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Blowin' in the Wind: An American View

by Deborah Streeter

Blowin' in the Wind celebrates and critiques America; our culture, politics, people, history, religions and landscape. We also link to our friend Ed Kilgore's daily blog 
Political Animal, for an insider's look at our political process. Both of us try to keep it brave and free, like our nation, with some humor and progressive hope thrown in.



John Muir, Tramp and Mountain Man

"The Camping Trip that Changed America."  That's the title of a kid's book about John Muir, who is called the Father of the National Park System in the US. 

John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite ValleyDuring his 76 years (1838-1914) Muir probably camped outside on the ground more nights than he slept inside in a bed, but this particular campout is notable for who camped with Muir, in Yosemite Valley, for four nights in 1903.  The then President Theodore Roosevelt had to decide whether to sign a bill granting federal protection to Yosemite, so he wrote Muir asking to camp with him there.  Leaving behind his Secret Service entourage, the two men hiked and slept on pine boughs in the shadow of such icons as Half Dome and Yosemite Falls and El Capitan.  A plaque alongside the Merced River marks the spot; "Here John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt camped, 1903, and talked forest good."

"Father of Forest Good" could be another honorific for John Muir, as well as “Savior of Yosemite,” and “Founder of the Sierra Club.”  A pretty remarkable life and legacy for a man who said of himself in his 20's, as he set out with no plan but to "wander and botanize" from Wisconsin to Florida, a 1000 mile hike, "I am to become a tramp."

Next month I'm heading to Yosemite National Park for a week, so I've been reading up on the geology, biology, history of this iconic American landscape and how it has inspired so many authors and artists.  My next few columns will celebrate this special place in the American consciousness, and the continuing pressures and challenges it faces today.

This week, let’s consider that tramp hero John Muir, the Scottish-American conservation hero, hiker, advocate, writer, odd mountain man, who saved Yosemite from development and ruin at human hands.

Like many nineteenth century American heroes (he reminds me of his almost exact contemporary John Wesley Powell, another amateur wanderer and naturalist savior, in this case, of the Grand Canyon) Muir is a man of paradox. Consider these contradictions in his life:

  • John MuirBorn in Scotland, Muir came to the US as a boy with his strict Calvinist father.  He rejected his father’s stern God and rebelled against his prohibition of any reading or knowledge beyond the Bible.  But he remained a Scot in outlook, appearance (rough and bearded all his life), accent and even citizenship, nearly all his life.  He dodged the Civil War draft, with his mother's encouragement, hiding (and botanizing) in Canada for year; he said that, as a Scot, he had no stake in a war between Americans.  He only became a US citizen at age 65, when applying for a passport so he could travel around the world.

  • He could not accept a God whose plan put "man" at the controlling top of all creation .  Instead he rhapsodized and virtually worshipped the creative force of Nature itself and insisted that all of nature, animate but also rocks and glaciers had spirit, soul and equal value.  But at the same time he used deeply religious and deistic language in conversation and writing; Yosemite was a “temple” which “preached.  In this he was unlike all his fellow founders of the Sierra Club, who leaned more to the humanist and scientific world view.  Muir would have been a perfect "spiritual but not religious."  On his 1000-mile hike he carried three books, Milton, botanist Asa Grey, and the New Testament.

  • He said the mountains taught him more than any book and he is often described as "anti-book learning," but he was very well read, had an extensive library, and left behind fascinating volumes with his detailed annotations - Emerson, Thoreau, Ruskin, Agassiz, Lyell.

  • A loner and lover of solitude, he preferred to hike solo, no one to slow him down.  He was impatient with city life and even family life; he did not marry or have children until his 40s, but he took a solo trip to Alaska within months of his wedding.  Yet he also wrote in his mountaineering journals of his longing for companionship.  He befriended another Scot, painter William Keith and they hiked and painted for months in the backcountry.  He was thrilled when the aging and eminent transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed to meet with him in Yosemite.  (It was a less successful camping trip, however, than the one with Teddy Roosevelt.  Emerson's Boston Brahmin handlers would not let him sleep on the ground.  Muir begged him to stay; “Meet your fellow ministers, the granite.  You are a sequoia,” he told Emerson in praise.  Emerson was moved, but reluctantly rode away to the city.)

