Hand Made

I was in 10th grade when I first started to make hand-lettered signs. Professionally that is; before that I had been your go-to guy for all types of posters and blackboard art in school. But it was in high school that my career, as it was at the time, really took off.

My journalism teacher at that time and her husband helped out at the local Little League baseball field. He may have been a coach though I don’t really recall much other than boxes of sporting equipment in their garage and station wagon. My job however, was hand lettering the many advertising signs that were mounted to the fence surrounding the playing field. 4ft x 8ft plywood signs, mostly painted white, hand lettered with your business name, perhaps a logo, and a phone number and an address. Occasionally we would put two businesses on one board and the text got a bit smaller, but overall it wasn’t a difficult job making four inch letters look legible from the outfield.

That skill helped me quite a bit when I took a job after college in San Diego. Working at Robert Keith Giant Inflatables, I was part of a team of artists who hand painted logos on twenty foot tall vinyl beer bottles and cans. (I wrote about that previously here.)

However most of my graphics career was spent in the screenprinting industry. The billboard posters I printed had a handshake relationship with old-school lettering in that the projected image of text was drawn by hand and then a stencil was cut by hand using an exacto blade. Those paper stencils were used to produce hundreds of identical prints, whether they were yard signs for elections or 30 ft billboards for casinos in my hometown of Reno. The screenprint produced a much cleaner, sharper image of text than my admittedly shaky brushwork ever could. 

All of which brings me to our recent visit to Tennessee and the opportunity to enjoy two vastly different exhibit experiences which showcased basically the same material. 

The Museum of Appalachia twenty miles north of Knoxville in Norris, TN is a wonderful collection of relocated early American frontier buildings, from one-room log cabins to sheds and barns filled with memorabilia. Several larger new structures are jam-packed with an overwhelming assortment of photographs, personal items, home goods and cottage industry crafts, guitars, banjos, dulcimers and small exhibits devoted to favorite sons such as SGT Alvin C. York (WW1). 

Much of the collection appears to be pre-industrial revolution items or shortly thereafter. But what captured my attention wasn’t the time period or the quality of craftsmanship displayed: it was the sheer quantity of materials they had on display! And nearly everything came with a simple hand-lettered caption label. So much stuff! All labeled! Beautiful, shaky, fading-to-grey black ink on sepia colored cardboard labels. Admittedly they were hard to read, but they looked like letters or postcards from a forgotten era.

The next day we toured the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend TN. A beautiful structure with engaging exhibits, the Center appears to be well funded. The exhibit casework is new and reflects our current design trend of color-coordinated thematic divisions. Essentially a book-on-the-wall exhibit experience, it is clean minimalist design. All the body text and object labels are printed (likely off a digital printer, those having superceded screenprinting technology) and there is a curated sense of purposeful arrangement to the items on display. The overall sense here is one of Story, what do these objects tell us about the past and the people who lived here.

The two locations are only 50 miles apart. They couldn’t be farther apart in their differing approaches to presenting and helping us to understand the past and how we are related to it. For all the years I spent in the museum exhibit design and production industry, I have a built in bias towards the clean uncluttered presentation style of the Great Smokies Visitor Center. 

But I have to say, those hand-lettered display signs and labels on all that stuff at the Museum of Appalachia really have me reminiscing. And who doesn’t like the thrill of discovering something tucked away, much like going through an old trunk or your Grandmother’s photo album, only to find pictures of…you?

What Goes Up

There is a general adage, perhaps an aphorism, that aptly describes much about our modern life. “What goes up, must/will/eventually come down.”

The price of gas goes up one week; it comes down, a little, a week later. Unemployment goes up, gradually it comes down. Home prices in our area seem to be the exception, and there are perhaps other exclusions. But what strikes me is how dependable the phrase is. It doesn’t just describe our experience with gravity: watch the kids on a trampoline, for instance. Thankfully they always return to the ground and don’t go drifting off into space somewhere. What goes up invariably comes down.

During my lifetime I’ve seen a number of things go up, buildings primarily, and for the most part they are still standing. But that’s not always given. Growing up in Reno I watched a small town transformed into an entertainment destination, not on the scale of Las Vegas, but still impressive. After having been away for several decades, I was amazed at the number of new hotels which were built during the boom years of the 80s.

