July 13th, 2012 | No Comments »

It’s amazing how visceral memory can be, right?  I am so often convinced that a memory – of a place, a building, a face or an object – is absolutely true and completely accurate, only later to have my certitude blown up in a phaser blast of actuality.

As a romantic, a historian and a storyteller, which by the way can be a very dangerous combination, I often get into this kind of memory trouble.  I can be completely convinced that the story I’m happily telling is based entirely on fact. I know that the historic movie palace that I’m trying to help save from demolition was where my mother took me to see “Pollyanna” in 1960 when the power went out and we sat in the darkened theatre for an hour before going home, disappointed.  Only… it wasn’t.  Probably these accuracy/memory lapses are pretty harmless; a not very important and wholly innocent story, and no one at the City Council hearing will know the difference.  Probably.

But what bigger and more cherished memories are fuzzy, or complete fantasy?  Should it matter?

My brothers and I and our spouses have been working for months at the bittersweet task of clearing out our parents’ Denver home of 40 years in anticipation of its being sold.  There are so many memories boxed up, closeted, stacked and filed in that big ranch house and it’s been hard for us to process them.  For example, there’s the hat.  In the basement, in one of the big, round-topped wooden steamer trunks that our Mom had kept crammed with treasures either valuable or puzzling, we found several ladies’ hats.  My grandmother’s, her mother’s.  From the 1910s, and in pristine condition, they told an immediate and lovely story of a well educated woman with far more style than we grandsons had ever known.  So far, so good, the story.  But I was immediately convinced, without reservation or hesitation, that I recognized one of the hats as having been worn by Ariel on her wedding trip to far off Los Angeles in 1912, it being prominently depicted in photographs in the family albums we had just recently looked through again.  So all weekend long, I told and retold the story: to my husband, my brothers and their wives, to cousins, to anyone who would, or would not, listen.  A small story.  But a story regarded by the listeners as significant and delightful.  And soon we were all to  learn: not true.

Of course, the photograph told the real story, and my story went into the fiction section.  Where, now that I think of it, it will stay and continue to be told.  Fair warning:  I’m admitting now that, my faulty memory and all, absolute accuracy can sometimes get in the way of a good, romantic, history-based story.  I promise, however, to try to not tell them at City Council hearings.  Or in court.



Posted from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, United States.

Posted in History, Storytelling
December 31st, 2010 | 2 Comments »

What IS this?

We were in Denver – my hometown – last week and saw, with horror, the results of the continuing teardown phenomenon that may have slowed somewhat nationally but is apparently still rampant in the Mile High City.  In every neighborhood, there they were:  overscaled, mostly terribly detailed Tuscan villas, French chateaux, phony Colonials.  Spec houses for the most part, we surmised.

Obviously, Denver hasn’t gotten a grip on the practice yet.  An ordinance passed a couple of years ago that gives neighbors a chance to respond to proposed teardowns, along with a period for potential designation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, is coming under increasing fire from the crowd that cries “real estate terrorism”.  In their sights this week:  a terrific mid-century modern house in Belcaro Park, an upscale development of the 1950s and ’60s on Denver’s near east side.  (Full disclosure:  I grew up there.)  Once a cohesive district of large ranches, Usonians and traditionals, most of them architect-designed, Belcaro is losing its sense of place at a dismaying rate.  The area has avoided the scourge of overscaled replacements that plague other historic Denver neighborhoods only because the lots are positively vast to begin with. The permanent deed restrictions and strong neighborhood association that were counted on for decades to protect the character of the place have now apparently failed to stem the tide of scrape-offs.

Wallbank House, 1958. Denver's Belcaro Park

The 1958 Wallbank House, designed by architects Tician Papachristou, a colleague and biographer of Marcel Breuer, and my old friend, prominent Denver designer Dan Havekost, is set to be replaced by a house just 400 square feet larger.  So the landfill-enlarging teardown isn’t even justified by overheated expectations for ostentatious amounts of space.  Just a lack of imagination and appreciation for a stunning mid-century design that could easily be adapted and expanded.

Like so  many post World War II developments across the country, Belcaro hasn’t been formally surveyed to create an inventory of significant properties to justify the historic district it could have been.  (Ironically, it was in suburban Denver where the first National Register district of mid-century modern houses in Arapaho Acres was listed a few years ago.)   It’s time to do so.  The shift of ownership in the neighborhood suggests an opportunity:  a younger cadre of buyers are part of a generational trend toward appreciation for the architecture of the 1950s and ’60s.   Places like Belcaro Park should learn, quickly, to capitalize on their architectural assets, educate residents and would-be buyers about the unique character and opportunities of the existing built environment and help realtors and investors to make informed, creative and environmentally sustainable decisions.

I hope it’s not too late for Belcaro.  Other historic Denver neighborhoods – Hilltop, Bonnie Brae – may have lost too much.  Sad.  And here I thought northern New Jersey was the teardown capital.

Wallberg House. (photos thanks to The Denver Eye)