  • He probably inherited from his father a cynical view of human nature, but he grew only more depressed by how greedy and destructive people were of the wilderness. Yet he persisted in his later years in political advocacy and social organization, forming the Sierra Club, maintaining a voluminous correspondence with politicians and editors and business leaders, ever hopeful they would do the right thing.  He had many victories, but he was devastated late in life by his defeat in the battle to save the Hetch Hetchy valley and the betrayal by former allies, like Roosevelt.  He had hiked there many times, calling it even more beautiful than Yosemite.  It is now dammed and drowned, the water source for San Francisco.

  • John MuirHe was a keen observer of nature, a typical amateur naturalist, yet he was suspicious of the scientific method.  He publicly challenged the theories of the powerful Josiah Whitney, the state geologist (for whom California's highest peak is named), on how Yosemite was formed. Whitney insisted that it had been formed by one cataclysmic event.  But Muir, ever the observer, saw in the rock face evidence of the very slow action of glaciers.  After years of solitary hiking up the Tuolome River, Muir finally discovered a living, moving glacier to prove his point.  But this keep observer of nature dismissed much of science as being too slow and not based in personal experience.  He was suspicious of the new theory of evolution, especially its basis in randomness.  For him the force of Nature, practically synonymous with a Creature, had too much spirit and beauty to be the result of random struggles for survival.

These contradictions in character and belief only make Muir more interesting and more remarkable in all he accomplished.   He died a hundred years ago this year, 1914.  His legacy continues.  Thanks to Muir we haven't cut down every tree and dammed every river in California and our nation.  But he was right to rail against human greed and bemoan our disconnection with nature.  Much of our open space and wilderness has been preserved, but much lost.

Welcome to Yosemite month at the Back Road Café.

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter


Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs: Path Clearing and Strips of Chaos

This week: the final segment in our August series on American architects and urban planners.   Careful readers will have noticed we’ve gone chronologically – Thomas Jefferson, Louis Sullivan, Julia Morgan – and regionally - from South to Midwest to West Coast. 

Today - New York City.   I thought that the story of American public architecture should include more than just some interesting individual buildings, so here’s a look at one example of changing ideas about urban planning. New York’s imperial urban developer Robert Moses built unopposed for decades, until 1960 when he met his first real challenge in the person of neighborhood activist Jane Jacobs.

Robert MosesRobert Moses saved New York City and almost destroyed it. 

An extremely shrewd and powerful man, Moses (1888-1981) wielded complete control over the city’s public works from the 1920’s to the 60’s.  Not only did he convince mayors and governors to give his agencies unlimited power to build bridges and highways, but he retained all the toll income from this massive system – 13 major bridges and hundreds of miles of freeways, that funneled commuters from Long Island and the outer boroughs into Manhattan.  He also oversaw the building of hundreds of parks and pools and playgrounds and was in charge of two NY World’s Fairs, in 1939 and 1964.  He was a master at getting federal dollars for the city and he oversaw the drastic Slum Clearance Committee, which began with Depression-era New Deal money and continued into the 50’s. He oversaw the construction of tens of thousands of new housing units, both middle class high rises and low income housing projects.

Destruction of San Juan NeighborhoodHe helped New York grow and grow up as the century advanced, especially post Depression and World War II, bringing to the city a great deal of people, money, power, jobs and a place on the national and world stage. But there was also a human cost to his power.  Through force of will and control of purse strings, Moses intimidated politicians and ignored the protests of residents whose neighborhoods he tore down for freeways, bridge on-ramps, stadiums, and redevelopment.  When Moses used eminent domain to flatten hundreds of buildings in the San Juan Hill neighborhood on the West Side, residents sued all the way to the Supreme Court but lost, Moses arguing successfully that federal housing redevelopment laws gave him to power to tear down neighborhoods.

