Destrehan Dedicated to Preserving Plantation’s Real History

Two years ago I wrote about the Evergreen Plantation which I had recently visited during a trip to New Orleans and which had been the location for several films, including the Academy Award winning “12 Years A Slave.”  Now with last night’s Oscar ceremony and Black History month winding down, I thought I’d feature another Louisiana plantation that also has been the setting for motion pictures, including “12 Years A Slave.”

But what’s really important about this plantation, is not its film roles but the role it played in history and continues to play today in educating its visitors about the history of the South and, particularly, Black history.

The main house of Destrehan Plantation was built in 1790 in the French Colonial style.
The main house of Destrehan Plantation was built in 1790 in the French Colonial style.

The Destrehan Plantation sits a mere 30 minutes north of New Orleans yet it was one of the few plantations in the New Orleans’ area that I had not visited during the nearly 20 years that I have been going there.  On this trip, however, I decided it would be a good place to take my cousin and his friend from Sweden who were visiting us in New Orleans. It would be a treat for me too.

Now that I’ve been, I can tell you that it’s one of the more worthwhile and informative plantations to visit.  Architecturally, it doesn’t have the “Gone With the Wind” grandeur of Oak Alley, which many tourists associate with plantations, and its slave quarters aren’t as extensive as those found at Evergreen, but it is rich in ways that other area plantations aren’t.  And yet, it barely survived having fallen into disrepair and the hands of vandals who took everything that could not be carried away.

One of the few items found in the decaying Destrehan was a piece of marble from the downstairs mantel. It now sits on the faux marble mantel in the restored downstairs dining room.
One of the few items found in the decaying Destrehan was a piece of marble from the downstairs mantel. It now sits on the faux marble mantel in the restored downstairs dining room.

The plantation was rescued from its demise in 1971 when a local group of preservation-minded citizens who had formed the River Road Society was granted a deed to the house and four acres of its property by the then owners, the American Oil Company. The group set out to restore the house, which has cost more than $2 million. Another $500,000 is being spent for the purchase and development of 14 more acres of plantation land, to include six bed and breakfast cottages expected to be ready in 2018.

Docents at Destrehan dress in period costume to lead visitors through the house sharing with them information about the plantation, the people who lived there, including those who were enslaved, and a history of the pre-Civil era. Our guide, Beverly, clearly enjoyed her role and answered many questions.

Construction on the French colonial style home was started in 1787 by Robin deLogny and completed in 1790. But the plantation takes its name from Jean Noel Destrehan, who married deLogny’s daughter, Celeste, and bought the property after her father’s death in 1792.  Destrehan was also appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to the legislative council responsible for organizing and creating the laws for the new state of Louisiana. The appointment signed by Jefferson and Secretary of Sate James Madison is on display at the plantation although photographs of it are not permitted.

One of two slave cabins that sit near the main hoise. The slave registry can be seen posted on the front of the cabin.
One of two slave cabins that sit near the main house. The slave registry can be seen posted on the front of the cabin.

The plantation remained in the Destrehan family until 1910 when it was sold to the Destrehan Manufacturing Company and then to Amoco which operated an oil refinery and a company town on the property until 1958.

During the tour, visitors learn about the family who lived in the house. They are also told about those who actually built the house–the enslaved which numbered more than 200 before the Civil War. The names of some of those appear on the registry posted on one of two slave cabins that sit near the entrance.  The names of other slaves are placed throughout the house where they would have worked. One of those was Marguerite, a cook and laundress, whose story is told by the historical interpreters.

Beverly, one of Destrehan's historical interpreters, introduces visitors to Marguerite, repesented by the manniequin seen here in the background.
Beverly, one of Destrehan’s historical interpreters, introduces visitors to Marguerite, represented by the mannequin seen here in the background.
destrehan-revealed
Construction details are revealed in one room of the main house with walls that have been left exposed. Window frames from a previous time can be seen next to existing doors and windows.

In the education center, originally an overseer’s cabin, are exhibits about the Slave Revolt of 1811.  The revolt, which nearly succeeded, was one of the largest slave revolts in U.S. history.  Contrary to the letters from the planters, “which are the basis for most accounts of the revolt,” according to historian Daniel Rasmussen, “the slave army posed an existential threat to white control over the city of New Orleans.”  Three trials of those accused as instigators were conducted at Destrehan. Many found guilty were executed, others were sent back to their plantations for a life of hard toil. The story is as dramatic as any movie script but until recently, little was heard about it in American history classes.  To its credit, Destrehan has made every effort to bring this part of its history to the forefront.

