I’ve been asked many times for a driving tour of Covington, Ky., the 19th-century city where we work and live.
I have yet to give one.
After 10 years of stalking the streets of this town, I’ve discovered a weird link between your land speed and the architectural detail of the houses. No matter how slow you try to drive a car through an old neighborhood, it’s too fast to experience pre-Depression-era architecture.
You figure this out when you walk the streets of an old neighborhood every day. The houses were designed to be observed by pedestrians or people on horseback. The detail on these houses stands up to a good two minutes of exploration by passers-by. Bracketed cornices. Eyebrow windows. Transom windows. All these things get lost when you hit about 15 miles per hour.
My cynical mind links our cars with our architecture. If you are going to see a house for a mere 2 seconds, it’s OK if it looks only like a facsimile of a good design. In fact, you can make all the houses in a neighborhood look similar because no one is going to get a good look at them anyway.
Unfortunately, I sometimes feel like a Ferrari when I walk through a museum. I have to fight the urge to get to my destination, which is to see everything the museum has to offer. If I don’t force myself to plod slowly and stop every now and then, I know I’ll miss something important and perhaps life-changing.
Lucy and I toured Fort Mackinac in Michigan, a British and American fort on a small island in Lake Huron. Virtually all of the furnishings in the fort were high Victorian and reflected the structures’ heyday during the late 19th century. The furniture was mostly cheap stuff. Manufactured. Uninspired. And there was piles of it.
After 12 rooms of the stuff, my eyes were exhausted, and I got lazy. We passed through the enlisted men’s barracks, and I spotted an attractive and graceful chair. It was clearly a shaved ladderback. And the feet had been drawknifed to a smaller dimension, much like ladderback chairs here in Eastern Kentucky. And…
At that moment a family barged into the room with a bunch of kids who swarmed the place. None was wearing a face mask (which was required), and so we retreated like animals to the next room. I forgot about the chair.
Later in the tour we poked through the quartermaster’s store and saw some of the specification sheets used to procure goods for the fort. One of them showed a shaved barracks chair, just like the one we had seen an hour earlier.
But again, I was moving too fast. People behind me. People in front. And I didn’t make the connection until we were out of the fort entirely: There was an Army specification for a shaved ladderback chair. I saw the spec. I saw the chair.
That would have made an interesting blog entry: comparing the detailed military spec sheet for a shaved chair to an actual example. But instead, you got this drivel.
I am an idiot.
Slow down and open your eyes. Damn that’s hard.
— Christopher Schwarz
29 thoughts on “Seeing Furniture Way Too Fast”
The first couple of thousand times I walked in my town, I picked out the houses I really liked, and the details, little details, that made the most difference.
But sometimes I would notice all of the flaws. The garages that had been badly converted into dens or bedrooms. The entry steps with no top landing, or that pitched toward the house instead of away. The house that still has never had a foundation planting and desperately needs some. The house that got painted purple last summer — foundation, trim, everything.
I like to see if I can still spot new details.
I feel your pain.
One of my other pursuits is photographing ‘cool’ stuff, usually older buildings, in Illinois small towns, an outgrowth of photographing railroad facilities and structures. Try finding that anymore.
A buddy’s advice is to get out of the car, get on foot, and start seeing. It is amazing how much more one sees when the time is taken. One can (legitimately) argue that you see more at 60 or 70 miles per hour than when plodding along, but I enjoy detail and nuance. It provides context.
Today’s architecture is a result of the drive-by culture. Why embellish with detail that is neither appreciated or seen? Here we live in a region where a brick facade on an otherwise vinyl sided house Is a mark of upscale consumption, where vestigial embellishments consist of faux stone or half-timbers.
Chris, PDF page 749 of this report has the specification you are looking for http://www.npshistory.com/publications/sero/relics-of-barbarism.pdf
Great document! Thank you. That wasn’t the spec sheet in the quartermaster’s office, however. It wasn’t an armchair. But that is very interesting in and of itself.
They’re not wearing masks & you’re the idiot? I think something’s haywire with that concept. I’d run too, even from a chair…
I agree with your comment regarding the architecture. Cities, and its buildings, are designed with automobiles in mind. And that is one of those other things in modernity that have stolen our humanity from us and affected how we treat one another. There are few sidewalk enraged pedestrians, with or without masks.
You’re not an idiot…..you’re mustard.
You saw and made the connection. Most wouldn’t.
This chair is giving me all the feels. So many ideas.
I was on Mackinac Island last week, just after the Michigan governors order requiring.facemask. Mackinac Island was excluded from the order. So while there were signs everywhere “requiring” masks, it wasn’t the law.
That is not what we were told — about 10 times a day.
Ya know, you can be a little snarky at times. I like it!! Especially when the comment deserves it.