The Lincoln Center That West Side neighborhood had been the ethnically diverse home to many artists, such as Thelonius Monk, and it’s where Leonard Bernstein set West Side Story.  Moses and John D. Rockefeller rebuilt the area, turning it into the remarkable multi-acre complex of theaters and concert halls and arts schools now known as Lincoln Center.  In a similar tale of displacement and redevelopment over on the East Side, Moses used his political clout to bring the United Nations complex to New York, when it was all must assured of settling in Philadelphia.

Moses finally met his match in the person of Jane Jacobs, a citizen activist who argued that neighborhoods and people were more valuable than big urban projects and the almighty automobile. Just as iconic a New Yorker as Moses, Jacobs wrote the very influential book, The Death and Life of American Cities in the early 60’s, introducing such now-accepted phrases and concepts as “social capital,” “mixed primary use,” and “eyes on the street.”  She argued that quirky neighborhoods are essential in a city, using the great phrase in my title, “strips of chaos.”  She said we should “respect – in the deepest sense – strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.”

Washington Square ParkJacobs was a long time resident of one of New York’s more iconic strips of chaos, with weird wisdom of its own, Greenwich Village.  When Moses proposed, his last hurrah, a multilane freeway that would run right through historic Washington Square Park, Jacobs led an “eyes on the street” people’s campaign against New York’s most powerful builder.

Enlisting such allies as Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lewis Mumford, Jacobs got the support of the new leftist newspaper, The Village Voice, while the New York Times supported Moses and his plan. The tide of public opinion was turning against these monumental freeways through towns, and after a massive grassroots effort, the city rejected the project.  Jacobs and her supporters held a ribbon tying ceremony (as opposed to cutting) in Washington Square Park.  Moses tried three more time in the 60’s to revive the project, but Jacobs continued her successful opposition.

Moses’ legacy was further tarnished by the 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Power Broker by Robert Caro, which revealed how Moses’ considerable success became megalomania in his later years.  Caro also alleged that it was racism that fueled Moses’ destruction of “slums” and led him to prefer freeways from the suburbs rather than public transportation.  Only in 1968 had a NY mayor, John Lindsey, stood up to Moses and stripped him of his control of all the toll income from his bridges and freeways, taking that money to expand the subway system. 

Jane JacobsCriticism of Moses has tempered a bit in recent years.  Frustrated by how hard it has been to get the World Trade Center rebuilt (now 13 years post destruction,) former governor Eliot Spitzer said of Moses in 2009 that if Caro’s book had been written today it might have been called, At Least He Got It Built.  

Great cities don’t just happen.  Hard decisions must be made and new paths cleared sometimes through old complex neighborhoods.  But thank God for folks like Jane Jacobs who promote the weird and chaotic.  Of such is true urban flavor and force.

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter


“Women Who Build:” Julia Morgan

Julia MorganPart three in our month long series on four interesting American architects and their  public buildings, still in use today.  Today: Julia Morgan, a near contemporary of last week’s Louis Sullivan (fifteen years later, 1872-1957), but a very different kind of American; West Coast redwood Arts and Crafts style rather than Chicago steel frame skyscrapers.  But both worked amid the excitement of the early 20th century, and experimented with new building materials. 

Campanil at Mills CollegeWhen the Campanil that Julia Morgan designed for Mills College in Oakland, California in 1904 did not collapse in the massive 1906 earthquake, which flattened much of the area, the young architect became an overnight sensation.  Not only did she have a good eye for design, and the cache of being the first woman with a California license to practice architecture, but she really knew her reinforced concrete. 