Plantation life was often portrayed through that of the owners but little attention was focused on the ones they enslaved.  Destrehan, it seems, is attempting to correct that.

The open gallery on the front of Detrehan looks toward the Mississippi River and provided shade during the hot Louisiana summers.
The open gallery on the front of Detrehan looks toward the Mississippi River and provided shade during the hot Louisiana summers.

Going to the Chapel…

My husband and I were married 40 years ago today in what was once the First Baptist Church in Phoenix, Az. Today, the former church is listed on the National Register of  Historic Places.  I like to think that it’s because we were married there that it ended up on the registry.

We chose (mostly I did), to say our vows there because it was where my parents had been married in the same church.  Although many couples are often wed in the same church as their parents, especially if they live in the same town, neither my parents nor I was from Phoenix.  At the time of our weddings, we just happened to find ourselves in that city.

My mother and father oustide the church in Phoenix after their wedding.
My mother and father outside the church in Phoenix after their wedding.

In my parents case, my Dad, who had recently returned from World War II, was on the road with a trailer full of greyhound dogs. His oldest sister and brother-in-law raced greyhounds and travelled the country going from dog track to dog track. When my Dad came home, he was “in pretty bad shape,” as he said.  My aunt Nola and uncle Paul gave him a job as a trainer to help him put his life back together.  It meant hauling their greyhounds around the country to wherever the season was open. But before leaving his hometown of Parsons, Ks., one of my Dad’s other sisters, Gail introduced him to a girl with whom she worked with at the First Federal Savings and Loan and who she thought was “just right” for my Dad.  Her intuition was good and, as my Dad liked to put it:  “I knew she was the girl for me.”  In fact, just two weeks after they met, my Dad told his new girlfriend that if she didn’t marry him he’d rejoin the Army. Then he left with the dogs.

On their wedding day in Phoenix, my parents were pictured here, so in in love, in Phoenix' beautiful Encanto Park.
On their wedding day in Phoenix, my parents were pictured here, so in love, in Phoenix’ beautiful Encanto Park.

When he got to Phoenix, where there was a big greyhound dog track, he asked his sweetheart to come marry him there.  What a big decision for my Mom. Not only had she never traveled much further than Parsons from her tiny hometown of  Verona, Mo., but she barely knew my Dad.  She must have known he was the one for her too as she, then 25, and her oldest sister, Oleta, drove together to Phoenix. Soon after they arrived, the young couple was married in the chapel of the First Baptist Church in downtown Phoenix that stood at the corner of Monroe and Third Avenue.  They were married 65 years, until my Mother died in 2012.

Twenty-nine years later, Michael and I stood in the same church before a small group of friends and family to exchange our vows. I was working in Phoenix as a journalist, first as an intern for the Arizona Republic, then as an arts editor for the Scottsdale newspaper where my husband, Michael, also a journalist, and I met.

Michael and I exchange vows during our wedding in the santuary of the former First Baptist Church in Phoenix. The string quartet sits behind the candleabra on the left.
Michael and I exchange vows during our wedding in the sanctuary of the former First Baptist Church in Phoenix. The string quartet sits behind the candelabra on the left. My brother, Richard, then a professional photographer, captured our wedding on film for us.

When we decided to marry, we choose to do so in Phoenix where we had friends in common and where my extended family lived.  My parents once again traveled from Kansas to Phoenix for a wedding. By then, the church had vacated the building and had moved to another location. The City of Phoenix now owned it and housed some offices inside . The main sanctuary was no longer in use except for an occasional large meeting. The organ was gone and the altar had been removed. We obtained special permission to hold our ceremony there.

This style of wedding photography, marketed as 'misty's' was basically existing light exposures and popular when we were married. My father took this of us in the church on our wedding day.
This style of wedding photography, marketed as ‘misty’s’ was basically existing light exposures and popular when we were married. My father made this photograph of us in the church on our wedding day.

The sanctuary was thoroughly cleaned before we began decorating the aisles and front with the holly sent to me by my aunt Imogene in Oregon, her gift for my December wedding. The organ was removed when the church left so for music, the arts editor of the Arizona Republic, where Michael was now working, gave us a string quartet for our ceremony.  We hired a minister, someone I had recently interview for an article, and was set.

With my parents on my wedding day in the Phoenix church where we both were married.
With my parents on my wedding day in the Phoenix church where we both were married.

