Trust me; I’m not a numbers person. (I can’t even tell you what a loaf of bread or gallon of milk costs!)  I don’t think I’ve ever tallied my reading before. This number just popped up, so I went thru the list. Yep, it’s right.

Most of this has been what I would call my “pandemic reading,” more than a dozen Louise Penny mysteries and, when I ran out of Louise Penny, I went thru the Sue Grafton alphabet mysteries that I had missed along the way. No surprise this worked for me. There are some similarities: both series feature likable detectives and charming casts of returning characters. I find them remarkably easy to slide into and escape current events.

But there’s more: I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I usually downloaded these books late at night when I really needed new reading material and found the $6.99 to $8.99 price tag a bargain versus looking for a sleeping pill. (Have you suffered from insomnia the past year?) Of course, there is the chance I got so engrossed in the books, that I read longer than I should have. But that’s another post. 

No apologies

These were the books I read when I couldn’t concentrate on anything tougher, and I make no apologies. Like so many others, I found that the pandemic, civil unrest and the charged political atmosphere made for some very unsettling times. I have often thought of reading as an escape or the roadmap to information and answers. My iPad reading list reveals just how much I needed to escape! 

On the other hand, as you may recall from other posts, I did truly enjoy some meatier reads in 2020. The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir by Ruth Wariner is one of those books that has stayed with me. I wrote about it here    One of my favorites was The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson. This book was based on real events and had an especially meaningful message about about racism and bigotry. I wrote about it here  I wrote about three more great reading choices here,  Check them out. 

I think, however, my favorite was Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile recounting Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister. Larson’s writing seamlessly marries the details of aircraft, strategic planning and internstional diplomacy with lively details of everyday life drawn from his impeccable sources. Churchill surrounded himself with a colorful cast of characters, and his family was equally entertaining and plays a significant role in the book. For history nerds like me, it was totally engrossing. (A member of my book group confided that she was only permitting herself to read a limited number of pages per day, to make the book last longer!)

IMG_4558
My book group is discussing this next week. I can’t wait to hear what everyone else thinks. 

I just finished The Only Woman in the Room by  Marie Benedict. Like The Sound of Gravel and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, this story of Hedy Lamarr’s (Yes! That Hedy Lamarr!!)  role as a scientific inventor (with composer George Antheil) of a “frequency-hopping” radio communication technology that eventually was linked to the development of our wifi is a well-layered tale. Before she was Hedy Lamarr actress, she was Hedy Kiesler, young  Austrian actress and then Hedy Mandl, married to Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy, pro-fascist  Austrian arms dealer and munitions manufacturer.

Lamarr’s escape from Nazi Austria to Hollywood stardom is more than enough to make for a good read, but her struggle to be accepted for more than her beauty and glamour makes it a contemporary tale as well. Author Benedict has a talent for telling the story of women who broke the rules of convention by moving well-beyond their expected roles. The Other Einstein recalls the life of Mileva Maric,  a brilliant physicist who just happened to be the first wife of Albert Einstein, and Lady Clememtine, wife of Winston Churchill, both of them also often “the only woman in the room.” (These last two are also both good reads.)

Looking back at the year in books, instead of what I missed because of the pandemic, I realize I am genuinely lucky to enjoy the riches I’ve found in reading.  Hopefully you can look back with a similarly thankful heart. Looking ahead, I sincerely wish you a healty and happy new year. And plenty of good reading material!

Thanks for stopping by!

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Back on my soapbox

My grandfather was a WWI veteran and a founding member of the William McKinley American Legion Post in Chicago. When he died in 1988, his friends from the post showed up to honor him as pallbearers. When the minister had finished his blessing at the cemetery and was about to send the mourners to lunch, one of the legion members, a little white-haired man (in his nineties I imagine, as Grandpa had been) with his legion cap at a rakish angle, stepped forwarded and admonished the minister to “Hold on sonny.” Then he produced a tape player, pushed a button, and played Taps. (And we all cried a little more. )

Several years later when my father-in-law died, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with military pallbearers and a 21-gun salute. It was a small, dignified and extremely moving ceremony. I had been to Arlington before as a tourist and I have been there since to bury my mother-in-law. It has never been possible for me to walk those rows of white markers without being silenced by the sense of duty, honor and loss that this military cemetery represents.

My dad was a WWII veteran and the only decoration on his grave marker, beyond his name and dates, is the insignia of the Army Corps of Engineers he so proudly wore. My uncle was also a WWII veteran and when he died a decade ago, my husband called the William McKinley American Legion Post, where he was also a member, and they showed up with flags and arranged for a sailor from Great Lakes to play Taps at his graveside. (Cue the tissues.)

None of these men were “suckers” or “losers.” Nor was the boy from across the street who played football with my son, went off to college and then joined the army. His job in Iraq was to locate and secure IED’s. He brought everyone on his team home safely.

They were soldiers and sailors who did their job. They were and are proud of the uniform and proud of their service. There are millions more veterans and service men and women, some surely more battle-tested than these.  And we are proud of all of them.