But not all of those are still standing. I’ve been following the story of Harrah’s Hotel & Casino in Reno. Opened in 1937 as a small venture, Harrah’s eventually grew to a billion dollar entertainment corporation with more than 15 venues across the US. While the rest of the corporation’s investments seem to be doing well, the original building in Reno was closed permanently in 2020 and is now being converted to apartments and retail-office space. 

I was in grade school when the original Park Lane Mall in Reno was constructed. In the 70s, following the pattern of many outdoor malls, it was roofed over and became an enclosed mall. But times and peoples’ shopping patterns change. In 2018 the mall was demolished and paved over, eventually to be revitalized as an urban living construction named the Reno Experience District RED.   https://redreno.com   From what I’ve seen, it closely parallels our One Loudoun urban community. Change. What goes up. 

The Woodrow Wilson Bridge crossing the Potomac River was begun in 1958 and finished in 1961. The original bridge, that is. I wasn’t here for that project, but I was living in Virginia when it was torn down and the new  twelve lane bridge began construction in 2000, completed in 2009. More change https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodrow_Wilson_Bridge

All of which brings me to today. 

This week I drove past a building in Ashburn where I had once worked. Back in the late 80s, Ashburn was still a small village surrounded by turf farms and the beginnings of new suburbs. AOL (remember them?) moved to Loudoun County in 1996 and began the transformation of Loudoun County into a Data Center empire. Years later, AOL abandoned the property. In 2015 AOL was acquired by Verizon and eventually all of their properties here were sold off, later to be developed into data centers. But in 1990, there was virtually nothing out here other than acres and acres of fields.

The properties along Beaumeade Circle remained undeveloped for years. When Explus moved from Fairfax County out to Loudoun in 1990, we were the first tenants to occupy the large concrete-walled structure. I bought a townhouse nearby in Sterling the same year and was able to watch our building go in, from the initial pouring of the concrete floors to the final installation of the HVAC and the buildout of the interiors. I worked with the company for a total of thirteen years, most of that time at their third location closer to Dulles Airport.

Christian Fellowship Church purchased the property in the mid-90s, added a worship center, classrooms, and a gym for their school, parking areas and recreational ballfields. In 2018 we started attending CFC, 28 years after I watched the same building go up. In 2020 the church sold the building and moved to a new location in One Loudoun. The old building stood empty for two years until recently when demolition began in preparation of constructing another data center. What goes up, inevitably comes down.

Frame It!

This past year I became enamored? Infatuated? Engrossed? In online estate auctions. I know, it seems counter intuitive to be buying things we likely don’t need when our goal these past several years has been to declutter and downsize. But really, who can’t use another hall tree or hat rack, and maybe a beautiful Panama hat to go with it? But I digress. 

What I have found to be a lot of fun is bidding on vintage and antique furniture in need of some repair or refinishing. There might be an opportunity for resale at a later date, but that isn’t why I’ve been buying Victorian walnut washstands (original marble top!) or mahogany side tables. Or antique shaving mirrors.

Growing up, I remember Dad had a tool shop in our garage where he would occasionally turn out small projects. It was on his Shopsmith lathe that I first learned how to turn wood for candlesticks, and his table saw is what I used to make the frames for stretching canvas for my paintings during college.

For many years I was employed in the exhibit industry and the woodworkers who created the custom exhibits and cabinetry were always very supportive of my small “homey” projects. So I’m not unfamiliar with wood and the growing community of DIYers and refinishing/repurposing trends. 

Antique mahogany frame

But these Victorian frames that I’ve been buying have me a bit confused. What to do with a 22”x24” frame composed of three separate moldings, that framed a portrait of  someone long deceased? The two companion frames that I bought at the same time came from an estate sale in Culpeper. Other than cleaning, they are in great shape and all I need to do is find a more suitable image to place in each before they go on the wall.

But this one has been a challenge. I repaired some of the missing molding by taking an impression with DAX modeling clay of a matching section of frame, then glued on the new pieces. Rather than take the entire frame apart to “resquare” it, I left it as I had found it, somewhat warped at a jaunty angle, but showing the passage of time. The Victorians seem to have placed more emphasis on the size of the frame than what went in it. Very peculiar to our modern preference for pencil-thin frames and large scale artwork.