Although I don’t know for certain, ours was probably the last wedding to take place in that church.  The city continued to use it for offices for while after, but in 1984, a massive fire took the roof and gutted the interior. It remained structurally sound but threatened with demolition, a non-profit organization, headed by Terry Goddard a former Phoenix major and state attorney general, bought and saved it in 1992. Twenty-two years later, they had the money necessary to restore it.   Now, with the rehab just completed this September, it is being marketed to businesses for commercial use.

The church is now called the “Monroe Abbey” and is an imposing structure in downtown Phoenix. Built in 1929, its Italian Gothic style, designed by George Merrill, is architecturally significant in a city otherwise dominated by Spanish style architecture. “There’s no other building like it in the Valley,” Dan Klocke, vice president of development at Downtown Phoenix Inc. has said. “Because of its scale and its uniqueness, it could potentially attract a lot of visitors to downtown.”

Just married, we leave the church through the front doors, running through a shower of rice.
Just married, we leave the church through the front doors, running through a shower of rice.

A tenant already occupies the hallowed halls of a smaller adjacent church dubbed Grace Chapel, which is connected to Monroe Abbey but wasn’t structurally damaged in the fire. Others have leased space elsewhere within the huge 40,000 square foot interior.

For those closest to the project, the resurrection of the building represents more than just saving an old church, according to Downtown Phoenix Inc.“There’s a tremendous amount of flavor and place making and just a sense of who we are, where we’ve come from that is embodied in these buildings,” Goddard has said. “I think it’s tragic when they’re lost and I think whenever we can hold onto one of the monuments of the past – that’s something we should do.”

The First Baptist Church, known now as the Monroe Abbey, is one of Phoenix' historic architectural structures, shown here in this photo from the Poenix Business Journal.
The First Baptist Church, known now as the Monroe Abbey, is one of Phoenix’ historic architectural structures, shown here in this photo from the Phoenix Business Journal.

As advocates ourselves for the preservation of historic structures, we couldn’t be more delighted that the place where we and my parents were wedded has been given new life.  It reopened this year and it’s the best 40th anniversary gift we could receive.

 

 

Historic and Iconic Bellingham City Hall Captured on Camera

A company called Light is introducing a new compact camera that uses new technology. They enlisted some photographers to mention it in their blogs and to write about one of their favorite locations to shoot or a unique spot in their city.  I was one of those contacted  for Light’s #VantagePoint project.

The towers of Bellingham's old City Hall rise above a modern day mural depicting the days when the historic structure was built. My photograph was made in 2012 using a Nikkon D700.
The towers of Bellingham’s old City Hall rise above a modern-day mural depicting the days when the historic structure was built. My photograph was made in 2012 using a Nikon D700.

A request like this isn’t easy for me because I have so many favorite spots and so many favorite images that I’ve created over the years.  But I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk to you about one of my favorite local subjects (besides the people I photograph). And that is Bellingham’s old City Hall building, now part of the Whatcom County Museum of Art.

It’s an iconic building in town and safe to say probably the most photographed in Bellingham.  Completed in 1892, it served as the town’s official city hall until 1939 when new offices were built and the museum moved in.

I've photographed the iconic old Bellingham City Hall from a variety of angles and spots. This image made in 2008 with my Nikon F5.
I’ve photographed the iconic old Bellingham City Hall from a variety of angles and spots. This image made in 2008 with my Nikon F5.

 

The noble red-brick and Chuckanut sandstone structure was designed by local architect Alfred Lee in the Second Empire style of Victorian architecture.  According to the City’s website, is “currently one of this style’s most exquisite example in the Pacific Northwest. This building epitomizes the general characteristics of this French inspired style, which are tall, bold and purposely three-dimensional. Some of the design elements are also an eclectic mixture of the Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival style.”  It includes a high mansard roof, classical columns on either side of the main entrance, and a prominent, central bell tower, all of which draw the photographer’s eye.

Walking out of the museum one evening, the silhouette of the old City Hall's towers with the new moon just appearing behind it caught my eye and my camera. This was taken with my Nikon Coolpix S3500 point and shoot.
Walking out of the museum one evening, the silhouette of the old City Hall’s towers with the new moon just appearing behind it caught my eye and my camera. This was taken with my Nikon Coolpix S3500 point and shoot.
This senior's vintage clothing set the tone for his senior photo session at the old City Hall building in Bellingham. It was photographed using my Mamiya RB 67 film camera in 2007.
This senior’s vintage clothing set the tone for his senior photo session at the old City Hall building in Bellingham. It was photographed using my Mamiya RB 67 film camera in 2007.

