The Politics of Place

While I was still in undergrad and spending a summer in Connecticut, I caught wind of some proposed legislation that would divert funds from cultural resources. I believe the intent was to push that money toward defense or security (this would have been the summer of 2002). I can’t quite recall, at this point. But for all that I don’t remember about the impetus, the letter that I wrote to the sponsoring representative sticks with me. Not because it was the first time I engaged democracy (it wasn’t) but because it was the first time I’d been forced to consider that architectural history and historic preservation were inherently political.

I asserted, at the time, that diverting funds from cultural resources in the name of patriotism was inherently flawed: what IS your country beyond the people and sentiments that separate it from any other country? It’s a void. A potential space. An empty canvas that could take on any of a million+ forms of expression.Without space and history, there is no there there. What we celebrate when we celebrate patriotism always comes back to ideals. Ideals belong to people. People shape spaces and create documents and it is those spaces and documents that teach us about our history and give us something to be patriotic about. Historians and others who curate, protect, and interpret those leavings are gatekeepers of patriotism.

This is not a foreign concept to conquering parties, or rising religious majorities. It’s the reason the Basillica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva stands on the site of three prior pagan temples, including one dedicated to Isis, and why, just a stone’s throw away, the Pantheon was converted from Roman temple to Christian Church; it’s why Mohammed appropriated and repurposed a pagan shrine in Mecca, making the Kaaba a revered site of pilgrimage; it’s why the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan; and it’s why ISIL/Daesh has committed to the destruction of Palmyra, to cite just a few examples.

Places have memory, and memory provides a tether to the past and to a shared heritage. That tether, in turn, lends power to those connected by it. Destroying, appropriating, and repurposing sites of cultural significance is a direct action against what may very well be the only thing linking otherwise disparate people. If you disconnect people, or make them feel dissociated from both one another and their shared past, it becomes much easier to conquer them for the simple reason that “them” becomes less tangibly defined. Symbolically, appropriation and rededication assert a new dominant paradigm in a very direct and visible way: “What was here is gone or changed; the hegemony associated with what is gone is replaced. We deny you physical remembrance.”

Places also, obviously, politicize their people. We’re seeing that very clearly in Trump’s selectively applied Executive Order banning immigrants (and, so far, even lawfully vetted residents) by virtue of their place of origin. Somalia-born Mo Farrah is now questionably legal in his home state of Oregon. Why? Because of a place he left when he was 8.

Whether geopolitical or cultural, Place is political. Therefore, places are political.

When we discuss banning people because of place, and the dominant religions associated therewith, we are engaging in selective politicization. We prioritize the “otherness” conferred by the place over the shared humanity of Place. We choose to see only (a flawed and insulting interpretation of) Islam, instead of the incredible cultural achievements that Islam has given to the world. Sana’a. Aleppo. Bosra. Samarra. To say nothing of the cultural achievements that predate Islam in the places of Islam. Instead of looking at these monuments to humanity and ascribing that humanity to the people–people who are descended from those that inhabited these places for thousands of years–we see only a conveniently-created and superimposed ideology.

This upsets me as a human and a historian.

As a human, I recognize the humanitarian crisis that this presents. As a historian, it rankles because of its selective inaccuracy. But I can do my small part to refute that incomplete vision by presenting information on the cultural legacies of the middle east. And it is toward that end that I will dedicate February March to the architectural and urban marvels of the Places of Islam.

I will make it as difficult as I can, in whatever meager way I can, for people to exclude the shared humanity of Place.

Six Bedrooms.

When I saw the sale listing for our house, I laughed.

“Six bedrooms. Pffffffffffffffffffft.”

Because I mean, that is a lot of bedrooms, and we are two people. And while I wouldn’t put it past myself to buy a house in which each of my critters could claim their own bedroom, I would put it past my husband. Way, way past him.