After doing what I could do refinish the frame and repair the missing moldings, I decided to paint it. I took design inspiration from the wildly over-the-top decor of The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs WVA. Nearly 80 years after Dorothy Draper redesigned the interiors of the resort, I’m amazed at the effect bold colors and large patterns can achieve. I cringe when I see things painted white (so many colors and you chose…white?) so I settled on a bright blue. It’s a statement piece, for sure. But I’m still at a bit of a crossroads; what to put in the frame? 

Get a Map

Virginia’s 57,867-mile state-maintained roads system is divided into these categories: Interstate – 1,118 miles of four-to-ten lane highways that connect states and major cities. Primary – 8,111 miles of two-to-six-lane roads that connect cities and towns with each other and with interstates. Secondary – 48,305 miles of local connector or county roads. Frontage – 333 miles of frontage roads. (VDOT)

And Google maps (Apple maps) has most of them readily accessible on your car’s navigation system or smart phone. 

But there are just times when only an old fashioned printed map will suffice. Or save you from wandering endless backroads thru hills and hollows without internet reception. 

A weekend drive to a recommended winery gave us an afternoon of exploring some of the most pastoral landscape I’ve yet seen here in Virginia. Climbing hills, green pastures outlined with white-painted fences, cattle at rest in the shade of oak trees or standing belly deep in a pond, a tiny church across from a well-tended cemetery—the type of scenery you might only come across in a Charles Wysocki 1,000 piece puzzle. 

But on the way back, looking for another winery we knew to be located nearby, the road we had previously traveled seemed a little unfamiliar. Had we turned left at that intersection? Have we already gone past the farm with the two llamas out front? Did we go across this narrow bridge, I don’t remember following a stream (ooh that looks great for fly fishing!).

All the while the late afternoon sun is hidden behind a grey overcast sky and the road has continued to narrow. When the pavement turned to hard packed gravel, I knew it was time to turn around. “We’re not lost,” I thought, “just exploring the backroads of Virginia!”

I grew up with a map in my lap, calling out turns, intersections, bridges and land features as my Dad or Mom drove the family car on our family vacations. Long before an interest in aerial photography and the layed-out landscape would lead me to Army cartographic school, I was fascinated with the relationship between the constructed landscape and the natural. The patchwork of farmlands we drove thru as a youngster resolved into magnificent tapestries of colors and shapes bounded by roads or water features when I finally saw them for the first time from an airplane window. Those patterns and colors eventually found their way into my pencil drawings and water colors years later in college art courses.

Learning to drive, or rather, to navigate with the digital map on my iphone has been challenging. In the Boy Scouts and later in the Army, we were taught to orient the map to Magnetic North, then find your location and proceed. I find it confusing then to be following the moving locator on the screen’s map, it heading towards the bottom of the screen, when I am driving forward (up on the screen?). When my wife calls out a turn to the left or right, I’m tempted to ask if the map (digital screen) is oriented properly. My left? Your left? The iPhone’s left? I’m confused!

With a full tank of gas I’m not as concerned as I used to be with directions-eventually we’ll get there. Though in the case of the winery, well, we are saving that for another day. But I am concerned about my friends who drive EVs.

I talked on the phone to my brother the other day about his Tesla. Don’t you get Range Anxiety, I asked him? After a long discussion about batteries, the dual motor capabilities, the growing number of charging stations, and the rundown on their last bi-state road trip, he replied: No. His vehicle gets about 326 miles when charged up (nearly the same mileage as my Nissan Frontier, truthfully). Surely that’s sufficient to glide along any of the backroads of Virginia without worrying about a fill up, I thought. But still, aren’t you concerned about your onboard map/guidance system? What if the satellite coverage drops out? What if line-of-sight is obscured by mountain driving? What if, what if? From their website, I take some reassurance: As updated maps become available, they are automatically sent to Model S over Wi-Fi. To ensure you receive them, periodically connect Model S to a Wi-Fi network. OK.