I have photographed the building, or elements of it, from a variety of spots, angles, times of day and year. It has been the setting for many of my senior portrait sessions and the choice of seniors who want their portrait to reflect something uniquely Bellingham.  And I’ve used a variety of cameras over the years from my Mamiya RB67 and Nikon F5 film cameras, to my digital Nikon D700s to (yes,) my cell phone cameras. It all depends upon what I may happen to have with me or what I’m using at the moment.  The images included in this post were taken on all of these various cameras.

The building now houses part of the museum’s collection and its spacious Rotunda Room is frequently the site for concerts, including the Bellingham Festival of Music‘s popular free lunch-time chamber concerts.  I even photographed one of those this past summer.

Two young concertgoers sit patiently waiting for the Bellingham Festival of Music lunch time program to begin.
Two young concertgoers sit patiently waiting for the Bellingham Festival of Music lunch time program to begin. Taken with my Nikon D700 f3.5 1/50 sec ISO 3200 28-200 @28 mm

When you visit Bellingham, which I hope you’ll do one day, be sure to stop by the old City Hall. It’s likely to be as memorable for you as it has been for many photographers and visitors before you.

I’ve not seen or tried out the new Light camera but according to the company’s website, the camera, Light L16, is sold out until 2017. You can check it out yourself.

 

Courtroom Drama

When author Harper Lee‘s newly published novel,  “Go Set a Watchman” was released two weeks ago,  it was heralded with special screenings of the film based on her now classic book, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird”, midnight book parties and readings, and all sorts of other events all intended to celebrate or promote (depending upon your point of view) this book.  The book, despite or perhaps because, of the controversy surrounding it, quickly climbed to number one on the New York Times best seller list where I suspect it will remain for a while.  Lee’s other book, after all, is now regarded an American literary classic and is studied by schoolchildren and beloved by readers.

It is one of my personal favorites too. A few years ago, I found an anniversary copy of the book which I purchased as a gift for my husband and then, as luck would have it, actor Gregory Peck signed it when he came to the Mount Baker Theatre with his ‘one-man’ speaking tour in 2000. He still cut a striking and statuesque figure even then at age 83 and was as gracious as he appeared to be in many of his on-screen roles. I must admit that I was appropriately starstruck with the 6-foot 3-inch tall actor who played Atticus Finch as he stood right there before me after his onstage performance writing an inscription and his name into the book .

I was reminded of all this recently when Lee’s other book made the headlines. My backstage encounter with Peck also came to mind a couple of years ago when I was commissioned to photograph a group of local political activists promoting women candidates for the cover of our weekly alternative newspaper, the Cascadia Weekly.

Local political activists gathered in the Federal Buildilng courtroom for this cover photo.
Local political activists gathered in the Federal Building courtroom for this cover photo.

We staged it, with permission, in the courtroom of the three-story Federal Building in downtown Bellingham. The building, designed in the Italian Renaissance style, is prominently located on a downtown corner where, every Friday since the 1960s, there has been a ‘peace demonstration.’ (I’ll have to write another blog about that one day.) Few locals ever go inside the noble structure except to purchase stamps or to mail a package from the post office branch located in the southeast ground floor corner. But they should as it’s a real design treat.

Stepping into the courtroom in Bellingham's Federal Building is like stepping into the trial setting for 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'
Stepping into the courtroom in Bellingham’s Federal Building is like stepping into the trial setting for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’

The courtroom where the photo for the cover was done at a time when the courtroom wasn’t currently in use. It was once a Federal District Courtroom. (More recently, it’s been proposed that the courtroom come back into use as one of the city’s courtrooms.) I was so taken by the beauty of this judicial room that I stayed after my photo session for the Weekly to photograph it for myself. Although not an exact duplicate of the courtroom seen in the classic black and white film, it clearly is of a similar style and period so that just walking through huge wooden door so you transported through imagination to that setting. I could see Atticus Finch sitting at the defendant’s large, heavy oak table appealing to the judge positioned in the behind the big bench at the front of the room.

The audience is separated from the court floor by a mahogany railing that spans the width of the courtroom.
The audience is separated from the court floor by a mahogany railing that spans the width of the courtroom.