But the picture had a nice way about it. In addition to making it look like it stood alone on a knoll (which it does, if you don’t count the neighbor’s house or the neighboring apartment building, or the entire 1916 subdivision to which it belongs), it showed a nice house. A good, sturdy, solid looking red brick number with a light-filled living room and the typically spartan assortment of furnishings intended to emphasize the airiness of it all.

I say six bedrooms and it’s returned, inevitably, “SIX BEDROOMS?!” which quickly descends to “No, no . . .  but it’s not like that.” And the explanation: most of my house is bedrooms. It is somewhat oddly, and a little overwhelmingly, devoted to slumber. Our first floor does not have an abundance of communal living space. Just that long, skinny living room that occupies one half of the downstairs, and the second half divided between a comfortable dining room and teeny-tiny kitchen. A central entry hall eats up the space between the halves.

And that’s it. The rest is six bedrooms.


Second floor plan

Upstairs, there are four bedrooms arranged symmetrically around a second floor square hall, each one slightly less than one quarter of the house.

And then there’s our secret weapon for absorbing visiting family: the third floor. Not a proper floor, mind you. A half story, with a central dormer at the back, and a small window in each gable. It’s a walk-up, with a stair off the hall, and at the top is a perpendicular hall linking two more bedrooms.

This is contested space. Because, really, who needed six bedrooms in a fairly modest house built in 1927? That third floor was surely a walk-up attic. That is the entirely reasonable opinion of my husband and most other reasonable people.

But . . .

There are radiators. | Which could have been added later-say in the 1972 probable renovation/flip, but they’re terribly undersized for space they’re intended to defrost, and they’re such a long way from the basement boiler. Just doesn’t seem practical for the 1970s.

And there’s window and door trim. | That could have been added in the reno, true enough, but it matches the trim in the rest of the house, both in profile and in stain.

Also, the floors are stained. | They’re wide plank pine, which definitely does not match the narrow plank hardwood of the rest of the house, but the stain matches the trim.

There are closets. | ” . . . ”

You just don’t see a lot of closets in attics, but each bedroom has one. Come to think, you also don’t see a lot of room subdivision in attics. Why bother? If it’s a storage space, do you really need his and her house sides?

While I allow that all of these things could be a product of overzealous renovators trying to


There’s a tiny window tucked behind the chimney

shoehorn bedrooms into a listing for a neighborhood where most contemporaneous housing stock maxed out at three bedrooms, I don’t know. I just don’t feel attic. I feel bedrooms. And yesterday, I found a 1930 census record that makes me think Mary T. Wallace, the home’s builder, also felt bedrooms.

We know that Mary T. built the house around 1927. I have blueprints dated 1926 that, in defense of reasonable people everywhere, do NOT include the third floor. But by 1930, the people living in my house were:

  1. Mary T. Wallace. Head of household
  2. (daughterA) Mary B. Walters
  3. (son-in-lawA) George Walters, a clerk
  4. (grandchildA) Mary L. Walters, 11 years old
  5. (daughterB) Julia L. Wallace, a clerk
  6. (daughterC) Helen McKee
  7. (son-in-lawC) John McKee, a salesman and WWI veteran
  8. (grandchildC) Wallace McKee, 3 years old

That’s eight people. 38% of whom were named Mary. Three daughters, two sons-in-law, two grandchildren.

The thought that all of these people coincidentally wound up under one roof a scant three years after said roof was constructed tests the limits of my fancy. My working theory, while keeping one eye fixed on the possibility of the Great Depression catching the family off guard, is that the house was built to accommodate, as well as possible, an extended family living arrangement for reasons I may never learn. And anyway, with three white collar working people living in a house valued at $15,000 (approximately $215,780.00 in 2016 dollars) at the height of the depression, I’m reluctant to accept too dire a speculation about family finance.

Sheltering a family of eight, my house makes sense. The adults could have their own rooms, and two children on the third floor could each have their own snug little room. And while I am only too aware that an answer is not made correct by virtue of the elegance that describes it, I am inclined to plead Occam’s Razor as I continue digging into the lives of the Wallace and McKee Clan. For now, at least, I’m going to imagine them sanely tucked into spaces that granted them not only family space, but also a comfortable, private existence.

