WASHINGTON, D.C. – We all like to be prepared. It’s the Boy Scout motto, Be Prepared. And what does that mean? The story with scouting founder Lord Baden-Powell was that the phrase meant to “be prepared for any old thing.”
Often “any old thing” comes at us, and we are not prepared. TV weathermen and reporters tell us to fill our cars full of gas well before a hurricane, and to keep three days supply of food, and to have key personal papers in a safe place, and to keep a well-stocked medicine cabinet. Terribly sensible stuff.
We know this, and yet as we see our news, hardly any are ready. Indeed, those who prepare well are marginalized as reality show “preppers”, sort of wing nuts who seem to be hoping for the worst as we secretly admire their pluck and grit. But that is not the reality; hundreds of thousands of people were and are Boy and Girl Scouts, and Bear Grylls, friend to the Royals and Presidents, is celebrated even as we do not follow their advice.
KING AND QUEEN COUNTY – Mattaponi Church hardly looks like the typical rural historic Southern Baptist church. The cruciform-shaped church, with a glazed-blue Flemish bond brickwork pattern, is instead a high-style relic of the time when church was state, and George II, the last non-British British monarch, was Defender of the Faith. More stylish and polished than even Bruton Parish in Williamsburg, it sits in the almost disappeared unincorporated village of Cumnor in the depopulated (and in some eras impoverished) Middle Peninsula county of King & Queen.
Mattaponi, which began life as part of the English church, dates from 1730-34, a period when landowners were fabulously wealthy with tobacco; churches expressed those aspirations. It is one of a handful of former Church of England colonial churches that are now Baptist. It is the church that my family, then Baptists, attended throughout the tumultuous 19th century, and a place that holds many untold family stories, and graves. Continue reading →
One of my favorite architectural books is Old American Houses, 1700-1850 by Henry Lionel and Ottalie K. Williams. Henry and Ottalie Williams were a Bloomfield, Conn. couple who restored and lectured on old houses at a time when the idea of restoring old houses for their intrinsic value was fairly new.
Like HGTV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines, Henry and Ottalie Williams created a cottage industry around their restored houses, which appeared in magazines and books, and inspired many thousands to restore an old house themselves. While the word shiplap is not used, the couple both restored houses and collected furniture and regional objects, just like the Gaineses.
Henry Lionel Williams (1894-1974) was a native of England who, alone and with his wife Ottalie, wrote over 50 books on buildings and furniture. He was interested in a vast number of subjects, including aviation. His 1974 New York Times obit described that his works even extended to two histories of the head-shrinking Jivaro Indians of South America. With his wife Ottalie Kroeber Williams, he wrote books on historic houses, both practical and picture. Henry Williams was also an advocate of maintenance of houses, contending that a few minutes each week would save money. Ottalie was described in the overleaf as an authority on architecture and antiques.
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One of their biggest books also pre-figured another current area of cable tv fascination, the tiny house. The couple in 1964 published America’s Small House, a coffee table book feature the glories of the little residence. Houses included those of Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Chorley of Colonial Williamsburg, antiquarian Hatfield Ellsworth and interior designers Mrs. Truman Handy, Elmo Avet and Michael Greer.
Most fascinating in the book is the stylish one-room log cabin retreat of television entrepreneur John W. Kluge from his Virginia farm. This one room building may or may not be part of the current Trump Winery; we hope someone can fill us in what happened to it.
There has not been much research work on the work of the two together, though I did find that they had a daughter, Mrs. John C. Sellars, who was mentioned in Henry Williams’ New York Times obituary after his Jan. 11, 1974 death. Continue reading →
SINGAPORE – If a body politic is looking at how to move a struggling city from poverty to riches in a short time, Singapore is the model. When Singapore was founded after independence from Britain in 1965, it was not only poor, but it was torn by ethnic divisions from its un-formed national identity, including a departing British colonial mercantile and trading class, a Chinese majority, Indians and Indonesians.
Singapore had nothing of note in 1965, when it split off from the newly formed (and also struggling more) Malaysia. Neighboring Indonesia was against the formation of the country, and Singapore’s survival was tenuous. It had no national resources, no extensive education system, no industry, no social services, no defense, no land, no oil, no nothing. Just a year earlier, the tiny city state had survived Muslim race riots. What a way to begin a nation.
