May 29th, 2015

Spaces and Traces

On Saturday morning, May 16th, we went on the annual “Spaces and Traces” tour organized by Historic Milwaukee, Inc. This year’s tour focused on the Layton Boulevard (South 27th St) neighborhood north and south of Greenfield Avenue, extending north and west to S. 33rd and West National Avenue.

We made a particular effort to get out early, and succeeded in being in the first group to tour one of the Frank Lloyd Wright “American System Homes” on Burnham Street. Wright is best known for his public and commercial buildings, churches, and spectacular private homes, but he made some interesting forays into housing for the common people, also. The American System homes were designed to be small (two bedrooms), make economical use of space, and be buildable using early forms of pre-fabrication. 2714 W Burnham, is an example of a single-family dwelling, which is surprisingly spacious and well laid out, but does include some of the typical Wright impracticalities. The central hallway is a story and a half high, with clerestory windows admitting light, but which are also obviously intended to be opened for ventilation purposes. However, there’s no easy way to open them, given their height and how they are hinged. The house really needs to have come with a rolling ladder as is seen in some libraries to make the windows fully functional. Other than that, it’s a nice layout, and could well be studied by people interested in the “small house” movement.

We then went to Fire Station Number 26, a working firehouse and one of a number in the city originally built in pre-telephone days. That date is why these buildings sport towers intended to be used for fire lookout, but now relegated to hose drying. The Fire Station is an interesting combination of utilitarian function combined with period touches such as the handsome wood staircase that leads from the garage area up to the living quarters.

North of the firehouse, we visited two interesting Queen Anne houses, one a more modest home, and one quite splendid once owned by former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, which had a lovely yard, and an impressive carriage house now used as an art studio by the present owner.
The Votteler Manegold house at 1201 S. Layton is an impressive example of a restored house, reclaimed by descendants of a prior owner after a fire that gutted large parts of the house. Burn marks can still be seen in some of the woodwork, but one could hardly tell if not aware of the house’s history.

Another building we were intrigued by was the School Sisters of St. Francis complex. This was open for tours of their St. Joseph chapel, which is truly a hidden jewel. The beautiful chapel (the size of a good sized church) is embedded in the School Sisters’ main building, which gives no hint of its presence from outside. The white marble space is richly decorated with mosaics, stained glass and gilding that made it the equal of many of the fabulous churches of Europe.
We finished the tour by visiting another restored Queen Anne on 33rd Street, which had been reclaimed from years of neglect and careless uglification. There were a number of other buildings on this tour, some exterior only, but we felt we’d had enough by this time and called it a day.

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Far From the Madding Crowd

Tuesday, May 19th, we went to see the new film “Far From the Madding Crowd,” adapted from the novel by Thomas Hardy. Georgie was interested because she had read Hardy’s novels, I because I had not. We were both pleased.

Unlike the seeming majority of Victorian-era novels, cities, like London or Bath, do not signify. All of the action of the movie takes place in rural Dorset, mostly around the village of “Weatherbury” (based on real-life Puddletown), with the nearest town being Hardy’s “Casterbridge” (Dorchester).

The protagonist of the movie is Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), an independently minded orphan who has been raised on farms and has a good knowledge of them. Early on, she inherits a large farm/estate from her uncle, and takes over managing it and its staff with a will.

There’s evidently something about that in farming country, since every man she meets, from stalwart shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenarts), to neurotic gentleman farmer William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), to caddish Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) essentially proposes marriage to her in the first conversation they have that is more than a casual greeting. Although it’s obvious from the first reel, when measuring gazes are exchanged between Bathsheba and Gabriel, who she’s going to end up with, unfortunately it’s Troy who first leads her to the altar, with some un-looked-for results.

Despite the foreshadowings, the movie maintains a continual and suspenseful level of emotional tension as the story works out that keeps one interested. Very handsomely photographed, staged, and costumed, the films portrays a very real feeling rural England. The men are mainly one-note characters for Bathsheba to play off of, but all the actors did their assigned roles very well, and with some nice nuances.

We both enjoyed the movie very much. Highly recommended for fellow fans of “Downton Abbey” and similar stories.

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