It’s the least anyone can dream for them; they only had one bathroom.



The G.I. Bill: A Story of Buildings

Source: Wikimedia Commons

All good government stories start with a Washington, DC hotel, and the G.I. Bill–72 years old today–isn’t much different. From it’s humble beginnings on napkins and stationery, to the desk of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, as it was known, is very much a story of buildings.

Prior to WWII, the dream of homeownership was just that for most average Americans. A dream. And for returning veterans, it may have seemed an impossible one, at that, until Harry W. Colmrey, a Kansas lawyer who’d had his own difficulties transitioning back to civilian life after WWI, took up the issue of veterans rights while staying in the Mayflower Hotel. Over the course of five months, Colmrey hand wrote the draft of the G.I. Bill on hotel stationery and napkins. Within a year of his initial draft, President Roosevelt signed it into law.

The Mayflower Hotel. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The provisions of the G.I. Bill were relatively straightforward: provide educational and training opportunities for servicemen returning from WWII; increase their access to home, farm, and business loans through federal guaranty; and provide unemployment pay. With oversight of the Veterans Administration, the programs flourished–especially the loan guaranty, which backed almost than 2.4 million home loans for WWII veterans between 1944 and 1952.

That’s a lot of homes. Specifically, that’s a lot of new suburban construction. And, although the true measure of the G.I. Bill’s impact on suburbanization is a matter of some debate, the legislation signed into law 72 years ago today almost certainly contributed momentum to a national population redistribution. In an era of rapid movement from the city to new and increasingly far-flung suburbs, Veterans were responsible for 20% of new home purchases.

Although the program was initially aimed at WWII vets, and was highly restricted, a series of expansions and extensions in the later Twentieth Century opened benefits up to more veterans, for a longer period of time. Whereas the initial terms of the Bill were limited to a 5 year scope, an early revision in 1945 gave servicemen ten years to take advantage of their new benefits. Expansions in the 1950s and 1960s increased the loan guaranty from the initial 50%, not to exceed $2,000, to a 60% guaranty capped at $75,000. In 1966, the so-called Cold War G.I. Bill extended benefits to post-Korean War veterans.

While the G.I. Bill is frequently credited with helping to usher in an era of considerable prosperity, the effects of the suburban flight it helped to sustain were not without dire consequences. When combined with the later Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the increased mobility of white, middle-class strivers left cities inhospitably divided by roadways and inhabited only by those who couldn’t afford to move: in many cases, poor people of color.

Neither was its application flawless. Black veterans were all but excluded from the housing benefits of the Bill, as banks routinely refused to make loans to people of color, even with a federal guaranty. Further, many suburbs included deed restrictions that forbade black homeowners even if they could find a willing lender. No provisions in the G.I. Bill, or in immediate succeeding legislation mandated housing fairness for veterans, and without such provisions innumerable black veterans found themselves entirely without benefit. And the arguably greater gift of the G.I. Bill–concessions which allowed for the accumulation of wealth by a middle class previously excluded from such accrual–was reserved only for veterans with the appropriate skin tone. The demographics of entire swaths of suburban and exurban America were thus set.

As we celebrate the 72nd Anniversary of this piece of legislation, we do so in a landscape, in part, of its own shaping–from the development and population of outer ring suburbs to the very populations they support. Much of the way our suburbs look–for better and worse–can be traced back, in some part, to a carefully drafted consideration of veterans needs, scrawled on stationery in room 570 of a DC hotel.


My Imaginary Friends

STROUP_Dr. Schreiner clipping

Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 29, 1900

The cobbler’s children may not have shoes, but the architectural historian’s house will have a history. It’s just that it’s taken almost 3 years to get it together. But my leisurely hunting and pecking through censuses and newspapers has certainly reminded me why I became interested not only in architectural history, but in history research in general.