What Singapore did have was a port, about two hungry million people, and a leader named Lee, Lee Kuan Yew, who believed in the place. It also had a a statue of a British colonial, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, situated in a prominent place for all to see. Continue reading →
Last year, I put together a list of often-overlooked singers of American standards. It was such a joy to find new interpretations, and make a list. Below, are seven more that I am enjoying. They are in no particular order.
What’s not to love about Australian Frances Madden? Terribly attractive, cute, but not cutesy, and completely solid. The song “Such a Beautiful Thing” is the sort of song this world needs. What makes her stand out is that she writes her own songs, and also does standards, making her a deeply dimensional artist. Joyful. This world does not need more angst. It needs a few more like Frances channeling their talent.
2. Matt Forbes
This Canadian does all the typical Sinatra standards, but I found him most interesting in his version of Rod Stewart’s “Some Guys Have All the Luck.” Frankly, there is always a danger in doing things Sinatra did with any sort of cool swagger. You risk having a tribute band approach. This reverses things, as Stewart gained fame from doing standards, perhaps not realizing that his songs now are standards. I really love the way he does it straight, like he would have sung it on the Merv Griffin Show. On the verge of cheese but never all the way in. The bridge solo reminds me of a friendly TV sitcom sound, in a good way. This approach would not work with “Do You Think I’m Sexy.” Arrangement by the brilliant Callum Au is joyful.
3. Alex Platt & Dheepa Chari
This temporary duo of Los Angeles musician Platt and vocalist Dheepa Chari recorded this restrained version of Old Devil Moon, co-produced with Rob Kohler. Platt describes himself as a drummer, educator and producer. Chari is of Hindustani heritage, by way of Texas, Los Angeles and New York City. We like that she sees herself as straightforward. We need more of that sensible stuff in music. What it is. What it is.
4. Nina Repeta
North Carolina actress Nina Repeta, best known for Dawson’s Creek, is also a nifty song stylist. “Fly Me to the Moon” is almost always a good song, and doing it in a minimal way, in the hands of a vocalist who hits the notes, and every syllable, is satisfying. Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens” is also refreshing, and not academic.
5. Kristin Slipp and Dov Manski
Slipp has a unique voice that verges on being a bit too odd for standards, but hits notes you would not expect. Manski does a mean Wurlitzer. When not doing standards, Slipp is an indie songwriter. You could sit down for a very happy evening listening to those two, but always be a bit on edge, in a not too dangerous way. Kristin’s voice may not be for all, but it is completely relaxing.
6. Lisa Tuyula
German singer and artist Lisa Tuyula sings where spirituals and standards connect. Yet I just can’t figure out how well she captures “My Funny Valentine” in a very plain, but compelling way. Below, Tuyula with Christopher Reinhold on the piano in a Soundcloud sample.
Caesar’s rendition of “The Very Thought of You” is lush sounding, and rich. He does an “Autumn Leaves” in part Japanese and English. He grew up in Chicago, and has performed with many greats, often compared to Nat King Cole.
That’s it for now. If you know of others who should be on this list, please leave a comment below.
WILLIAMSBURG – Colonial Williamsburg is at it again with the notion that somehow it can cordon off a public street, charge admission, and make people pay for what belongs to the nation as a whole. This idea, which seems to pop up every two decades or so, comes even though Williamsburg, as its reason for being, is supposed to be an object lesson in freedom and the noblest aspirations of Americans.
The corollary example: What if a clique in Boston decided it was going to fence in Boston Common and hold regular re-enactments?
A bit of background. Williamsburg was, and is, an actual city, the colonial capital of Virginia, and birthplace of our country’s most notable founders. Over a six decade period from the roughly the 1930s to 1980s, Colonial Williamsburg purchased, restored and rebuilt much of the colonial fabric of the town. This built on decades of efforts by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and others beginning in the late 19th century. These predecessors of CW purchased historic sites and buildings (Capitol, Powder Magazine) and laid the groundwork for The Restoration, or what others call CW.