Thinking about our transitioning to the new, all digital age: does anyone remember getting letters in the mail? Finding a collection of old letters carefully ribboned together and saved in shoeboxes, perhaps for generations? They were our maps and guide to the past, connecting us to people and places a text or an email never can. I’m looking at you, Major Sullivan Ballou (https://www.nps.gov/articles/-my-very-dear-wife-the-last-letter-of-major-sullivan-ballou.htm)

I wonder what we will leave behind in the way of ephemera, love letters, birthday cards, train stubs and such. Or will our future be one of the now, driving along our digital highways and not looking back. Never lost, always here.


If you are a map or data junky, Virginia Roads website has an amazing set of tools designed to create apps, or maps which incorporate their data. Again from their website: Build exciting new apps with no code. Story Maps are a great way to share your message interactively. Quickly combine your maps, analysis and data int a purposeful app – with no code!

That’s pretty exciting for me to see, the cartographic world was just beginning the transition to digital environment when I left the Army in 1986.

Upcycled

Upcycled, recycled, DIY makeover, finished, refinished, trash-to-treasure— call it what you will, the “don’t throw that away” movement is definitely here to stay. With the cost of new furniture, and shipping problems continuing to be an issue, it only makes sense to repurpose what you have rather than buying more. But what if what you have isn’t quite right or isn’t working for you anymore?

I’ve seen and read a crush of articles recently extolling the virtues of shopping the second hand market for furniture, or salvaging a piece from someone else’s trash before it becomes landfill; but most of those projects end up all looking alike. The paint-it-grey urban farmhouse style has a firm grip on today’s design world. Much like the all-beige world of the early 90s, trends can really take ahold of our consciousness.

I am aware that no one wants OUR stuff, especially the kids! And that includes our collectibles, knickknacks, souvenirs, and other space wasters and shelf hogs. However, we all want YOUR stuff if it is vintage, antique, or can be painted and made to look like new.

Many online sources have chronicled our obsession with old=new again. 

In an article from early in the pandemic (Oct 2020) Vox noted how people’s choices to buy used furniture created new opportunities for some, yet at the same time previewed hard times ahead for some retailers. It could be an early indicator of a market shift, or just a temporary reaction to supply shortages and high prices at a time when folks were reticent about going out. Time will tell. 

Online articles will tell you how to clean second hand furniture, how to detects pests (bedbugs in the sofa?), what not to buy second hand (mattresses, again…bedbugs), where to score great mid-century modern furniture (estate sales and auctions, especially in MCM neighborhoods such as Mantua in Fairfax), and of course there is Pinterest for how-to ideas once you have your new/old piece. 

Lately I have become a bit obsessed with online estate sales. Well, auctions, rather than sales, and that is an important point to remember. While you might rejoice over the initial low bids on a particular piece of furniture, the bidding can quickly ratchet up past your limit in the final hours of a sale. No one wants to get caught paying more for a piece than it’s worth!

On the other hand, I’ve bought a beautiful Victorian walnut washstand for $23; a mahogany sidetable for $10 (I kept the legs and threw away the damaged top); and a nifty dresser shaving mirror in mahogany for $40 which I will be refinishing soon. The mirror, along with a couple of very old picture frames, came out of the Hill mansion in Culpeper. Just getting the opportunity to walk through the mansion to pickup my treasures was worth the trip!

I’m having a lot of fun trying out a few new techniques. The two Victorian-era picture frames that I bought are in need of some repair. One of them is missing the cast plaster molding in a corner. I’ve cast a new corner piece from a mold I made out of DAS modeling clay. Fingers crossed that the finished project turns out!

The kids may not want our stuff, that’s true. But I’m still looking for projects to refinish!

A Wonderful Life

The holidays bring no end of opportunities for musical and dramatic presentations. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol seems to never run out of venues, whether performed at community theaters or touring companies. So it is also with The Nutcracker, or holiday sing-alongs to Hansel’s Messiah

If, like many families, you have your collection of DVDs, then by now you may have already watched White Christmas or A Christmas Story. Or you may be more partial to new favorites such as Elf; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; or Home Alone. The Hallmark Channel serves up an endless supply of 25 Days of Christmas movies to get us all into the spirit!

