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220px John Tyler by George P A Healy

John Tyler, the 10th President of the United States, may not have been a particularly remembered executive (except perhaps as the trailing end of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too“), but he, his children, and grandchildren quite nearly cover the span of the American nation. Tyler himself was born in March, 1790, just over a year after the Constitution, having been duly ratified, came into force. He lived until 1862, dying in the greatest test of that nation (and also the war of the greatest American general, although Tyler tried to join up the wrong side).

During that life, he fathered fifteen children, the latest, Pearl Tyler, coming only two years before his death in 1860. Her mother, Tyler’s second wife, Julia, was thirty years John’s junior. The youngest children of that union, Lyon, Robert, and Pearl, lived well into the 20th century, Pearl dying the last of all in 1947.

Two of Lyon Tyler’s son are, as of 2012, still alive, and living in the ancestral mansion “Sherwood Forest,” Lyon Jr., and Harrison. They are the third generation of a family that spans the Republic (and is trending on Twitter), and makes it personal in their memories. I can’t help but imagine that it is that deep sense of America that informs Harrison Tyler’s judgment of Newt Gingrich: he’s a “big jerk.”

It’s positively constitutional, it is.

(Full genealogy here).

The Paolo Soleri

Paolo Soleri, now 91, was born in Turin and studied architecture there. He came to the US in the 1940s to work with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West. (He recounts amusingly (The Urban Ideal, 23-4) that with the little English he commanded at the time, he found himself on a bus to Tolleson, Arizona before being set right.) After a few years back in Italy, he returned to Arizona, setting up an architectural center of his own, Arcosanti. Much of its income came from handcraft projects, such as cast metal bells; but it has also been a laboratory for his architectural ideas.

He’s a visionary, who has seen certain ecological issues very clearly — notably, that the most sustainable mode of living for billions of humans on this planet of ours is to cluster together in cities, leaving as much as possible of nature to nature. Check out the wide-ranging interview with Jerry Brown (1, 2), from back when Brown was doing his radio program We The People. There’s a paradox in Soleri’s choice of a non-urban site for the project — a spot that began as wilderness but has been swamped by the development of Scottsdale and greater Phoenix. (Brown, introducing Part 2: “a place called Arcosanti, an urban, well it isn’t an urban laboratory, but it is a desert laboratory about a type of urban space and the people are there, what I would say a very elegant, frugal and dense, and complex way of being.”)

Along with his years of advocacy and charismatic projection of green architecture, though, he has built a few very interesting practical projects outside Arcosanti. During the Italian interim, for example, he designed the Solimene ceramic factory at Vietri on the Amalfi coast. Its fluted exterior alternates between glass and columns covered with tiles and plates from the factory’s own production.

And in 1965, at the Santa Fe Indian School, he designed and built an amphitheater, known for decades as “the Paolo Soleri”. By his account, it was conceived for Native American theatrical performance, but it is also well known for graduations, community functions, and music. The school has lately been demolishing a number of its older buildings, including several of real historical interest — check out the murals in the old photo of the dining room. And now they plan to take down the amphitheater as well (the title of my post is from a report by a local TV station).

There’s a petition to urge the head of SFIS to reconsider the demolition. Please sign if you’re interested. Senators Bingaman and Udall have expressed support for the preservation of the amphitheater, if not yet promised funds. And here’s Lyle Lovett speaking on the issue.

(Via Conrad Skinner. Updated after comments.)

This is a guest post by our friend andrew, over by the wayside. Many thanks!

(Image from W.H. Michael, The Declaration of Independence, Washington, 1904)

On this day in 1941, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were taken out of their exhibit cases at the Library of Congress, carefully wrapped in acid-free and neutral packing materials, and placed inside a bronze container designed especially to carry them. When the packing was complete, the “top of the container was screwed tight over a cork gasket and locked with padlocks on each side.”*

The documents remained in this state for the next few days, until the Attorney General ruled on December 26th that the Librarian of Congress could “without further authority from the Congress or the President take such action as he deems necessary for the proper protection and preservation of these documents.” At which point the library went back to work:

Under the constant surveillance of armed guards, the bronze container was removed to the Library’s carpenter shop, where it was sealed with wire and a lead seal, the seal bearing the block letters L C, and packed in rock wool in a heavy metal-bound box measuring forty by thirty-six inches, which, when loaded, weighed approximately one hundred and fifty pounds.

Along with other important documents like the Magna Carta and the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration and the Constitution were then taken to Union Station in an “armed and escorted truck,” where they were loaded into a compartment in a Pullman car on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  Accompanying the documents were Chief Assistant Librarian Verner W. Clapp and some number of armed Secret Service agents.

The documents left D.C. in the evening and arrived in Louisville the next morning, where they were “met by four more Secret Service agents and a troop of the Thirteenth Armored Division, who preceded by a scout car and followed by a car carrying the agents and Mr. Clapp, convoyed the Army truck containing the materials” to the depository at Fort Knox. The documents were to be kept there until it was determined that they could once again be considered safe in Washington, D.C.

It was not the first time the Declaration and the Constitution had been moved because of war.

