Friday, December 18, 2009

Keeping and respecting the past

I love the States, but I worry about those 48 states to the south of me. When I was young I travelled throughout the U.S. First, by motorcycle and later by Volvo and finally by Morgan. I loved that country. And I loved the people - for the most part.

One difference between Canada, at least the Canada with which I was familiar, and the States was the look of their small towns. Their small towns had ego; They had pride.

Their small towns had downtown's lined with buildings that still looked pretty much as they looked when built. I used to stay in small, family run hotels for $1.50 and at night I would wander the halls and investigate the lobbies; I'd talk to the night clerk to learn the hotel's history.

I stayed in a hotel once in which Abraham Lincoln had stayed. In fact, the desk clerk claimed the bed in which he slept was still in use. I believe the story could have been true from the look of the iron and brass beds in the rooms furnished with old, old stuff. In more upscale hotels such furnishings would be called antiques.

Americans seemed to be happy with their old buildings in a way that southwestern Ontario folk weren't. I recall a beautiful corner drugstore in Windsor, Ontario, which was built in solid, red clay brick. It was a classy 1920s structure.

It was a corner store but the building itself did not have a sharp corner; the corner was cut at a diagonal, and I don't mean it had been removed. It always had a diagonal treatment with a beautiful square canopy hanging from two large chains over the impressive wooden entry door. The bottom edge of the canopy was completely trimmed with leaded, beveled glass.

Above the drugstore there were two apartments. A girl with whom I went to public school lived in one. It was small but beautiful, much nicer than my home. It had lots of original, varnished wood trim, wooden doors and original tiling in the bathroom. It looked old, but stately and elegant, too. I loved it.

When the drugstore went out of business, driven out by the arrival of the chains, the simple, painted sign came down and a cheesy, large, white illuminated plastic box went up. Giant, garish letters screamed the store's new name. You couldn't miss the sign as it wrapped right around the building. The fancy canopy was removed to make way for the sign.

The windows and the doors were all replaced with clean, modern aluminum stuff. And the apartments were gutted and rebuilt as four bachelor units. No children would be living above the store in the future. And the elegant brick? Large aluminum panels now covered the bottom half of the building and the top was painted to match the colour of the aluminum. 

I like to think that old buildings are a lot like old people. Leave them wearing their original duds and don't tart them up. It just draws attention to their age, makes them look even older and more decrepit. It makes them look ashamed of their age.

I've seen this sad story repeated over and over again in Southwestern Ontario.

But in the States I used to find old neighbourhoods that had been allowed to age gracefully. Oh, they looked a little worse for wear but it is not a crime to look old - especially if you are. These buildings had painted signs when built in the 1920s, or earlier, and now decades later, at the worst, they had simple neon ones. There were no plastic illuminated boxes to be seen - and no aluminum cladding or cheesy vinyl siding.

Now, these observations were made some decades ago. Things aren't as positive in the States as they once were. The Yanks are still are not as big on heaping indignities on their old buildings as we are here in Canada; Fewer buildings in the States must endure the painful humiliation inflicted by aluminum and plastic instruments of architectural torture. Americans prefer to put old buildings out of their misery quickly. One day they are old and a bit derelict and the next they are gone. Poof!

The advantage of this approach, compared to the one I noticed in Southwestern Ontario, is that if the building should be appreciated again, breathing life back into the old bones is not all that difficult. Often all the old stuff is still in place and with a little spit and polish the old building takes on the look of a proud old building.

Take the little town of Clayton, New Mexico, on the historic Santa Fe Trail. Clayton has gone through some rough times, like so many little western towns.

First, few folk live there. Ten years ago it only had a total population of about 2500. This can make things tough right from the get-go. The per capita income was under $14,000 with the median household income only $25,600. The town was once a livestock shipping center for herds from the Pecos River and the Texas Panhandle but that too is in the past.

Yet, I talked to some residents and they liked living in Clayton. The little town holds a parade each Independence Day and hosts two museums. And one, The Herzstein Memorial Museum, run by the Union County Historical Society, is open without charge Tuesdays through Saturdays, according to Wikipedia.

Today Clayton is marketing its look; Its age. Its community pride. Some of the businesses, like the old Eklund Hotel, pre-date 1900 but many others are much younger. Visiting Clayton is like visiting the States that I knew in the '60s and the '70s. The States that I loved in my youth.

I think of Carbondale, Colorado, and sitting on a stool at the long soda fountain counter in the town drugstore and sipping iced Green River soda. I recall watching My Fair Lady in the old movie theatre in Glenwood Springs and later enjoying a 3.2 beer with my date.

I'm going to revisit Clayton, N.M., this summer. Spend a few days there if I can arrange it. My Morgan will be quite comfortable there. And maybe I'll be able to buy Judy, my wife, a Green River soda.

You can still see a film at the Luna Theatre when you visit Clayton. Opened in 1916 as the Mission Theatre, with just under 400 seats, it once had a grand ballroom in the basement, later a roller rink, now also long-gone. The Luna won the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Award in 2001. Credit: Rockinon, May 2005

The little English roadsters shown in these pictures are all Morgans on the Morgans Over America 2005 tour. Morgans are still being made, making Morgan the oldest automobile manufacturer in the world. The little company is now in its second century of operation.

Sure glad GM didn't buy them like they did Saab. --- Cheers, Rockinon .

1 comment:

  1. Senior Editor said...

    You wrote: "I once stayed in a hotel in which Abraham Lincoln had stayed. In fact, they claimed still to have the bed in which he slept."

    Question: Who is this "they"? They? They who?