It’s a Wonderful Life premiered in December 1946. It was not a commercial success by today’s standards (initial box office release places it near $3.5 million) and doesn’t fall anywhere near the top 50 highest-grossing Christmas films. (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (2018), at $512 Million takes first place, followed by 1990’s Home Alone $496 million. https://screenrant.com/christmas-movies-highest-grossing-box-office-mojo/

Yet it has taken its place on many Christmas movie lists as one of the most-loved holiday movies. Due to an oversight by the copyright holder Republic Pictures, It’s A Wonderful Life came into the public domain in 1974 and was shown repeatedly on television for many years. For many of us “boomers” White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life are the definitive holiday movies.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (full-length version)
It’s a Wonderful Life is based on the story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern and was adapted by Joe Landry in 1996. This past week we saw a wonderful performance of this charming holiday favorite by the Four County Players in Barboursville VA. The building is a beautiful historic school building from the 1930s filled with character. The stage of the auditorium of the Barboursville Community Center (formerly Barboursville High School) was transformed into the Manhattan radio station WBFR and side wings served as a “green room” during the play’s intermission.

The Players have been putting on a wide range of shows for over 40 years now. Looking through their website, musicals, comedy, and dramas abound and titles such as God of Carnage, The Laramie Project, and Chicago emphasize the wide variety and challenging pieces they have taken on.

It’s A Wonderful Life performed as a live radio play adds an extra depth to a story that has become very familiar over the years. The idea of watching actors, who are themselves portraying actors, who are telling a story set in the postwar 1940s makes this show both familiar and fresh. It’s as if we were being treated to a contemporary podcast, yet here the actions and expressions of the people on stage carry even more emotional weight than would a sound-only podcast.

Frank Kapra directed the movie, based on the 1943 short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, at the end of WWII. James Stewart had just gotten out of the Army Air Corps and the themes of faith and family, along with deep emotional trauma, surely resonated in his performance. It is a strange coincidence that this play takes the stage again 75 years after the movie’s premier, also at a time when the US has returned home from war.

Yet just as moving was the poigancy that Ken Wayne brought to his portrayal of the drama’s character Jake Laurents, voicing the play’s character of George Bailey. John Holdren’s portrayal of the radio show host was very impressive, switching from host to numerous characters seemingly at ease. Using only their stage scripts as props, or perhaps fussing with the fit of a garment, the cast brought multiple characters to life on stage. Very impressed by Sara Conklin and Katie Hutchins! A great delight was the onstage presence of two Foley artists producing an array of sound effects–from the sound of shoes crossing the floor; broken glass; wind effects; doors being slammed; to the swoooooshing sound of deep waters rushing under the bridge our main character finds himself standing upon.

I had expected the drama to be a bit more “staged,” the actors perhaps just sitting around their microphones in a sound booth. Director and scenic designer Kerry Moran has laid out a beautiful set with the actors front and center. The actors were on their feet at the microphones most of the time, true, but the camaraderie and playful banter exhibited by their onstage characters brought a great deal of additional life to the drama. The action moves along at a quite lively pace. Our director knows there is an audience watching these performances: subtle yet at times dramatic lighting effects coupled with musical backgrounds fill in what could have been a staid production. And those costumes! Welcome to the 1940s.

This was our first time attending a Four County Players’ performance; what a great introduction to theater in Central Virginia and a start to the holiday season.

George Bailey returns a changed man. “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love, Clarence.”

Book illustration by Scott McKowen from The Greatest Gift, published 1996 by Viking Penguin

Changed My Mind

First, an apology to all of my woodworking friends, craftsmen, and fabricators and finishers who create extraordinary pieces of furniture from walnut, mahogany, cherry and other woods. The rich gleam and subtle play of light accenting texture and grain  in your pieces are unmistakable.  The deep colors of walnut or an ebonized finish are striking. 

But I’m afraid, most older pieces of furniture (vintage, antique?) leave me wanting to grab my paint brushes and get started. Painting. Covering up those wood grains with a bright coat of gloss white enamel or lacquer, or maybe even a distressed crackle finish with a rubbed-in patina. 