Read the rest of this entry »

In this era of bottom lines, Simon Sadler asks if we might not consider the other end of things.

Many faculty and students are stepping up to the plate this year to explain the bottom line on why public education is vital for our economy and for social justice. Is there also a way we can talk unabashedly about the top line, the improbable ambition of the institution, its libraries and labs and gardens and concerts, its saved lives in its hospitals and classrooms, unafraid of sounding elitist because the top line too is testament to UC’s splendid publicness?

Let there be light: not a bad pitch. Abstract. Benign, but grand. Secular, yet still echoing with religious thunder. It doesn’t short-sell the purpose of the UC. We are, however, feeling pressured to invent more positivist missions with greater customer orientation and more directly measurable outcomes—more bottom lines, in short, and fewer top lines.

Just as at the UC, senior administrators for the New York Public Library are working with consultants toward “reinventing” their institutional role. None of that, though, seemed to have got to our docent. He unhurriedly recounted the lessons the New York Public Library learned from the other great libraries since Alexandria, and stories of readers who’d come in off the street, read economics books, and gone from rags to riches, and he recalled tales of immigrants who’d been allowed to read books in their own languages denied them in the countries they had left, and he meditated on the depositing of materials for research not yet imagined. And through it all he was cannily reminding us that a choice had been made, and was still being made, between wonder and disenchantment.

There’s a beautiful little metaphor in that post, well worth the moment it will take you to read the small rest of it.

[Editor’s Note: Adam Arenson (bio below), a friend and occasional commenter here, has graciously provided us with a guest post. Thanks, Adam, for doing this.]

Quick: What does your bank look like?

I admit it; I don’t know either. There are glassed-in tellers. There’s a metallic sheen off the ATMs. Some peppy posters promoting savings plans for dream retirements. But it all adds up to a rather anonymous décor. More than once the names and the colors have changed, and I hardly noticed.

But there are banks I remember. Growing up in San Diego, I recall the grand lobbies of the Home Savings banks, some with gurgling fountains and sculptures. They had parking lots, and wide arches framed the entrances. Most spectacular were the mosaics: thousands of little tiles arranged to show carefree beach scenes, vaqueros from the Californio past, Victorian ladies in their bonnets, Chinese miners and Franciscan friars. Going to the bank was a history lesson and a celebration of California identity; it was a civic space, a place to linger, a landmark for a child who hardly knew pennies from dimes.

Home Savings of America is no more; in 1998, the bank was purchased by Washington Mutual, which last year was seized by the federal government and sold to Chase. Though the Washington Mutual name has lingered, it too is gone: this month, its depositors are receiving Chase ATM cards, and, on the East Coast, Washington Mutual branches are being closed and sold off.

In this moment of financial turmoil, however, we as Californians should ask that the cultural assets of the bank be preserved. These mosaics, paintings, and stained glass artwork are a unique California treasure deserving protection.

This art is the legacy of Millard Sheets. For most of his career, Sheets (1907-1989) served as director of the Otis Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design), where the library is now named in his honor. Beginning in 1952, Sheets, Susan Hertel, and Denis O’Connor spent three decades designing Home Savings banks and providing them with memorable art: In the Lombard branch in San Francisco, a mural provides a timeline of local history from Native Americans to the Golden Gate Bridge; at the Pacific Beach branch in San Diego, mosaics of Spanish missionaries and soldiers stand guard; in Studio City, images of vaqueros over the door are joined by prospectors and movie directors. Sheets completed commissions for the Mayo Clinic, the Honolulu Hilton, and Notre Dame University, yet his masterpieces are here in southern California, and they have been left vulnerable.

After the sell-off of Home Savings branches in the late 1990s, Sheets’s mosaics have come to grace a barbeque-grill vendor in La Mesa, California, and a mattress store on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. Are the landlords cognizant of their significance, and to renters maintain and repair them? The fifty-foot-tall mosaics on the marquee banks are probably safe, but what about the small, two-by three-foot panels of life on the sea floor, or the delicate paintings of palomino horses?

This artwork is vernacular, with humble materials and few pretensions. Yet it is still worthy of preservation and care, an important public treasure alongside the holdings of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or the Getty Museum.

We must look out for these mosaics, these paintings and stained glass, especially when their current owners—banks and real-estate developers—are desperate to liquidate assets and regain their footing. I’ve begun compiling an inventory of this artwork online and welcome additions from readers. Those concerned might also contact their local preservation board to ask that this artwork receive landmark protection, or perhaps arrange transfer to a local arts council or museum.

During these days when Californians have come to associate their banks only with bad news, we have an opportunity to preserve some of them as unique chronicles of our local history. Future generations will thank us for recognizing that, sometimes, a bank’s most precious asset is the bank building itself.

Originally from San Diego, Adam Arenson is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he teaches nineteenth-century North American history, with a particular interest in the American West and its borderlands. He has published articles on Ansel Adams photography, library furniture, and more, and is co-blogger at makinghistorypodcast. He is working on a book manuscript,The Cultural Civil War: St. Louis and the Failures of Manifest Destiny, and co-editing a volume on frontier cities; more information here].

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