I have tried hard not to be political in this season. Politics don’t necessarily fit with my vision of Ivy & Ironstone. But the allegations from the White House, of “suckers” and “losers,” pale in the face of politics. And I understand that they are “allegations.” But, after the last three and a half years, is there any reason not to believe them?

Please vote.

Stay safe & see you again soon.

 

 

The old neighborhood

Technically, since the city annexed O’Hare Airport, the geographic center of the city has changed, but not for most Chicagoans.

If you grew up in Chicago or have lived here for any length of time you know that the city is a collection of neighborhoods: Hyde Park, Ravenswood, Lincoln Park, and Pilsen to name a few. And when you ask a Chicagoan where they’re from, it’s often a neighborhood they refer to.

My Chicago neighborhood is McKinley Park on the city’s southwest side, named for the park it embraces (Which was actually named for the 25th US president.). The neighborhood is centered on the triangle bounded by 35th Street and Archer and Ashland Avenues, but extends as far south as the southern boundary of the park on Pershing Road and to the old Canal and Interstate 55 on the north.

I should start by saying I never lived in the McKinley Park neighborhood.

But my maternal grandpa grew up there, he and my grandma were married there and raised a family there. He lived there until he was in his late eighties. My dad’s family also has its roots in the neighborhood, and I’ve always felt rooted here too. It’s from this neighborhood that so many of the family stories come, where I spent holidays and enjoyed Sunday dinners. I was not at all surprised when my daughter, who is more than a bit of an historian, took a walking tour of the McKinley Park area (Although I may be pushing the point; she’s done at least a half-dozen other such neighborhood walks since moving back to Chicago.) I couldn’t go with her on the first tour, so she took me on my own a few weeks ago.

In the past my grandparents house was painted red, like most of its neighbors, and it had tall windows in front, now replaced with this picture window. If you look closely, you can still see the shadow of the old windows and their stone trim.

We began here.

My grandparents lived in this little workman’s cottage, one of a dozen on their short block and countless others in the neighborhood. This was the brick house built for the masses after the Chicago fire. They were small, but must have seemed palatial to people who had come from tenements and boarding houses. (There aren’t many Chicago bungalows here; they came later.)

We took a walk down 35th Street, the commercial heart of the neighborhood. The William McKinley Legion Post (my grandfather was a founding member) is still active.

 

Another workman’s cottage, in 1910 the house had no bay window or sliding glass doors, and my grandparents were likely boarders in one or two rooms.

Our other destination on this street was a house we think my father’s parents lived in, at least for a short time. Maggie found them listed on a 1910 census at this address. (Like I said, she is an historian.) The next census finds them just a few blocks away on Honore Street. However, when we rounded the corner to look for it, those houses had been replaced by Nathaniel Greene School!

Since this area was first settled in 1836, it has been a working class neighborhood. The first settlers worked on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Then came railroads, steel plants, and meat packing. There are new brick row houses  and townhouses in-filling empty lots. Several buildings have been converted into condos, including St. Philippus Church where my grandparents and parents were married.

My re-cycler’s heart loves that the church, no longer able to support a congregation, was spared the wrecking ball to provide housing.

The new school, houses and condo conversions are understandable; the McKinley Park neighborhood has experienced an increase in population since the 1990’s. And that’s hardly surprising since it’s still supported by a healthy manufacturing area nearby and outstanding transportation, including Metra’s new (to me at least) Orange Line. The old housing stock is well cared for, and some original landmarks continue to serve the community, including a funeral home and St. Maurice Church.

This is an example of the mix of old and new housing stock.

Finally, we got to McKinley Park, 69 acres of green in the midst of the city, with a lagoon where my mom and uncle ice skated, a field house, and so many ball fields where Dad and my uncle spent a significant part of their lives. In fact, they met there and played ball, sometimes together and sometimes against each other, long before Mom and Dad met. It’s still a leafy oasis, popular with runners and walkers. On this September Saturday, there were soccer and baseball games. It’s still the magnet it always was.

We sometimes think of “old neighborhoods” as falling into serious disrepair or, conversely, becoming gentrified and even chic. Not so in McKinley Park. This “old neighborhood” never had the panache of the North Shore or the leafy, residential vibe of the suburbs. It has always been sturdy, a bit hard-scrabble, largely populated in my grandparents’ day by first- and second-generation German and Irish immigrants. Today it retains this sturdy, working class character, and the immigrant mix includes Hispanic and Asian residents.

It has adapted more than it changed. That’s what intrigued me as Maggie and I walked down one street and up another, peering down gangways and admiring pocket gardens. My daughter shared the architectural background gleaned from her walk, while I was filling in the anecdotal from my memories. I’m glad my daughter and I did this, but I must admit that for me it was a bit bittersweet. There are few family members left from that era to share this, to tell them the house on Damen is painted blue (!) and the Legion Hall has hardly changed.