Lately I’ve been partial to painting furniture with a whimsical collage of colors and patterns —think of Mackenzie-Childs, though with a more muted color palette than their hot pinks and spring greens or black and gold patterns.

Estate sale side table.

When I found an antique table available on a recent estate sale, I knew it would look great as a table base for one of my hand painted faux finish table tops.

A few years ago, Deb and I drove over to The Greebrier in WVA for lunch and to have a look around at their world-renowned interiors. The main rooms were especially colorful over the Christmas holiday and I remember how striking the decor seemed. Originally designed by Dorothy Draper and now maintained and refreshed by Carlton Varney, the bold use of color and over-sized patterned wallpaper really caught my eye. Not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I loved those huge black and white checks, striped wallpaper, and painted tables. 

A settee in bold pattern, flanked by gloss black side tables.
Grey, blue, or citrine yellow for the table base?

It was in the spirit of the over-the-top Greenbrier decor that I expected to paint the legs for my blue marble table. Not black. The legs already looked black from aged varnish. Maybe bright white or a pewter gray to complement the greys and blues of the painted top. Or perhaps a vivid citrine yellow. But definitely color. 

While sanding through that almost-black finish, I discovered that the table base was red mahogany. Surprisingly I’m rather partial to mahogany. I’m not a big fan of the lighter finishes of woods such as ash or maple; definitely not a fan of the current gray-washed everything. But I love walnut and mahogany, especially with a satin finish or a hand rubbed look. 

So, my apologies to my woodworking friends for all the shade I’ve thrown your way over the years. This past week I bought a can of tung oil with my sandpaper. 

You can see the results below.

What Its Worth

We have found one of our favorite past-times during traveling is to stop in at antique and vintage shops and browse around. We seldom buy anything, and very often I’ll hear others comment, “Who would buy that?” Or more likely, “who would pay THAT MUCH?!” for a certain item. My wife will always give me a look, or a shush! but I’m sure it’s a common observation over what often seems to be random pricing in the second-hand retail market.

This fall we finally stopped in at a shop we have literally driven past for years. Finders Keepers is located on Main Street in Orange, Virginia and we see it nearly every time we head down to one of our favorite vineyards in Barboursville. Their website indicates they have been in business for over twenty-five years so I am surprised to see how long it took us to stop in. Needless to say, it was worth the visit.

Finders Keepers building in Orange Virginia

While we browsed their extensive assortment of items, everything from furniture to lamps, prints and paintings, and home decor, I struck up a conversation with owner Bradley Toombs. We talked about how Covid has rapidly changed the face of retail, especially small businesses. During our conversation he mentioned that they also run an estate sale business and gave us his card to check it out later. Acorn Estate Liquidators offers online and in-person estate sales providing their clients with options to liquidate their personal possessions. It turns out, as many people are contemplating downsizing or moving away from the area, one of their greatest concerns is what to do with all of our stuff.

More out of curiosity than a need for anything, I checked out one of their online auctions.

WHAT A SURPRISE!

Here’s a brief list of some of the things that were available to bid on:

  • Antique furniture and lighting
  • Clocks, collectibles, paintings and prints
  • China and crystal, silver, pottery 
  • Linens, quilts, and rugs

There were hundreds of items to bid on, most of which listed had an initial bid of $2. In some cases they increased by as little as $1 per bid. I’m struck by how little some of these items eventually sold for. There was a vintage Leica camera complete with additional lenses and a gorgeous leather camera bag that topped the bidding at $3,500. But that seemed to be the exception. Most of the lots closed at prices under $50.

So I jumped right in and started bidding! I lost the auction on most of listings I bid on, in some cases by as little as that $2 increment. But a couple of things that I bid on, I won.

While I’m quite pleased with having won the bidding on this sofa for $10, I think I might have gotten carried away bidding on this vintage children’s wagon. It looks great in the garden, I plan on filling it with potted plants in the spring, but the $27 that I paid for it was probably a little high. I am surprised at how many winning bids came in under $10. I suppose with an opening bid of only $2, it can take some time to reach a respectable bid offer. Yet there are always a few items that fetch commanding prices such as estate jewelry, fine art, or some of the antique furniture. Right now I have my eye on a beautiful wingback chair in great condition ($10) and an antique Victorian walnut marble-top washstand (my bid so far: $5).