Williamsburg opens up many of the houses and buildings and shops for tours and such, by ticket. However, the public streets have always been just that, public, with Williamsburg closing Duke of Gloucester Street merely to cars during my childhood. However, in recent years, Williamsburg has struggled, and has searched for revenue to keep the enterprise afloat as it created ever more elaborate re-enactments and costume dramas. Thus the idea of fencing off portions of Williamsburg, turning the city into a sort of Disneyland, is fully realized. This could make true Frank Lloyd Wright’s October 1938 criticism of the “shallowness” of Williamsburg, heard at that famous Phi Beta Kappa hall lecture.
Long History of Fences
My namesake great-grandfather, Virginia Gov. John Garland Pollard, was mayor of Williamsburg during the early days of the restoration. While he was professor at William & Mary, he conspired with the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin to get John D. Rockefeller Jr. to come to Williamsburg to rebuild the Raleigh Tavern; his interest was Phi Beta Kappa, and teaching citizenship. He was also founder of the Marshall-Wythe School of Citizenship, which created what became the Marshall-Wythe School of Law.
While governor, he helped write the 1932 public policy book Modern Government in a Colonial City. The lead author was Luther Gulick, Director of the Institute of Public Administration at Columbia University. The book details the history of government in Williamsburg and brings that history from colonial establishment to the 1930s.
Gov. Pollard writes that in 1870, the state abandoned the idea of local government by closed corporation. The idea, he recounted, was that city officials needed to be elected, and not some sort of guild or private club. This legal structure allowed Williamsburg to elect 12 councilmen, four justices, one overseer of the poor and one street commissioner. However, the large elected body was apparently unworkable, and in 1884, Williamsburg became subject to the rules for towns of less than 5,000.
This new lineup was more useful, providing for a city corporation that would elect a mayor and six councilmen, none receiving a salary. Gov. Pollard, who was a notable Virginia Constitutional scholar and former Attorney General who yearly annotated the state code in his popular law book series Pollard’s Code, observed that a main reason for incorporating was to keep the streets open. He wrote:
“The ordinances passed were characteristic of small communities – bills to prevent peddling, to require gates to be hung so that they opened inward, to tax billiard parlors, to prevent persons fencing the streets, and a bill to keep Policeman X out of saloons, except in the discharge of his duties.”
When I read it, I almost fell out of my Paschall-era William and Mary windsor chair. You read it right; one of the first duties of the city was to prevent persons fencing off the streets.
There are so many arguments against this issue, that go beyond whether some people might be “for” the idea or “against” the idea. Such as:
The correct “colonial” interpretation (a CW mantra) of the street is that it is public. So to wall it off makes it most unlike the 1775 time period.
The street has been paid for many times by the public.
CW will become even more isolated, as everyday Virginians of all means, who are used to shopping and walking the street, stay away from the area.
Williamsburg itself will become more isolated and theatrical, rather than historic and authentic. The key value to Millenials, a future audience, is authenticity.
Williamsburg is not Disney. It is an educational institution that owes its tax free status to its availability and service to the general public.
The people who would not pay for a visit to the historic area are precisely the people who need the historic area.
Alexandria, Charleston, Savannah and seem to do well with public streets.
Cities, particularly cities that carry the history of the nation, do not “belong” to private entities, no matter how much they make a mess about how great they are. Colonial Williamsburg was created so the everyday man could see what life in Colonial Virginia was like, and walk in the steps of patriots. In particular, it was designed so that the everyday person could visit the town and not pay to visit the restored buildings. The idea being that we all need to be informed by the architecture.
Through the years, CW officials have been careful about being too imperious in their approach to locals. In June of 1928, when the Rockefeller Fund gift was announced, the audience who might be concerned about this even included special meetings of the everyday citizens of Toano.
Genteel Civil Disobedience
I do wish Williamsburg native Margaret Lane Toth were still alive. As a child, and well into the 1980s, Aunt Margaret, as I called her, would drive her very large, powerful Buick Riviera down Duke of Gloucester street, whenever she pleased. She resented even the blocking of Duke of Gloucester street to traffic during the day. We thought it a hoot though, and always admired her gumption at doing this.
Her case was simple. This is my street too. There is a bit of injustice in this whole idea of fencing; she grew up at “Shady Lawn” on Waller Street, behind the Capitol, where her father Col. L.W. Lane, lived. CW records indicate that it was Col. Lane who apparently sold at least a piece of the Raleigh Tavern property to Colonial Williamsburg. Margaret Lane Toth, a fearless conservationist who lost her only son tragically in the U.S.S. Liberty attack, was not about to be told what to do on her childhood street.