An elegant Honduran mahogany rail separates the court floor from the mahogany benches for the audience.  Tall, two-story arched windows line one side and allow natural light to fill the entire room. Running beneath the windows is the jury box, where, if I closed my eyes, I could see the jurors of that classic case intently following the arguments being presented before them.

There is no balcony in the Bellingham courtroom, as there is in the movie, but your eyes are led overhead to a coffered, vaulted ceiling that is 20 feet tall at its highest point. “Each octagonal ceiling coffer has an egg and dart moulding that surrounds a delicate stucco rosette planted in the coffer’s center,”  according to the building’s nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. It is an impressive judicial setting, one that certainly harkens to another era when such detail was the norm for important institutional structures.

Your eyes gaze upwards to the decorative coffered ceiling.
Your eyes gaze upwards to the decorative coffered ceiling.

Indeed, many small towns in this country have courtrooms of this sort built, as was this one, in the earlier part of the 20th century where the trial as seen in “To Kill a Mockingbird” could have taken place.  They remind us of a time when attorneys, like the fictional Atticus Finch, were eloquent, righteous and respected. Perhaps that’s one reason why some are so disappointed by the Atticus Finch of Lee’s new book, and why it has given rise to the controversy of whether the author ever intended it to be published. Regardless, if you live in the area, or are visiting, and have never seen the courtroom inside the Bellingham’s Federal Building, go upstairs sometime and have a peek. And let me know if it doesn’t make you think of Harper Lee’s literary classic.

 

 

 

Love is in the Air

‘Spring, as the poet Alfred Tennyson wrote, “is a time when a young man’s” (or woman’s) “fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”  Judging from the number of wedding photos posted by friends on their Facebook pages the past couple of weeks, nothing has changed since Tennyson penned those words in 1842.  In fact, I shared a few pictures with my family members of my own parents’ wedding who were married on April 9, 1946.

My father, who passed away a year ago only three days after what would have been their 68th wedding anniversary, said that the day they were married was ‘the happiest day of my life.” They celebrated 66 anniversaries together. It’s become rare to find couples of subsequent generations who have stayed together that long and who are still so deeply in love.

On their wedding day in Phoenix, my parents were pictured here, so in in love, in Phoenix' beautiful Encanto Park.
On their wedding day in Phoenix, my parents were pictured here, so in in love, in Phoenix’ beautiful Encanto Park.

I have on the mantel of my living room fireplace a framed photo of my parents on their wedding day. They were married in Phoenix, Az., when the city had not quite reached the population of 100,000.  My father had recently returned from serving in Europe in World War II. (His unit, the 2nd Chemical Warfare Battalion saw more days in combat than any other in Europe except for one.)  Upon his discharge, he headed home for Kansas.  No sooner had he arrived than one of his older sisters introduced him to a young woman with whom she worked at the local savings and loan bank.  I think it must have been love at first sight although my Dad never put it quite that way.

My Mom poses as a USO girl where she was chosen USO queen.
My Mom poses as a USO girl where she was chosen USO queen.

My mother was a beautiful young woman who had volunteered at the local USO. She loved to dress stylishly and somehow managed to do it on her small salary as executive secretary to a bank president. She had moved after high school from her tiny hometown of Aurora, Missouri to the then prosperous railroad town of Parsons  when she received a scholarship to attend the Parsons Business College. She had excelled in the courses of shorthand (a vanishing, if not gone, art of note taking), bookkeeping and typing. After graduation, she quickly landed the job at the bank where my father’s sister also worked. His sister was convinced that my Mom was the ideal girl for her handsome, younger brother.

"She must have really loved me," my Father would recall years later.
“She must have really loved me,” my Father would recall years later.

They were introduced and two short weeks later, my Dad told her that he wanted to marry her.  As he put it, “I told her that if she didn’t marry me, I was going to re-enlist in the Army.” Now that was determination. Shortly after his proposal, he left town to travel with his older sister and her husband and race greyhounds.  My uncle owned a large kennel of dogs (another story for another blog post) and needed someone like my Dad to help out.  My Dad said that his sister convinced him to come with them because, in his own words, “I was a mess after the War and that helped to straighten me out.”

He wound up in Phoenix where there was (and still is) a greyhound race track.  I think he wired–rather than mailed–his beloved to come join him so that they could be married.  My mother had, by then, a little time to think over his proposal and must have loved him as much as he loved her because she accepted.  But when she asked her boss permission to take a week off to go to Phoenix for the wedding, he declined and told her that if she went she would lose her job.  She went anyway. Later, my father would tell me; “She must have really loved me to take such a chance, quit her job and go to Phoenix to marry a guy who didn’t have anything at the time.”