But much of what’s offered looks like will bring in far less to the family than perhaps what they were anticipating. And that’s what really has me intrigued. When I look around our own living room, for instance, and contemplate what we paid for things like sofas, side tables and lamps, and all the decorative pieces that fill our rooms, and start adding up what I think they will get at auction, I begin to get a sense of real value versus cost.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19-20

Old School

Sometime back I became interested in learning a little more about our family’s heritage. Not quite a deep-dive into research genealogy but something more akin to a survey of the places we had lived, the homes and schools we attended. Along the way, the faded photographs my Mother had saved of her childhood prompted me to try and find her homes and schools.

Mom was born in Colorado and before moving to Southern California (where my own family’s story begins) she and her growing family lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado. When they moved, my Grandfather’s Aunt Belle wrote in her journal at the time “Quite an undertaking with the car, trailer, six children, goat with two kids, canary bird, and cat and dog.”  

The photo of children sitting with my Grandfather Orlo Willis in front of a small home launched my search for the house and school they had attended in the 1930s. Were those buildings still standing? Or had they been demolished only to be replaced by larger and more modern structures?

My Grandfather Orlo Willis with Mom and siblings, 1930

Not to my surprise, Mom remembered the street address of their home and the elementary school they had walked to. The 1930 census, available online, confirmed their street address. A quick search on Google maps revealed that the home is still standing, while further searching on Zillow showed pictures of a “charming Victorian home” built in 1892.

An online search for photos of the original school building came up empty but I did come across a fascinating website, http://coloradopreservation.org

Writing about their mission, the organization began as “43 citizens interested in preserving (their) state’s built heritage started this organization to encourage preservation efforts statewide.” An email requesting information on the elementary school was answered cordially but proved fruitless. However that lead me to finding a small publication, surprisingly available through Amazon, entitled “A History of the Colorado Springs School District 11”, by Harriet Seibel, published in 1975, with quite a bit of information regarding the school I was hunting.

The two story brick building was originally constructed in 1898 with additions coming in later years. It was torn down and replaced with a single-story building 74 years later in 1972. No doubt infrastructure problems (heating and cooling, electrical wiring) contributed to the decision to replace rather than renovate. However, knowing that the school had been rebuilt, Google supplied the address and contact information of the school’s Principal, who forwarded my request for information on to the school’s Library Technology Director. He was kind enough to send me several photos of the old Columbia School as well as photos as it exists today.

But what has happened with those schools built in the early years of Reno where I grew up? This summer on a visit home with family, I drove by all four of the schools I had attended. And surprisingly they are all still in use! All of them were built around the same time, from Greenbrae Elementary in 1955 to Wooster High School in 1962. They all share similar characteristics of mid century modern design: single-story concrete block construction, small windows, flat roofs with protective overhang. Most are devoid of any ornamentation and look like they were designed to last for generations.

Washoe County School District published “A History of Schools from Past to Present,” with detailed information and a photograph of nearly all the schools built in the area, from 1955 until 2012. Several schools have since been opened, but the comprehensive list builds on an earlier list compiled by Rose Bullis of schools built from 1857-1912.

Reno has several school buildings of great historical and architectural interest that are still standing. One of the oldest schools built, Mary Lee Nichols Elementary School in Sparks, was built in 1917 and is still in use today as a commercial building. Robert Mitchell Elementary School in Sparks NV was rebuilt in 1937 as a single story brick building. The art modern building, still in use today, is a far cry from the original two story structure that had been built in 1906. The original multi-story building bears a striking resemblance to my mother’s elementary school: both share the same style of imposing brick edifice that was later replaced by one story buildings. (photos from 4th Street Prater Way Project)

Writing about the superiority of the smaller building style, “State Superintendent of Public Instruction reported to the Nevada Legislature in 1915 that mission architecture was chosen as it “is especially adapted to one-story buildings,” and he added “there is nothing better for school purposes than one-story buildings. The one-story plan eliminates the stair climbing so destructive to the nervous strength of pupils and teachers, and also renders danger from fire impossible.” (from Renohistorical.org) Reno built four of the Spanish Mission-style schools between 1910-12, two of which remain standing, one used as a school today (Mount Rose School)

