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The Horton Grove slave quarters within the Stagville State Historic Site form a  small piece of one of the largest land and slave holdings in the antebellum South–30,000 acres and 900 slaves owned by the Bennehan-Cameron family.  Situated adjacent to the Horton Grove Nature Preserve, the loveliness of the site, the simplicity of the quarters siting, their tasteful design and careful restoration make them uniquely worthy of their position in the National Historic Register regardless of the despicable institution and poisonous industry  they served.  Listed in 1978, their rehabilitation represents the continued efforts to reclaim the antebellum history for African Americans and for all Americans, efforts  including the battle to open the African American Museum on the Washington Mall September 24th.

In June of 2016 the Vernacular Architecture Forum toured the former tobacco plantations,  farms and factories in rural Durham, Caswell and Orange counties in the North Carolina Piedmont.   The Forum is composed of historians, preservationists, archeologists, curators, geographers and architects fascinated by the ordinary and frequently overlooked built record of our common American history.  If in 1915 the Virginia-Carolina Fertilizer could advertise the abundance of the tobacco crop and the booming  industry, nowadays, tobacco is mostly history, as is the slave and share-cropping system that supported it making for an ideal landscape for VAF members, below touring the fallow fields and abandoned sorting and grading barn on the Pope Family Farm.

tobacco ad 350Pope family tobacco barn

As a native Californian and VAF member, the anticipation of experiencing the rural south and the landscape of slavery, was new and intense.  Access was granted to worn and dilapidated structures like the Yancey-Womack tobacco curing and sorting barn (ca 1850) and the crumbling one-room slave shack at the Holderness House (1855), both of hewn logs chinked with mud and brick shown below. Unlike Horton Grove, but common for rural North Carolina and equally historic are ruined shacks like this one, photographed moments before a colleague plunged 6′ through the rotting floor.

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slave quarters H plantation

The four identical slave quarters at Horton Grove stand in a straight line, like barracks,  fronting on a small green meadow with the forest closing in behind. Thinking architecturally, the strength and logic of the siting was evident from the tour bus window as we pulled up.  Pushing ahead of the others, I snapped photos, framed views, stunned by the clean vertical planes of the structures in contrast to the shadows deep, low and black at the edge of the mown grass clearing, so lush, so intensely green.  In my camera lens, bright feelings for the beauty and love of the landscape played against the background of a historical darkness.

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Our tour guide, George McDaniel, until recently Executive Director at the Drayton Hall Plantation, helped re-invent Horton Grove as a destination and place of memory with his genealogical research culminating with a 1977 reunion at Horton Grove of descendants of resident slaves and share-croppers.   Without knowing, I’ve praised McDaniel’s work at Drayton Hall in a post from 2012, recognizing in his stripped down approach to restoration a model for historic preservation.  McDaniel introduced the dwellings to the tour by asking how the group felt about what the state had done to maintain the property.  We looked around at the tall, brooding trees and damp mowed lawn.  “Nice?”

Horton Grove aerialMcDaniels was saddened to see that trees and grass had been allowed to flourish, and the quarters themselves prettied up when compared to his memory on first encounter of the dilapidated share-cropper houses, the dusty dirt road and tobacco fields.  “There should be dirt instead of grass here, and there it should all be open fields.  You should be able to see the relationship between the slave quarters and the overseer’s house.”

The four slave quarters form a line in the lower left quarter of this aerial photo from 1978, and the open fields are still evident.  The photo was used by Catherin Bishir as evidence in support of its nomination to the National Historic Register and, less successfully, for preserving the empty fields.

Today Horton Grove provides side by side Nature Preserve and Historic Site with clearly different agendas.  Horton Grove slave quarters also function clearly as a memorial with regular reunions of slave ancestors with stories to tell.  The rehabilitation of the quarters’ exteriors is thorough–almost like new in 1850.  The staging of the interiors is fairly minimal but suggests habitation—a broom, a straw mattress and a blanket on the floor.  Four slave family occupied each of these four room buildings–one family per room–crowded and unpleasant for us.