My mother and father oustide the church in Phoenix after their wedding.
My mother and father oustide the church in Phoenix after their wedding.

She and her oldest sister traveled down to Arizona. I don’t know if they went by car or train but they went together. It must have been quite an adventure for neither of them had ever been out of the Midwest.  I never heard the details of that trip from my mother but I’ll bet it was exciting for them both. My mother packed a gorgeous, tailored suit as her wedding dress. My aunt chose her best suit to wear as the ‘matron of honor.’

My Dad dressed in a sharp, light-colored double-breasted suit. (They don’t make those kind anymore). Whether he had brought it with him or bought it with his earnings from the dog track I don’t know. But the two of them together looked stunning and very much in love.

They were married in the chapel of the majestic First Baptist Church built in 1929 of Italian Gothic design. The church, abandoned 40 years later by the congregation, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  It has fallen into decline after fire there in 1980 but just last year, historic preservationists and architects in Phoenix launched an effort to restore it to its former glory and re-purpose it for new use.  When my own husband and I were to be married in Phoenix, where we were both working at the time as journalists for the local newspaper, I chose to have our own wedding in that very same church.  The building was owned by the city at the time and was being used for city offices. We had to obtain permission from the city then go in and clean up the sanctuary–the chapel was closed–in order to have our ceremony there. But we did it and I’m very grateful we did.

Showered with rice, my husband and I emerge from the church in  Phoenix where we and my parents were both married.
Showered with rice, my husband and I emerge from the church in Phoenix where we and my parents were both married.

My parents were unable to pay a professional Phoenix photographer to record their wedding day. Instead I have snapshots, probably taken by my aunt with some instruction by my Dad who was leaning towards a career in photography but hadn’t yet begun it.  None exists of the ceremony itself. The few photos I have were taken outside the church entrance and at Encanto Park, a beautiful old park with a large lagoon in Central Phoenix’s still-posh Encanto neighborhood. They tell the story in themselves of a young couple, so in love, on their wedding day.

 

The State of Union Station

Memorial Day for many American signals the start of summer season.  Communities all across the country celebrate with parades, picnics, parties and, in my hometown, with an event called Katy Days which recalls the town’s earlier days when the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad had its regional headquarters located there.

But originally, Memorial Day was established as a federal holiday just after the Civil War to commemorate those soldiers who had died in that war. At that time, it was known as Decoration Day and was a time when families decorated the graves of their loved ones. Today, Memorial Day, as it has become known, honors all those who have died in military service.  Many of those were perished during World War II, a time when trains, like the ‘Katy’ transported troops across the country to and from their homes and bases as they were heading off to War. Among those thousands of young Americans was my own father.

The postcard my father send from Union Station is pictured here.
The postcard my father send from Union Station is pictured here.

And some of them, like my Dad, took time to write to family members as they waited for their train.  “My Dear Brother & Sister, I am sorry I haven’t been able to write you before now,” he wrote on a postcard dated Jan. 2, 1942 and that I discovered recently among his things. “I am in K.C.”(Kansas City) “on my way to Ft. Leonardwood. I enlisted in the army last Tues. and am on my way to be a soldier…”

As he wrote these words, he was sitting in Kansas City’s  Union Station, that was, at the time, one of the busiest in the country. During World War II an estimated million travelers, many of them soldiers like my father, passed through the station.

The Grand Clock, which measures six feet across,  was a popular meeting spot for travelers and their families. Rows of  benches once filled this grand hall and were crowded with  those waiting to leave on one of the many trains that departed from Union Station.
The Grand Clock, which measures six feet across, was a popular meeting spot for travelers and their families. Rows of benches once filled this grand hall and were crowded with those waiting to leave on one of the many trains that departed from Union Station.

At that time, the station had 900 rooms in its 850,000 square feet. Built in the Beaux-Arts style, the station was the second largest in the country when it opened in 1914.  But after 1945, as train travel declined in the U.S., the station fell on hard times until eventually, it stood silent, empty and a sad shell of what it once was.

The landmark station was nearly demolished several times but in 1996, Kansas and Missouri joined together to undertake the renovation, funded by a ‘bi-state’ sales tax. In 1999, the station re-opened to the public and now houses a railway display, exhibition space for traveling shows from major museums and institutions, a planetarium, an interactive science center,a live and film theatre and restaurants as well as the Amtrak station.  Visitors, like myself, are drawn to see this historic place and its grand interior. This year, the station is celebrating its centennial.