The streets belong to the people of Virginia, and if CW is not up to the cause of keeping these buildings up, they need to reinvent, rent out some houses like England’s clever Landmark Trust, ratchet down the re-enactments or return the buildings to others. That CW cannot find its way is no excuse for a wrong to be committed.
Virginians graciously let The Restoration come in, and operate. They have done a great thing over the years. But they were to come and operate for the benefit of the people, not for the benefit of themselves. If somehow they have proven themselves incapable of it, perhaps they might turn over some of the operation to others, and leave the low-rent, plein air Hamilton show to others.
My father’s discussions of life at the University of Virginia in the mid 1950s often involved parties and social life, and the overall scene, from William Faulkner to periodic visits by Louis Armstrong and other jazz and big band greats.
I learned some important style issues from him as well; pants should not drag onto a shoe, button downs should never be too starched and a tuxedo is called a “tuck” not a “tux.” Continue reading →
ORANGE – Back in the early 1980s, I went to boarding school in the Virginia country. As typical of so many 14-year-olds, I did not appreciate so many things that now I understand to be great. One such institution was Radio Orange, the clever marketing handle for the dual AM-FM station WJMA. WJMA, the initials of which stand for hometown President James Madison, was one of those great community radio stations, thousands of which have been rendered puerile by the vile radio consolidation of the last 20 years. Each morning, Radio Orange woke me on my clock radio.
I was lucky enough to know, however, that the station was a standout, even as I would have rather heard its less Middle of the Road (that was the music it mostly played) tunes of The Carpenters and such on my morning clock radio. Patricia McArver, the wife of our faculty member, often did the news, and Ann Harrison, the daughter of the legendary station owner Archie Harrison, was a day student at the “all-boys” school. Mrs. Skillcorn, the wife of my patient algebra teacher and wrestling coach Bill Skillcorn, also filled in with the news, as I recall. McArver later went to The Citadel, where she still teaches communications.
So we listened to radio Orange, alot, as it had great news and a sort of subversive marketing nickname Radio Orange. The “Radio” echoed Radio Free Europe and other ambitious attempts to subvert collectivist thought with facts, and we as students thought it pretty hip. The ads too, were intensely local. In fact it was all local, even a classical show.
Archie Harrison, who died in 2013, was famous in Virginia news circles, and beloved, as the station was even more innovative than some of the more over-programmed teenybopper stations in the larger markets of Richmond, Norfolk and D.C. The news staff did live news, with actual reporting from county meetings and such. I wish I had talked to him about radio then; instead I just remember him as a dapper guy who came around quite often.
Waking up this morning, I wondered if there were airchecks related to the station, to hear the sound of what those mornings were like. Airchecks, I have realized, are one of the few ways that time travel is truly possible, as you sort of step back into the moment when you hear them. Thankfully, there are dozens on the website wjma.radiohistory.net, as well as an exhaustive history of the station’s accomplishments. Please read the site, as it also includes a long list of the local civic leaders who made the station happen. These foresighted men realized that good, local radio programming was essential to a town’s economic health.
The station was sold, and eventually moved to Culpeper, which was a great loss for Orange-ites, as we called them.
Would that today’s large radio companies go back and study the economics and ecosystems of these independent radio stations, to see what they contributed to our country, and what potential they still have with thoughtful, civic-minded local ownership. Or even better, Agit Pai’s newly radio friendly Federal Communications Commission could carefully study the current radio stations that operate in this fashion, and with policy, encourage more of them.
Today, the radio giants of Cumulus and I Heart Media own hundreds of stations. Their leveraged companies are short of cash and ideas. Perhaps there might be a way to de-leverage these companies, spinning off the radio stations into joint ventures with majority local ownership, yet with some of the advantages of networks. Expanding the pie. That’s what capitalism is about and that’s what Radio Orange was about.
Austrian thinker and Catholic priest Ivan Illich, largely forgotten today, predicted and legitimized a critique of capitalism and socialism that is still relevant. Illich, who illustrated the destructiveness of consumer and communist Western culture as it was in the 1960s and 70s, seems to today to be a visionary who understood the downside of “progress” as it was and is defined by bureaucrats and the establishment.