Horton Grove bedding 375Memories are colored by what we understand and imagine as much as what we’ve seen.  How do we choose to remember this past (1) from a place of beauty and comfort connecting intellectually or (2)  as a miserable visceral experience of heat, dust and overcrowding–a physical reenactment of a particular moment in the past.  Which moment, the darkest?–the  most heroic–the most beautiful?  Judging from the recollections of the ancestors, collective memory, unlike personal, is complex, not selective, encompassing a wealth of feeling, dark and bright, both profound.   It should be noted that some slaves’ recollections have included fond memories of masters, mistresses, and home while others, less favored, feel disgust.  While descriptions of the benign re-enactments at Williamsburg seem odd pantomimes, the unconditioned heat and cold and lack of light of NYC’s Tenement museum are real sensations that truly deepens understanding.  Barring literature and cinema’s artistic license (Tarantino’s Django Unchained, for instance), a physical reenactment of the horror of slavery and racism is disrespectful, even obscene, prohibiting a realistic re-staging of the antebellum plantation.  Both Drayton Hall and Stagville  represent efforts by the South to reclaim its compromised history with a historical narrative that’s inclusive, not racist.

Horton Grove doorwayThere is clearly a place for the imagination, intellect and emotion to fill the empty structures whose history is corrupt, but whose form intact. Horton Grove and  Drayton Hall’s emptiness provide a clear and simple example of the unfurnished historic structure as a vessel for memory.

Along with Catherine W. Bishir’s work in nominating Horton Grove for the National Register, McDaniel’s early genealogical efforts uniting families with historical connections to the slave community led to Stagville’s 150th anniversary celebration of emancipation.  The Slave Dwelling Project for historic preservation records a number of personal remembrances of the sleepover they staged in the quarters on the evening of the anniversary.  The event appears complex and sleepless, painful and joyous, including new ancestral connections made with families across racial lines. One comes to realize that like families, history is not the property of one class or race but shared by all of us.  The connection between people and  place remains strong and proud, regardless of a difficult history largely past, but absolutely worth remembering, not re-living.  The value of the depth of memory tied to memory’s historic locations are proven at Horton Grove despite the disgrace of its past.

Our story of Horton Grove will continue with the much esteemed slaveholder and horse fancier Paul Cameron‘s vision for  the betterment of the slave through more pleasing housing, expressing the simple truths of construction.

Check out the Slave Dwelling Project schedule for future slave quarters sleepovers.  Thanks to George MacDaniel and Catherine Bishir for their insight and involvement.

Previously serving as the Stagville Plantation House (ca 1790), the home became the  overseer’s home with the death of Paul’s uncle and the consolidation of family estates and slaves. Below the overseers 18th Century home in 1920 and as restored today.  At bottom, the overseers’ attic.

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Stagville Overseers attic



byron wolfe ishi

In putting together the images for our last Ishi post, we came upon the photo reconstructions of Byron Wolfe including this fantastic image taken of a second trip with Ishi, 100 years after Ishi’s own, to the same swimming hole of the legendary campout of May 1914.

Calisphere’s Guide to Ethnographic Field Photos contains the vast photo documentation of 1914 camp photos by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and surgeon-archer Saxton Pope as they return with Ishi to his ancestral hideout and home.  Both specimen and friend, the  relationship of Ishi, the last California aboriginal, and his academic buddies from the University of California was complicated.


A startling example of adaptive re-use Berlin’s Teufelsberg (or Devil’s Mountain) provides Berlin with the best in all-season sports activity.   Recognized among the premier spots for freeride mountain biking in Germany, these popular slopes rising from the forest of Grünewald also provide the very best snow sports, para-gliding and longboarding in Berlin, a modest claim at 377 feet above sea level.  Still, as the highest point in the Berlin area it affords spectacular 360 degree visibility of city and surrounding countryside. 


Do Ho Suh’s current art installation at Arthouse of the Contemporary Austin running through January 11, 2014,  is easy to like, to photograph.  His embroidered sketches, videos and installations replay and rephrase an  inescapable memory of home.  It’s  depicted in paper and thread as carried on one’s shoulders,  or trailed after like clouds of dust, or in video hauled across country on a semi-trailer. One recalls   Atlas’s bearing the weight of the world, Peanuts’ Pigpen trailing the dust of ancient civilizations, and the percussive heartbeat of truck driving songs.