Have you had any success in tracking down your family’s schools? I would guess that few remain from the early part of the 20th century unless they had a committed group of individuals determined to keep the buildings open, either as schools or repurposed as office space or commercial sites. In the case of the Nichols School, the fact that it was designed by Nevada’s premier architect Frederic DeLongchamps went a long way in securing its future. A 2002 Registration Form was filed with the Unites States Depart of the Interior, National Park Service, to place the Mary Lee Nichols School in Sparks on the National Register of Historic Places reads in part “Mary Lee Nichols School is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under criterion A for its role in the educational history of Sparks, Nevada, and criterion C as an excellent example of a modest educational building designed by Nevada’s pre-eminent architect Frederic DeLongchamps in the Mission architectural style.”

Any number of the schools recently opened look like they will stand the test of time, but as we all know…only time will tell.

Mary Lee Nichols Elementary School was built in 1917 and though smaller, it shared the more modest mission-style of Reno’s Four Sisters. (photo credit)

True Colors

It’s been reported that the human eye can detect anywhere between 1 million and 10 million colors. Today’s LCD computer monitors can render 16 million colors. On the rainbow spectrum (ROYGBIV), green sits in the center of that array. 

Many studies, scientific or casual observation, pretty much confirm what many of us know, or at least suspect. Among men, their favorite color is blue, followed by green. And among women, their reported favorite color is blue followed by purple. https://www.livescience.com/34105-favorite-colors.html

Color Chart with men and women’s preferences

Color wheel credit: A sample of 1,974 men and women were asked whether they preferred purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, or pink. (Image credit: Phillip Cohen Family Inequality)

All of this interest arises from a tour we had taken this summer at Henry F. duPont’s magnificent home and now museum, Winterthur, in Delaware. Apart from the extravagantly decorated rooms, it wasn’t hard to notice that duPont had a fascination for color and the color green specifically. According to the current exhibit “Outside In, Nature-Inspired Design at Winterthur;” duPont identified 48 shades of green in the garden. As to how many translated to inside the museum nobody knows, but as in his gardens, the many shades of green used indoors were intended as backdrops for color, whether from the flowers displayed in each room, or the assembled decorative pieces: furniture, carpets, paintings, ceramics and porcelain, a profusion of small and large knickknacks. The overall effect is quite overwhelming to the modern eye, yet harmonious and often inspirational. 

Outside In: Nature-inspired Design at Winterthur

So it strikes me as a bit of a disconnect when we consider how we modernists have such a timid relationship with color. Gray: the most popular indoor paint color today is gray. “Agreeable Gray, by Sherwin Williams, is our most popular gray paint color because it’s the perfect hue for any living space, whether it be a family room or bedroom,” says Sue Wadden, director of color marketing at Sherwin-Williams. (Jun 30, 2020)

What happened to blue? Or green? A quick web search revealed nearly 497 million entries for the terms “psychology of color”. While we often think of the color red, for instance, as being associated with passion; the color blue with tranquility, peace, and often sadness; the colors yellow and orange with confidence, optimism, and happiness, I wasn’t surprised to see that green is often thought of as the color of growth (of course!) renewal and awakening. But Gray? Well, gray is described as secure and reliable or conversely, as sad, depressing, or unsettling. (Thealignedlife.com). I want color! More color! I want True Colors.

But I see your true colors
Shining through

I see your true colors
And that’s why I love you
So don’t be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful
Like a rainbow

Cyndi Lauper, True Colors 1986

We have strong feelings about certain colors so it isn’t surprising to find many songs named after colors, or with a color in their title. Below is my effort at a color-coded playlist in order on the spectrum. Do you have a favorite color or perhaps a song associated with a color? Comment below!

RED, Taylor Swift

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ORANGE CRUSH, REM

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YELLOW, Coldplay

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THE COLOR GREEN, Rich Mullins

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BLUE, LeAnn Rimes

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MOOD INDIGO, Duke Ellington

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PURPLE RAIN, Prince

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