His book Deschooling Society took on the education establishment, and he had equal contempt for the medical establishment, both of which upheld lifestyles that in the end were harmful to people. He was, it seems, an unwitting part of the Catholic social justice movement, but was able to rise beyond the dogma with a critique of World Bank do-gooderism echoed by Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity. Tools For Conviviality (Harper & Row, 1973) was the book that tried to give Illich’s way of moving forward, calling “conviviality” the ability to use tools to create your own God-given vision of the world. Continue reading →
My window into the history of Texas in the late 19th century and early 20th century is a scrapbook from my my Bell ancestors. It seems funny to say ancestors, as my great-grandmother Katharine Bell Byrd (May 11, 1894 – May 5, 1985), lived with us growing up in Virginia Beach. Born in San Antonio, Texas in 1894, she lived until 1985. My memory is of a stylish, Buick driving grand lady who gave me Pringles, Coca-Cola and Morton Honey Buns. But there was much more to her life than that.
The scrapbook, which is about 40 pages, includes hundreds of photos, most of early Texas. It is a notable bit of social history, as my great-grandmother’s great-grandfather was Josiah Hughes Bell, who lived from 1791-1838. Bell was one of Steven Austin’s early Texas pioneers. I heard, quite often, about the first capital of Texas being at his town and plantation, Bell’s Landing, later named Columbia, on the Brazos River. I recall her saying that her grandfather was the first “white” baby born in Texas, though later mentions of Thaddeus C. Bell indicate that he might have been the second “Anglo” born in the Republic.
Katharine Bell Byrd (actually known as Mrs. G. Bentley Byrd, who I called Nini) was a Scot, with clear blue eyes, and she always understood herself to be a Texan. This did not manifest itself in too many ways, as she lived most of her life as the wife of a prominent Navy physician in Norfolk, Virginia.She was the only person that I ever knew during my childhood that ate Mexican food; she often had enchiladas after her bourbon toddy.
I would ask her, over and over, to tell me the story of growing up in Texas, and the Galveston Storm. The storm was a horror, and her father Thaddeus Copes Bell, as an executive of New York Life, was one of the first ones there afterward. Thaddeus Bell, who later moved to Virginia, paid out claims as the funeral pyres of the thousands of bodies burned; apparently the smell was what was the worst.
Nini did not not tell me that part (I heard it from my grandmother) but she did tell me of having to go over to a neighbors house across the street during the storm; to protect the windows they put mattresses up against them. I believe then she was living in Houston, along with her sister Ruth Bell.
Unfortunately, she did not actually have the scrapbook in her possession in the 1970s, as far as I knew; it came to my grandmother later. But getting the scrapbook when my grandmother died confirmed the world view that I heard, first hand.
Some photos from the scrapbook.
Above, a hunting party in Encinal County, Texas on November 20, 1898. Included in the 10-person hunting party were Shepard (at far left and perhaps the most stylish of the bunch), Culberson (bottom right) and Albert (far right). Others there (they are identified in an another scrapbook) included Jones, Puckett and Rose. Ike, not pictured in this photo but in another, was the black “all around man” and Albert was the cook. Thad Bell was taking photos.
Below, part of the game during that 1898 hunting party. Albert, again at right, looks to have a pan and a very large knife!
I have no clue where this is, or what vessel she is.
Above, the house of a J. O. Ferrell (I think that is what it reads) on 100 Summit Ave in San Antonio. There is a house that sort of looks like it on Google Maps, though I cannot find an exact match. Its a great area of old houses.
Above, the Thaddeus Bell photo of the remains of the First Capital of Texas. It has since been reconstructed as it was in the days of the Republic.
Often, in their travels and hunts, they were at the King Ranch. Below, a photo of “Mr. Curtis.’ Above, this is apparently a very old tree on or near the Bell property in Columbia, which was the capital of Texas in 1836. Sam Houston was sworn in as president of the Republic in Columbia and it is also apparently where Secretary of State Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas,” died.
Above, my great grandmother with a nurse named Maria.
A beautiful horse at King Ranch. I am not sure who is holding it.