I worked at an excellent museum of photographic arts many years ago. Anyone who regularly watches visitors to art exhibitions becomes familiar with the “museum shuffle”. Quick glance at the picture, read the card, a second quick glance at the picture, sideways shuffle to the next picture. Our curator of education got us experimenting with groups who had requested tours. The idea was to get people to activate their ability to see. I might ask the visitors to what part of the photo the artist wanted to draw their eye. Then I would ask them to intentionally look away from that and explore the picture. Foreground, background, corners. From where was the light coming? What is going on in the picture? We didn’t really expect this approach to go over well, but people responded with enthusiasm. The observations from young people (sometimes very young) were particularly interesting. The origin of this concept is Visual Thinking Strategies, https://vtshome.org/
I like this approach. I often wonder what people are doing when they spend, what to me seems like and incredibly long time, looking at a painting. I look for a few seconds, like it or don’t like it, and then I’m ready to move on. I like the idea of someone guiding me through the painting (or chair, or whatever), giving me ideas on things to look for.
As a child in the ’50s, I sat in the afternoons with my grandparents on the porch of their Victorian on Main Street of a small Indiana town not far from Covington, KY. Townspeople would walk by and greet us, sometimes stopping for a brief chat. Vehicles would pass by, moving slowly, the drivers often waving. Contemporary attempts have been made to develop new housing on the traditional neighborhood model, with front porches near sidewalks, narrow lots, deep houses and back alleys, with limited success. Slow, social, comfortable living is not an aspirational lifestyle today.
“If I don’t force myself to plod slowly and stop every now and then, I know I’ll miss something important and perhaps life-changing.” I share your frustration but not just in museums. My interest is primarily small objects that can be held…spoons, knives, pens, ceramic bowls. I have to re-examine an object several times until I’ve actually “seen” it. At my advanced age I’ve come to accept this, considering it a personal “defect” of some sort and I try to compensate by revisiting an object multiple times before forming an evaluation.
Perhaps you can get the spec sheet from them here:
Books & Publications
Printable Publications Order Form
Mackinac State Historic Parks
P.O. Box 873-P
Mackinaw City, MI 49701
or Fax to:
Link might be helpful…
Unless the photo isn’t accurate, the right front leg is about 2″ too short.
Still a nice piece to look at.
I went back and studied the picture again, and. to my eye, the chair is probably in the workshop for repairs as the frame seems to be bent.
I’m guessing the threaded rods were not original. They were added to hold it together, and tightened poorly, causing the frame to twist.
Slowing down to look… Amen. But it makes finding companions whom you can share a museum visit with (without splitting up) difficult. And even though my lady and I run at the same overall speed in museums, we tend to separate, which makes sharing observations/ideas difficult.
On the other hand: Sometimes just going through a museum for general impressions and stopping when a particular item catches your eye can make sense… as long as you DO stop when you hit those items, and are doing it as a deliberate choice. Which is one reason for visiting museums repeatedly even if they haven’t changed the exhibit. Sometimes you want to pick a song apart and understand the details of how it was written, what it’s about, why it works… sometimes you just want to let it move you.
Masks: … Yeah. And per “be kind” I’ll leave it at that.
I know how you feel about people and masks. I live in small tourist town in Northe Wales, UK. I’m a bit scared to go there at the moment because non of the visitors (and there are a lot) are being careful, wear masks indoors or give you any room
I quite understand what you are saying here. After breaking my hip some four years ago, I was unable to drive. When I had to travel, I was required to sit (panic stricken) in the passenger seat while “She Who Must Be Obeyed” aimed the vehicle. In the few brief moments of calm that I experienced, I noted many interesting things about our neighbors and their homes.
Reading this, along with some other things that crossed my path recently, inspired my latest newsletter:
Forget the law. It is the sensible thing to do.
My dad had an interesting expression: “Your right to swing your hand ends where my nose begins.” These people need to understand that wearing a mask is a public service to benefit us all.
I spent a summer after college working in exhibits for Mackinac State Historic Parks (both at Fort Mackinac and the sites on the mainland) and loved it. Even though I was there every day for an entire summer, it wasn’t enough to fully absorb all there was to offer. I think there is a lot to your observation that architecture and craftsmanship offers much more for a less rushed consumption. Hopefully you had some time to walk some of the quieter neighborhoods on the island to take it in, since a driving tour really isn’t even an option!
“No matter how slow you try to drive a car through an old neighborhood, it’s too fast to experience pre-Depression-era architecture.”
When I cycled a lot more (5 or so years ago, pre-kids) I found that a bicycle is often the perfect way to explore a city and appreciate some of the old homes, buildings, and unique features in it. Slow enough to get a good look, fast enough to get you through some of the more uninteresting (or less safe) areas. Not to mention it’s much easier to stop or take a side path where one might appear.
Had I known you’d be all the way at the bridge I would have offered to drive down and meet you, though for us michiganders, once or twice to the island seems more than enough. There is, however, some cool stuff. NOT the Grand Hotel. I stayed there once for a wedding. It was like being trapped inside Miss Havesham’s wedding dress.
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