Before last summer we had visited East and West Berlin in 1985 and looked forward to seeing the changes that occurred in the 23 years since the Fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989.  Our cultural subconscious held a cache of images of horrid truths and heartless propaganda:  juddering film clips of goose-stepping Nazis and skeletal prisoners,  Walter Cronkite’s TV voice over of the Wall’s construction,  and AP photos of East Berlin escapees in mid-air jumping to freedom or death from walls and walled buildings.  The images form a deep, muddy cold-war pool from which the vitality of modern Berlin emerges, staggering out of the emotional depth and  intellectual complexity.

The marks of last centuries’ history, written with bullets, bombs and barbed wire, still remain visible in places but disappear quickly with the massive new architectural construction of the last two decades.  This March protests arose over the demolishing of a long and fantastically graffitied vestige of the Berlin Wall, called the East Side Gallery (listed below), to make way for luxury condos–this in a city only 3/4 occupied.   Formerly a symbol of oppression, the Wall has been claimed as a battle trophy by artists and activists who have repossessed the emotional weight of the Wall’s history as a symbol of self expression and threatened freedom.  Among the works at the East Side Gallery Dmitri Vrubel’s street art perversely commemorates Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev’s historic kiss, passionately celebrating the 30th anniversary of Soviet control of East Germany, “My God.  Help Me Survive This Deadly Love”


An aerial view of the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park lays out a procession of mourning and remembrance across a landscape and culture.   With the Soviet occupiers beginning construction 10 months after the end of the war, the memorial spreads the granite ruins of the Third Reich Chancellory over territory the length of three football fields.


“Berlin-prettier than ever!” beckons the 1947 prop art poster for Soviet  East Berlin’s 5-year plan for the rebuilding of social housing and infrastructure following the devastation of the Allies’ bombardment and the Soviet invasion.

Distance provides perspective.  Unpacking our mental suitcase from a recent summer holiday in graffitti-bedighted East Berlin, we edit snapshots, positioning them for inevitable comparisons to our own living situation, in our own neighborhood in the Western Addition considering topics of street art, gentrification, bicycles, social housing, memorials and population relocation.

The changes in Berlin have been cataclysmic.  A city of 4.5 million in 1939, the population now stands at 3.5 million, 25% un-occupied, uncrowded and affordable.  For those with connections to Eastern European immigrants, the absence of a vibrant Jewish culture in Berlin is a palpable loss.  The World War and Cold War past is still present in the empty lots, the bullet-pocked plaster, the missing windows, and graffitied squats standing side by side with chic window displays, hot clubs, cool condos and high art. 


“The last days are here.”  80-something,  Ray takes his morning constitutional down to the corner store, at Broderick and Fulton around 8 am, hangs out to catch his breath, smoke a cigarette, socialize and sometimes prophesize.  We talk about the recent foreclosure and sale of the Gethsemane Missionary Baptist a block away.  “I’d been sayin’ it all along, it’s the last days, I do believe that.  The last days are here!”

The Gethsemane Missionary Baptist at Grove and Broderick is the latest of Western Addition’s church closures.  Neighbor Bill reports the church had been failing for  a while and was not shocked to hear the loan had been foreclosed and the property sold.  The realtor for sale reports the interior was in shambles.

I bump into Dharma, drinking lattes, a block east at Mojo.  He recalls, “I think maybe it was 2004.  I ‘member walkin’ by and those walls were like pumpin’.”  Here he makes a squeeze-box oompah gesture.  “Yeah, it was this cool, loud gospel music.  We stuck our heads in, but it didn’t exactly feel right. So ….” 


The classic farmhouse form of this gold rush era home can be described in a few words: a gable house wrapped by a porch.

The two shapes, gable and porch, can be described with hand gestures. The shape is simple and common, lodged in our shared memory and dreams. Its commonness confirms its comfortable familiarity and borrows from past associations with similar homes, with farms, porch swings.


The colossal spans of Parisian rail stations witness a time of technological breakthrough looking back at a historical sense of proportion and delicacy while looking forward to the new scale of the industrial age with its efficiencies of mass production and big box warehousing.  Through this temple of arrivals and departures have passed daily commuters, returning loved ones, and deported Jews.  Unable to assume a moral position on passing events–right or wrong–the station has effectively assumed a positive position on history and society, ennobling the passage of time and people without judgement of the circumstances.