Union Station's Grand Lobby still bustles with activity as it is a popular choice for weddings, business meetings or other special occasions, such as Easter brunch,  for which the tables shown here were being set.
Union Station’s Grand Lobby still bustles with activity as it is a popular choice for weddings, business meetings or other special occasions, such as Easter brunch, for which the tables shown here were being set.

I wandered through the Grand Hall, strolled beneath the giant clock–a meeting place for many families–and walked down the long hall where the heavy sliding metal doors on either side once led to 28 different tracks.

My father passed through one of these gates as young man, on his way to become a soldier.
My father passed through one of these gates as young man, on his way to become a soldier.

I remembered when, as a child of seven, I, my aunt and my younger brother,excitedly boarded one of those trains for a trip to Oregon. I could almost hear the voices of all those many travelers, who, like myself and my own father, had taken a train from Union Station.

And so, if as you celebrate Memorial Day you  hear the distant sound of a train whistle, stop for a minute and remember the days when trains carried Americans all over this country, and especially all those thousands of soldiers, many of whom never made the return trip home. It is for them for whom the whistle blows and the bugles sound on this American holiday.

Heavy ornate sliding metal gates lead from the track entrances in Kansas City's Union Station.
Heavy ornate sliding metal gates lead from the track entrances in Kansas City’s Union Station.

A ‘Special’ Spot Vanishes Brick by Brick

The old Morgan Block building in Bellingham’s historic Fairhaven section has been undergoing a facelift lately. Scaffolding now rises up the old brick wall on it’s exposed west side and workers daily painstakingly and carefully replace the crumbling old bricks with new ones.  And as they go up, the faded, painted advertisement for the once Washington-made Rainier Beer is vanishing entirely.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainier_Brewing_Company

This changing appearance of the aging wall will overall be a good thing for the building as it was in badly need of repair.  In fact, one of the building’s owners, Terry Nelson, alerted me last year the wall would be replaced.  I was grateful for the advance notice because that wall has become a local landmark over the years.  It’s a favorite location among my senior portrait clients for staging their photo sessions.  (More of my ‘Special’ senior portraits are posted on my blog’s Portfolio page.)

The old Rainier wall advertisement of Fairhaven's Morgan Block was a popular setting by seniors for their senior portrait.
The old Rainier wall advertisement of Fairhaven’s Morgan Block was a popular setting by seniors for their senior portrait.

Through the years, I have photographed many seniors with that charming wall and its simple message of “Special” as the background.  It seemed a perfect expression of the feeling each of them had about their senior year, the community they live in and, in particular, historic Fairhaven.

Now, it will be no longer.  At least not in reality.  But in the virtual world of digital photography, I have salvaged the wall in my image files in case someone comes along and wishes that they too could have had their turn beside the ‘Special’ sign.

Fairhaven's historic Morgan Block building was completed in 1890 for $8,000.  A local landmark, it has been a popular setting for many of my senior portraits.
Fairhaven’s historic Morgan Block building was completed in 1890 for $8,000. A local landmark, it has been a popular setting for many of my senior portraits.

The three-story building occupies a busy corner of Fairhaven’s business and shopping district.  Completed in 1890 by Phillip and Mary Ann Morgan, it first housed a saloon and a men’s clothing store on the ground level.  Windows on the upper levels of the building reportedly sported the advertisement: “private rooms for ladies.”  But a “proper lady” never dared go below 11th Street in those early days, according to local historical accounts.  However when co-authors Brian Griffith and NeelieNelson asked local historian Gorden Tweit if  a brothel had operated in the Morgan Building during Fairhaven’s early history, he replied matter-of-factly: “It had a bar with rooms upstairs, didn’t it?”

Markers such as this one can be found throughout fairhaven and notes curious local historical facts.
Markers such as this one can be found throughout Fairhaven and notes curious local historical facts.

Whether or not illicit sex was served up in those rented upstairs rooms, the building had another, rather unsavory distinction.  During the 1890s, it was the viewing area for the “unclaimed dead” for the transients who came to build the “New City of Fairhaven” and died of exposure, accidents or suicides. When their identities were unknown, they were loaded into a wagon and put on display in hopes that someone could identify them.  A small inscribed stone that sits in front of the building notes this fact for tourists.