So, I’m especially glad you came along with me on this “second” walk in the old neighborhood. See you again soon!

Re-writing history

It’s hard to believe that a landowner/businessman would design and oversee the construction of this mansion based on pattern books, but John Drayton did exactly that.

This year as we were planning a beach trip to South Carolina, I also wanted to re-visit Drayton Hall Plantation. Although we had visited years ago, before social media and blogging, I have been following them on Instagram for some time. And in my mind, the folks behind Drayton Hall have been doing a fabulous job of teaching history.

Briefly, Drayton Hall is an 18th-century plantation on the Ashley River about 15 miles from Charleston, and its history and architecture are notable. Historically, Drayton Hall is the only plantation to survive the Revolutionary and Civil Wars intact. Additionally, it is a remarkable example of Palladian Architecture in the United States, built by John Drayton Sr. and designed without the benefit of professional architects. Instead, like many other other wealthy and well-educated planters of his time, Drayton relied on British “pattern books” that detailed classical architecture.

The first time I visited Drayton Hall I was sorely disappointed. As someone who loves historic homes and had visited the likes of Mount Vernon and Williamsburg more than once, I loved seeing these buildings restored and renovated as necessary and filled with the appropriate furnishings. In fact, for me that was a big part of their allure.

This reflects how the building was found when it was acquired from the Drayton family, on the 1970’s. The workmanship on the paneling and molding is remarkable.

Not so at Drayton Hall.

Drayton Hall is a preservation, not a restoration. So, it’s empty. What you see are the architectural details of a building that was inhabited by Draytons from the 1740’s until it was turned over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the 1970’s. It has never had electricity or indoor plumbing. The preservation philosophy at Drayton Hall was to stabilize the house and maintain it as it was when acquired from the family. This was radical at the time, but it has resulted in considerable technical and scientific research into the original building and the people who lived there. And the lessons learned  have given me a whole new appreciation for the role of historic preservation.

For example, historians originally believed construction was begun on Drayton Hall in 1738 after John Drayton Sr. acquired the property. However In 2014, scholars examined the wood cores of the attic timbers and determined that they were cut from trees felled in the winter of 1747–48. Because the attic would have been framed well before the remainder of the house, scholars now believe Drayton Hall was not occupied by the family until the early 1750s. This is just one example of the kinds of data the building continues to reveal.

Expanding on plantation history

Today the plantation includes an Interpretive Center and Museum. The Interpretive 
Center traces the history of the property, the Drayton’s, and South Carolina. This history includes that of the enslaved people who built the house, planted the crops, tended the fields and served the family, all of which made plantation life possible. This reality is nothing like Gone With the Wind.

Drayton Hall is constructed from bricks made on-site. Often enslaved children worked on brick-making. Look closely at the red brick on the right in the third row. A child’s handprint is visible.

One of the things Drayton Hall has done very well is to reveal more about the enslaved people who lived there. Plantations like Drayton Hall and its counterparts throughout the South would not have been possible without the labor provided by the enslaved community. It’s important we understand the economic impact of slavery on the South, the North and even Europe.

During our visit we attended a presentation, Port to Plantation: Slavery and the Making of the Early Lowcountry Economy. The presentation takes visitors back 400 years to the beginning of the Triangular Trade Route (from Europe to West Africa, to the Americas, and back to Europe), paying special attention to the middle passage which carried slaves from West Africa to the Americas. Slaves were traded in South America, the Caribbean and North America, but their role in the American South is now under increasing scrutiny thanks to additional historic research like that at Drayton Hall.

Portugal, Great Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands all participated in the slave trade, sending ships to West Africa, where they loaded slaves for the Americas, then after selling the slaves, reloaded their ships with valuable cotton and rice to return to Europe. The passage itself was gruesome, with hundreds of Africans packed onto ships. Many did not survive the journey, and those who did were often crudely “warehoused” at their destination until they regained their strength for the auction block. This was, after all, business, and the factors or agents responsible for the slave sales depended on top-dollar transactions,

Drayton Hall is not alone in re-thinking how it presents slavery. The McLeod Plantation on nearby James Island, and the Aiken-Rhett House and Nathaniel Russell House, both overseen by the Charleston Historic Foundation in Charleston have also re-cast and expanded their interpretation of slavery. They have traded the term “slaves” for “enslaved people” to more clearly recognize them as people rather than property. To read more about this, including the controversy it has generated, see the recent feature in the Post & Courier by Robert Behre.

Not everyone is a fan of this revised history. Guides at these and other sites report visitors who complain that this history is “depressing” at the least. Some are more outspoken than others. (A sign of these outspoken times, perhaps?) But as hard as some of this is to see or hear or read (I find myself speechless over the child’s handprint in the brick), I think we are very fortunate to continue to learn more about this chapter in our history. This historic site visit pushed me to consider how little I know and how much more there is to learn.

It’s also a reminder that one of life’s great gifts is the opportunity to re-think, re-write, re-imagine, and grow. What if we gave similar license to other life experiences?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!