To sum it up in two words: Imaginary friends.

The people I run into while researching, though typically long-dead, quickly become my transient besties. They live, get married, move around, go visiting, get jobs, retire, and ultimately die right before my eyes, in super-condensed time. An entire life lived in the course of one afternoon of good sources. And I don’t want to come off as misanthropic, but it’s a difficult standard they set for actual, current people to attain. They just take so long with their real-time living.

Among my current crop of long-dead friends are Dr. C. B. Schreiner, much-loved Mt. Lebanon doctor whose property was eventually subdivided, a piece of it becoming the lot on which my house stands; his Widow, Myrtilla; and Mary T. Wallace. Whomever she may be.

Dr. Schreiner was apparently a very good dude. He was educated at Washington and Jefferson College, in Washington, Pa, and studied medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and Bellevue Hospital in NYC before returning to the south hills of Pittsburgh to become everyone’s favorite country doctor. He built a lovely (huge) farm house for his bride, Myrtilla, at the corner of Washington and Bower Hill Roads. They had an orchard. And ten children.

And then one day, the newspaper abruptly informed me, he became ill. “Congestion of the brain.” “Nervous collapse.” He shared with his son fears about his ability to keep his practice.

And then he slit his throat. He was 47.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 1.11.45 PM

Pittsburgh Daily Post. July 29, 1900

The past is full of this sort of thing. You go looking for a property owner only to discover some sort of Shakespearian drama ended or confounded their life. Papers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries spare no drama in reporting the daily suffering of the citizenry. It’s everywhere–people getting hit by trolleys and trains, murdered by loved ones or in the course of committing a crime. But every time it happens to one of my people it’s like a small punch to the gut. You’ve reached the end of the book. Your imaginary friend from the past is officially dead, and there will be no sequel or Melissandre to return them.

When one friend dies, you can only ever move on to the next. Which is convenient, actually, if a bit harsh. Find out what became of the people left behind. After the good doctor’s demise, I glommed on to  Myrtilla Schreiner.

Myrtilla did normal things. Normal things for a doctor’s widow around the turn of the century, anyway. She was active in society. She hosted teas and family weddings. Attended meetings and the like. Most references to her doings include descriptions of head tables and floral adornments. I think of her always in conjunction with the word “festooned.”

In 1926, Myrtilla, a widow, did something for which I am grateful: she sold one of many lots subdivided as part of the Orchard Hill #1 development to Mary T. Wallace, also a widow.

And then , not quite ten years later, Myrtilla died.

By the time she shuffled off this mortal coil, Myrtilla had seen Mt. Lebanon develop out of Scott Township and turn from rural, farming community into a bustling first ring suburb

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Pittsburgh Post Gazette. May 8, 1935

with the opening of the Liberty Tubes in 1924. The neighborhood she left was quite different from the one she knew as a country doctor’s wife. Her obituary described her many survivors, including one Mrs. Guy D. Wallace, who does not appear to be her daughter, though I have not yet directed the full force of my research superpowers in her direction.

Perhaps a sister? Niece? For a relative, the selling price of the lot was pretty steep: $3562.50. Myrtilla may have been a bit of a shark; don’t forget that $.50, Mary. F

or Mary T. / Mrs. Guy D. my house was built. Thanks much, Mary. It’s lovely. Really. And it stayed in the Wallace family long enough for the Wallace family to become the McKees. About 46 years of that family’s life were lived in and around the room I’m sitting in, but beyond subsequent title transfer, I don’t know much about the woman herself, or the children who eventually inherited the rood over my head.

I fear the discovery, in a way. I’ve just lost two good friends and I know I’m going to lose this third one. So I’ve only danced around the edges, reading about Mary’s travels, regionally, often to spend time with her daughter. I’ve started looking into censuses, but I always find something else that needs to be done at that precise moment. Eventually, I’m going to have to consent to finding Mary, just so she can be wrested from me.

Possibly tomorrow, though, because I just remembered this thing I have to do . . .



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