Hearst Castle Only two years before she had been the first woman to graduate from the Ecole Beaux Art in Paris.  Now she was being hired to rebuild the badly damaged Fairmont Hotel atop San Francisco’s tony Nob Hill.   Morgan went on to build over 700 California homes, churches, women’s clubs, gyms, conference centers and the iconic Hearst Castle, all in earthquake country and all still standing.  And all still eliciting interest and admiration.  Just ask the over one million annual visitors to Hearst Castle, or conference attenders at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, also designed by Morgan. (Asilomar and Hearst Castle are both now California State Parks and are far and away the largest money makers of the 280 part system – thanks, Julia!)

Another “first” for Morgan was being the first woman engineering graduate from UC Berkeley in 1894.  The other women she met there, part of the first wave of feminism, became life long clients and supporters.  Through sorority contacts she became the architect for over 20 YMCA buildings in California, community centers and sometimes residences for the increasing numbers of single women moving to cities for employment.

Merrill Hall AsilomarLikewise she was hired by powerful civic women to design women’s city clubs.  Through these women she met Phoebe Apperson Hearst, wealthy widow of a California senator and strong supporter of women’s concerns, who hired her to build Asilomar as a seaside retreat for single working women.  Hearst was also the mother of William Randolph Hearst, newspaper tycoon who was the model for “Citizen Kane,” and builder of Hearst Castle, a 30 year project for Morgan.  Besides numerous other private homes, Morgan built well into her 80’s with many different women’s organizations and institutions, such as Mills College, jobs she acquired from her “old girls network.”

A nice tribute to Morgan came from Elsa Black in 1922.  President of the Woman’s Athletic Club of San Francisco, that Morgan designed, she said the building stood as a testament to the “courage, valor, determination, business ability, integrity, optimism…romance, and feminine foresight” of “women who build.”

Of our four August American architects, I have the most personal experience in Morgan’s buildings, as a tourist (Hearst Castle), play attender (St. John’s church, now a theater), swimmer (Berkeley City Club pool) and conference goer (Asilomar).

Morgan left behind her building plans, but not much writing about her work.  Unlike Louis Sullivan, whom we singled out last week for being an architect who also wrote poetry and coined the phrase “form follows function,” Morgan resisted talking about her buildings, saying simply, “My buildings speak for themselves.”  In that spirit, here are some Julia Morgan buildings.

Hearst Castle: Morgan worked closely with the changeable and eccentric William Randolph for decades on this fantastic monstrosity.

St. John's ChurchSt. John’s Presbyterian Church, Berkeley: A nice example of Morgan’s Craftsman style use of native redwood.  It’s a low inviting church rather than a fortress-like stone statement of power.

Asilomar Conference Grounds: Phoebe Apperson Hearst paid for the YMCA to offer this seaside retreat for single working women.  Morgan used local redwood and granite to blend into the local setting. 

Berkeley Women's Club PoolBerkeley Women’s Club Pool.  The many women’s clubs and YMCAs Morgan built promoted physical activities for women, a controversial idea for Victorian style American culture.  At the Riverside YMCA she had to fight with the male funders to keep the pool, which they found “unseemly.”  This one in Berkeley is a great place to swim.

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter


Form Follows Function: Louis Sullivan and the Skyscraper

Louis Sullivan Week Three of our August stroll through some iconic American styles of building with legendary architects. Today we get on a new fangled elevator with Chicago School architect Louis Sullivan, called the Father of the Skyscraper and the Father of Modern Architecture.

In last week’s column we boldly asserted that Thomas Jefferson was the only US president who could read architectural blueprints. (He also drew them.) Later in the week I remembered that Jimmy Carter probably has that skill also; since 1984 he has vigorously championed Habitat for Humanity and its construction of homes for low income folks around the world. Jimmy and Rosalynn have literally hammered and sawed many, many homes. Sorry, Jimmy.

Today I bring you the only US architect who was also a poet. I’ll probably have to issue a correction of addition on that one too. It has surprised and delighted me, in doing this series, to discover these architects with other interesting abilities – to write poetry, or lead a nation.

Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) wrote his best-known poem in 1896. He was already a successful and acclaimed Chicago architect who, with others, had designed the very first skyscraper. Using a new kind of steel from down the road in Pittsburgh, Sullivan crafted the landmark Wainwright building in Chicago and the Guaranty building in Buffalo, which didn’t have to depend on load-bearing masonry walls. These steel framed structures with “curtain walls” were the first to rise above the then limit of 6-8 floors.

Wainwright Building, ChicagoGuaranty Building, BufaloIt was a dramatic, cusp kind of time in the Midwest. After the 1870 Chicago Fire destroyed thousands of buildings, city leaders vowed to rebuild from the ashes a modern city to meet the boom of railroad, grain and cattle markets. The lure of full employment brought streams of immigrants to the city, doubling Chicago’s populations in the decade after the fire. Niagara Falls brought cheap electricity, revealed to the world in the sparkle of the “White City” of the 1893 Exposition. Mr. Otis invented an elevator safe not just for grain but people. In Chicago and New York was born the idea of a concentrated financial “downtown,” a uniquely American word and invention.

So together coalesced steel, labor, space, power and many creative individuals to create one more necessity for this radical leap; developers with a financial incentive to build up and up. How much money could one make per square foot of increasingly valuable property? Sullivan’s response: the skyscraper.

Sullivan’s clients wanted their buildings to make as much money as possible; that was the building’s function. But Sullivan was still an artist, as architects are, not just engineers. He had already written that a tall building “must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.”

But his poem coined the phrase that forever identifies Sullivan with modern architecture:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human, and all things super-human,
Of all things true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul.
That life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.

Form follows function. Until then, architectural form was required to follow precedent. Palladian or Colonial or Georgian, or whatever; there was the accepted, expected form for every building. Its function had to adapt to that form. Behind the portico with columns or the two symmetrical wings, the actual rooms, the kitchen, bedrooms, offices just had to fit in.

Sullivan is said to have objected to the way “form follows function” became a hard and dry echo of modernism. He continued to use decoration, ornamentation and aesthetics in all his buildings. Art Deco cornices and neo-Romanesque arches that had been popular pre-skyscraper he featured in his buildings. He preferred to credit his poetic insight to first-century Roman architect Vetruvius, who said all buildings must have three things: utilities, firmitas and venustas, that is, usefulness, strength and beauty; he was just emphasizing one of them.

But his simple phrase, “form follows function” seized the imagination of a new century and laid the foundation (good architectural figure of speech!) for the 20th century International Style we see in Le Corbusier, Phillip Johnson and others; huge buildings of rectilinear planes, seemingly weightless, free of ornamentation.

Sullivan himself kept designing for decades after this early triumphs, though he had some personal and economic ups and downs. He ended his career specializing in small town bank buildings father west, that some say are his best work. His most famous student was Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work became known as the Prairie Style.

It all feels so very American; the Midwest, the city bustle of railroads and markets, commerce and downtowns. The small towns and prairies. A preoccupation with function, what is it FOR? The creative genius who has a hard life of boom and bust. And skyscrapers, buildings, in Sullivan’s words, that are proud and soaring, rising in sheer exultation.


Next Week: Julia Morgan and West Coast “building with nature.”

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter


"This Beautiful Art": Jefferson's Public Architecture

We're spending August wandering through some US public buildings in the company of four American architects.  Our goal is to experience some of the regional flavor and peculiarities of American architecture.  Today: Thomas Jefferson's two big public building projects: the Virginia State Capitol and The University of Virginia.

The closest most US presidents get to a set of architectural blueprints is when they authorize the building of their presidential library.  While the Kennedy Library at Harvard actually promotes education and conversation, most presidential libraries (Reagan, Bush especially) are simply examples of a grandiose edifice complex in which we are invited (or charged admission) to idolize a whitewashed version of their administration’s accomplishments, built as quickly as possible after they leave office. 

Library, it’s called, but it’s more info-tainment center than research collection.

Not so our third president, Thomas Jefferson, a self-trained and devoted architect in his own right.  He predated the fetish of presidential library, but he did design a genuine educational library for his beloved University of Virginia as part of his revolutionary recasting of European buildings and institutions in his new nation.