Entry to the upstairs rooms of the historic Morgan Block building is through the green door at the street level.
Entry to the upstairs rooms of the historic Morgan Block building is through the green door at the street level.

The building itself is architecturally an example of the High Victorian Italianate Style.  A long staircase inside the heavy green entry door with the words: “Morgan Block” above it, leads up to the second and third stories.  Light streams through a light well open on the top floor and trickles down to the landing below. On the upstairs floors, tall doors, many with transom windows open into 18 large studio rooms now occupied by artists who are part of the Morgan Block Studio Collective.  The artists often host open houses so you can visit their studios and view their artwork and the building interior for yourself.

The symmetrical facade on the street level have wood-framed shop fronts on either side of a narrow central entry door to the upper stories.  One side is the home of the Good Earth pottery store showcasing the work of many fine potters from the region. The other ground level space is taken by Artwood, a shop selling beautiful, high quality work by local woodworkers. Both are well worth a stop if you’re in town.

The building has its own Facebook page if you want to learn more   https://www.facebook.com/MorganBlockBuilding?ref=nf. You can also soon read about it on Griffith and Nelson’s forthcoming website:  www.fairhavenhistory.com  More details about the building’s architecture can be found at the City of Bellingham’s page:  http://www.cob.org/services/planning/historic/fairhaven-district.aspx.

And that’s what has made the Morgan Block  so ‘special.’

Megan and Joy grew up together as best friends so when the time for their senior portrait, they wanted to be photographed together. We all had great fun during the photo session and the Morgan Block wall conveyed the message perfectly!
Megan and Joy grew up together as best friends so when the time for their senior portrait, they wanted to be photographed together. We all had great fun during the photo session and the Morgan Block wall conveyed the message perfectly!

All Aboard!

Today is National Train Day.   I have a long history, as well as a love, with passenger trains.  I grew up in a town where the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad had its regional headquarters. The company was one of the largest employers in town.  Two beautiful, brown brick three-story buildings owned by the railroad sat in the middle of town. One housed the company’s regional offices, the second was the station.  I still remember the marble floors, the tall, pane glass windows and wooden oak benches of its interior.

Sarah had just returned from spending a semester studying abroad in Europe and missed the trains that she took there to travel. When I suggested we stage her senior portrait in the old train station, she instantly loved the idea.
Sarah had just returned from spending a semester studying in Europe and missed the trains that she took there to travel. When I suggested we stage her senior portrait in the old train station, she instantly loved the idea.

Many passengers departed from this station; soldiers on their way to the World War II, sisters on their way to visit family in Kansas City or Chicago, or kids, like me, taking a short ride to the town only 20 miles away just so I could spend the day with a girlfriend.

Sarah was in search of a setting with a Bellingham landmark for her senior portrait.  The beautiful orange brick round towers of the abandoned Georgia-Pacific plant seemed ideal made even more perfect when  when the Amtrak made an appearance!
Sarah was in search of a setting with a Bellingham landmark for her senior portrait. The beautiful orange brick round towers of the abandoned Georgia-Pacific plant seemed ideal made even more perfect when when the Amtrak made an appearance!

On another occasion, my aunt bravely packed me at age 7 and my brother, age 4, onto the train for a cross-country trip to the coast of Oregon.  And what a trip it was.  I took lots of black and white snapshots with my Brownie Hawkeye as we passed through farmland, cr ossed mountains androde through ranches until we reached the spectacular shores of the Pacific Ocean.

The old train stations evoke a nostalgia of a romantic travel time gone by, at least in many parts of the country.  How wonderful if this country could have as many high-speed passenger trains as elsewhere in the world.  Perhaps as gas prices continually rise and fuel for cars becomes even more expensive, trains will once again come into widespread use and get people where they need to go.

Ferenc was safely perched on a pile of rusty old iron pieces when the Amtrak's train to Seattle went whizzing by.
Ferenc was safely perched on a pile of rusty old iron pieces when the Amtrak’s train to Seattle went whizzing by.

I love to stage photo sessions in the historic train station here in Bellingham whenever possible and always with permission. In recent years, there has been a trend among some photographers to use railroad tracks as a background.  This has been an especially popular location among the high school seniors.  I explain to my senior clients who come in with that idea in mind that it’s dangerous to shoot on the tracks and refuse to shoot on an active train track.  I have safe spots where I  shoot where the trains or the tracks are in the background.  But again, you must be extremely cautious even in these situations.

So here’s a big salute to National Train Day and all the choo-choos that pass your way!