Jefferson's sketch plan for The Rotunda at the University of Virgina The RotundaJefferson was a fine draftsman, putting pen to paper not just to declare independence, but also creating meticulous designs for public architecture he hoped would embody this new political philosophy.  A scientist, man of letters, ardent classicist, gentleman farmer, (and yes, a slave owner,)  he helped construct the new nation, literally, with buildings.  As the first US Secretary of State he oversaw the building of the new federal city, Washington DC.  He drew on his experience and taste in architecture gained from designing his own home Monticello, and in drafting plans for the new Virginia state capitol in Richmond and the new University of Virginia, his home state.  In each case, home, capitols and university, he consciously rejected the English Georgian and Colonial architectural styles of the day, and instead promoted a new Roman Revivialist style, linking the ancient Roman ideals of democracy and education with the literal building of a new nation.

When the British established the colonial state capitol in Williamsburg, Virginia they erected a grand Georgian edifice. After Independence, Jefferson lobbied tirelessly that the state capitol be moved to a new city, Richmond, and that it follow a new, unusual architectural style, the neoclassical “temple” style.  He submitted drawings imitating his favorite Roman building, the Maison Carre in the French city of Nimes, an ancient Roman temple he called “the best morsel of ancient architecture” still standing.  Hence was built the first example of a “temple” style building in America, but the temple was government, not religion.

He had seen the Maison Carre (“square building”)  and other Roman ruins, while serving as the new nation’s ambassador to France.  Inspired by these embodiments of the Roman ideal of republicanism, and by French Enlightenment thought, he wrote his fellow Virginian James Madison to encourage Virginia to adopt this radical new building style, neo-classicism: "How is a taste of this beautiful art to be formed in our countrymen unless we avail ourselves of every occasion when public buildings are to be erected, or presenting to them models for their study and imitation?" 

This beautiful art – that’s architecture.

(Can you imagine George Bush writing Dick Cheney about architecture?  There actually was a time when our presidents had some sense of beauty and education.)

Jefferson also found time to submit drawings for a new university in his home state, and he likewise proposed a radical new design of an old institution.  American universities like Harvard and Yale had up until then followed the European university model; a cloister-like collection of large multipurpose buildings focused around a central church. 

Academic Village at University of Virginia Jefferson designed his university in an unusual new form, as an “academic village.” The ten smaller buildings in the academic village were each unique in design, copying different architectural styles Jefferson had learned from Italian Renaissance neoclassicist Palladio.  Jefferson owned a rare copy of Palladio’s recently translated Four Treatises on Architecture and widely copied his use of columns, pediment and rotunda.  The ten different buildings were themselves labs of architecture and philosophy.  The medium was the message. 

Jefferson was an early advocate for public education for all, funded by the state, and he intended that these smaller buildings might help promote more egalitarian, democratic conversations between students and faculty.

But he disagreed with Palladio’s insistence that churches have a central place in public architecture, since, Palladio said, religion was the “safeguard and protectorate” of citizens.

Jefferson advocated the separation of church and state, and insisted that education was now the “safeguard and protectorate” of the citizens of a new nation.  So the central focus of Jefferson’s academic village was not a central church, but a central library.  This he designed in imitation of another of his favorite classical buildings, the Pantheon in Rome.  So Jefferson’s presidential  library actually is one, an accurate monument to his values.

Jefferson was so hopeful about the power of education: "Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day...the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which this is to be effected."  “Knowledge is power, knowledge is safety, knowledge is happiness.”  “If a national expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.  Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”  Were it so today. 

I’ll leave you with one last Jefferson quote.  He and John Adams had a long friendship, some feuds and power struggles, a regular correspondence, and they died on the same day, July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of Independence. Often they wrote each other about the past and the meaning of their history changing work.  But late in life Jefferson wrote Adams that he hoped the nation would live more to its future:

"I live the dreams of the future better than the history of the past, - so good night.  I will dream on."

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter