The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Lakeland, FL

I love Florida, but I also have no doubt in my mind that it is our weirdest state. It leans on its Spanish history in some corners, yet nothing is built to last. It came of age as an ostensible Garden of Eden (some still think the actual Garden of Eden was there*), yet it’s been meticulously plowing under its natural beauty in favor of strip malls, parking lots, and surface highways that necessitate signs warning motorists of the upcoming intersection. I spent a lot of time in the Miami area growing up, and I am just old enough to remember the Rascal House’s last burst of glory before it got swallowed by development. You can refer to David Sax’s Save the Deli (2010) if you’d like to learn more about just how bad things got before they finally cut the cord and closed the place. I’m also looking forward to checking out Andy Sweet’s photo book about the “golden era” of Jewish Miami, which was quickly fading by the time I was old enough to pay attention to my surroundings down there.

Anyway, I will leave Miami for what will ideally be a separate entry once I’m able to visit. Today’s post is about (depending on how you look at the map or believe what the University system dictates) Central or Southern Florida, a region I greatly increased my familiarity with as an adult. As a kid, the Central Region meant Disney World, Universal Studios, and Disney World. Never mind the five-plus major Universities that dotted the sprawling Orlando landscape (Or-landscape?) which have fostered one of the South’s most under-the-radar booming cities for the past two decades? These days, driving through Orlando feels like driving through Atlanta, in that the whole thing appears to be under construction and if you drive through it, you will be white-knuckling past jersey barriers for almost the entire thing. I’ve also written about Tampa here, since it was the setting of one of my favorite AAG meetings.

The focus of this week’s entry is one of Florida’s unheralded smaller cities, Lakeland. During the Florida land-boom that crashed in 1926, Lakeland was a major railway stop between Orlando and Tampa. Today, it’s conveniently located off of I-4, and had I not had a handful of postcards from Ben Irving, I probably would not have paid it much mind.

Let’s go to the tape:

The Hotel Lakeland Terrace, 1939

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“Hotel Lakeland Terrace” postcard (Mailed February 1939) with the Terrace Hotel in the background, taken May 2020.

Here, we have a look at the Terrace Hotel, overlooking Mirror Lake. As the postcard suggests, the lake is filled with all kinds of waterfowl. If you get there in the Springtime, you’ll get a chance to see plenty of mama ducks and mama geese with their offspring:

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According to their official pamphlet (which includes the image from the 1939 Postcard I’m holding up in the photo above), the Lakeland Terrace opened in 1924 under the aegis of Florida Collier Coast Hotels, who had opened nearly identical hotels in Miami, West Palm Beach, and Tampa.

In the days before air conditioning, most hotels opened for The Season and closed by summer. But, the early ‘twenties were boom times in the Sunshine State. Trainloads of tourists poured into cities like Lakeland, beckoned by the siren call of warm weather and the chance to make a quick fortune speculating on cheap land.

Mysteriously, their official literature jumps to when the Lakeland Terrace re-opened in 1998 under the ownership of FCA, Corp. and a Lakelander named Rob Scharar. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but details about the hotel’s inevitable downturn in the 1970s and 1980s are relatively hard to come by. Even the hotel’s Wikipedia page is, as of this writing, languishing as a skeletal draft – very odd for such a historic building.

According to Lonnie Brown’s column on the Opinion Page of the July 12, 1987 edition of the Lakeland Ledger, the city had just re-dedicated the wall around Mirror Lake. Apparently, it had been featured in the January 1930 edition of National Geographic, which I’m going to try to dig up after finishing this sentence. Thankfully, the National Geographic Society are great archivists, and the full run of their print editions are available publicly.

il_1588xn.1236213434_brv2-1The January 1930 edition featured “Twenty-Four Pages of Illustrations in Full Color” for their Florida – the Fountain of Youth feature by John Oliver la Gorce. Given my interest in Florida’s 20th century, this issue would be something of a grail for me. “Flipping” through the digital version online unveils a time capsule of the state, post-land-boom. A full-page ad announces that the Atlantic Coast Railway runs 17 trains per day (25 total in Lakeland by the turn of the century, according to the city’s website) into Florida, only “23 1/3 Hours from New York” (where I imagine the bulk of Nat Geo’s depression-era readers lived). La Gorce’s feature is full of pithy observations about the state, including a great statement about the “real Florida” and the “tourist Florida,” as well as a differentiation between the North and the South: “North Florida… is as different from south Florida as lower Alabama from Cuba.” As one would expect of a major publication from 1930, the writer gave a lot of credit to everyone from Ponce de León to Henry Flagler, the Standard Oil industrialist who he praised as a nearly-divine visionary. The photo of Mirror Lake finally appears on p. 41, comparing it to the entrance to a Venetian palace. It even suggests Lakeland feels like “a fairy city on an iridescent sea,” a statement that Lonnie Brown bore in mind while reflecting on how far things had fallen over the previous five decades:

During a 1987 walk through downtown, with empty stores and an old hotel that is in such disrepair it has been shut down by the city, it is hard to imagine Lakeland as a “fairy city on an iridescent sea” with Venetian overtones.

Brown goes on to praise the refurbishing of the sea wall around the lake, citing how it makes Lakeland appear to be a city invested in its downtown. He continued writing for the paper through the end of 2010, when he retired. LkldNow, an independent local news site, had a bit of history about the building that preceded the Lakeland Terrace on the site. According to the Lakeland Library,

“The Tremont House was built by Lakeland founder Abraham Munn in 1885 at the corner of East Main Street and Massachusetts Avenue, the present site of the Lakeland Terrace Hotel. It was considered to be one of the most elegant hotels in Central Florida at the time of its construction. So elegant was it that it was reputed to have the first bathtubs in all of Lakeland. The Tremont was moved from the corner of Main and Massachusetts to an adjacent lot in 1911 and enlarged. By the 1930’s, however, the Tremont had been eclipsed by the larger and more elegant Terrace, Thelma and New Florida Hotels. It was torn down in 1936.”

I will report back if I find any more details about the downfall of the Lakeland Terrace Hotel; it’s unclear whether the city was crafty with digital scrubbing or if Lakeland was just small enough to fly under the radar with archived news.

Munn Park

Speaking of Abraham Munn, his name remains on the city’s downtown park, which is the subject of my second postcard, which Irving mailed on January 23, 1936.

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Going to Munn Park today with this postcard image in mind is confusing, because the park has been redone numerous times over the years. Save for a thin layer of tall trees which line the park and a pair of patches of greenery, a lot of the vegetation advertised above is no longer there. In fact, as you’ll see a few photos down, most of Munn park is overlaid with bricks and fairly nondescript. The only evident fountain was clearly different from the one in the postcard; had it been the same one, the railroad tracks in the background might have been visible. Something about the fountain yelled “relocated,” but we only had a hunch.

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Thankfully, my partner and I bumped into Julie Townsend, who works for Downtown Lakeland. Julie quickly pointed out where the postcard image pointed, which was the Southwest corner, where Tennessee Avenue met Main Street.

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Again, notice how barren much of Munn Park is. According to Julie, the city wrapped a weird, post-modernist design into their 80’s-era refurbishment of the park, which proved (like a lot of risks city planners were taking back then) less than popular. I can’t recall when she said they took it apart and bricked it over with these cement hexagons, but it definitely had that “unfinished” feel to it. The fountain depicted in the back left corner had long since gone away, and the statue was no longer. I waged a guess that it was a removed Confederate monument, which turned out to be true.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I did some research and found out the statue of the unknown Confederate soldier, funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1910, was just removed from Munn Park last year. Unfortunately, rather than grinding the statue into a fine powder and putting it to good use in one of Lakeland’s numerous construction projects, they’ve simply relocated it to a Memorial Park closeby. Of course, neo-Confederate groups and other people who sport those “I stand for the Flag / I kneel for the Cross” decals are trying to sue the city to put the statue back in Munn Park, and the battle is getting messy in the courts. Hopefully it gets thrown out so we can all go back to living in the 21st century.

The Hotel Thelma

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This was another interesting case study. This postcard was mailed in February of 1939, but stood for another few decades at least, based upon this 1950 photograph I found on Florida Memory (below), which reads: “Built in 1913 at a cost of $125,000 by twin brothers A.B. and D.B. Kibler (phosphate entrepeneurs). Six years later the hotel originally named “The Kibler” was bought by H.B. Carter and renamed. For many years it was a popular place for civic club meetings. It stood on the northeast corner of Kentucky Avenue and Lemon Street.”

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Standard Oil…phosphate entrepreneurs… it’s almost like the state’s lifeblood was underwritten by people whose wealth depended upon destroying its natural beauty. I know I just described almost every state, but especially this one.

Anyway, the Hotel Thelma was torn down in 1962, shortly after this photo (I imagine the final one in existence) was taken. Today, a restaurant called Fresco’s sits on the Northeast corner of Lemon and Kentucky Avenue, and Palace Pizza (visible in the background of both the postcard and the repeat photograph of the block) remains as the one anchor to the city’s past.

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For what it’s worth, Palace Pizza had some of the best pizza I’ve had in Florida, and they didn’t even pay me to post that. They had a big patio available with adequately spaced seating for COVID regulations, too. This meant a lot to my partner and I (in our masks) after one of the (mask-free) managers at Fresco’s stepped within 3 feet of me and practically breathed in my face to tell me that Hotel Thelma used to be there. Helpful, yes, but mindful, no, considering what a pandemic cesspool we’re in here.

According to the best website on the internet, Cinema Treasures, the Palace Theater was also opened in 1913:

Opened in 1913 as the Casino Theatre. Seating was located in orchestra and balcony levels. By 1926 it had been renamed Palace Theatre. By 1941 it was operated by Paramount Pictures Inc. through their subsidiary E.J. Sparks. The Palace Theatre was listed as (Closed) in 1943, but had reopened by 1950.

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The 100 Block of S. Kentucky Avenue, Lakeland, FL, guessing sometime in the 1940s. (Image from the Lakeland Public Library via CinemaTreasures.org).

Strangely, another account of a historic Lakeland Landmark that evaporates before talking about the building’s descent into under-use. One user actually found and linked this 1980 article from the Lakeland Ledger that mentioned how the Palace building had been stripped of its history and uniqueness. According to this listicle, the Palace Theater operated from 1925 – 1950, which contradicts the idea that it reopened after closing in 1950.

Based on my experiences seeking historical sites there, it feels like Lakeland, FL can work as both a cautionary tale about scrubbing your history and a reminder that reinvestment is not a quick fix. Julie Townsend told us that Lakeland was one of Florida’s early major cities because it was located on the rail line that connected Orlando and Tampa. Prior to Orlando’s reinvention as the theme park capital of the planet, old-timers talked about the three cities in the same breath. Today, it’s a fun smaller city with pretty decent pizza, a wonderful lake perimeter walk, a couple of fantastic little record shops, an antique mall on par with the greatest ones I know from Michigan, Frank Lloyd Wright contributions (by the way!) at Florida Southern College, and zero threat of the traffic and headache that one can find around every corner in Tampa or Orlando. When it comes to civic life and urban planning, there’s nothing to be ashamed of a few shameful decades if you’re willing to learn from them.


Liner Notes

* I’m serious. Consult Gloria Jahoda’s book The Other Florida (1967) if this piques your interest.

Sonic Sunday Clips 02.16.20

Happy Sunday. I don’t know why, but I almost missed it! It’s still technically Sunday here in Eastern Time. Here are a few things.


Ben Irving Updates
I haven’t been able to write much about any of these, but if you use Instagram, head on over to the Postcards From Irving page, give it a follow, and see the latest updates from Austin, Louisville, Tampa, Flint, and more.

Robert Forster and Peter Paphides on “G Stands for Go-Betweens Vol. 2”
I bookmarked this video ages ago, and just got around to watching it. I had the rare opportunity to see Forster play on his first US tour in 11 years, and I’ve gone on the record here (often) about how important the Go-Betweens are to me. Under most circumstances, the idea of two older men sitting at a table and talking for an hour would sound boring, but Robert Forster is someone I could listen to talk for hours on end. If you’re intrigued, check it out. Sadly, the box set is already sold out (of course).

Experimental Persian Music
The Unexplained Sounds Group is at it again! I don’t remember how this came across my desk, but it’s very cool.

Ben Irving Postcards in Chicago (Part One)

From what I understand, Chicago developed its nickname “The Windy City” from it’s reputation of spurious, silver-tongued politicians ‘blowing wind’ for their constituents, so to speak. Of course, people still largely take the nickname literally, because Chicago is windy, and if you’re there at the right time of year, so, so icey. It’s like sticking your face in a freezer that Frigidaire recalled for being TOO COLD.

For this reason, on top of dozens of others I could list at a moment’s notice, I absolutely love Chicago. Like most of the Midwest, the unforgiving cold keeps the dilettantes away, which is fine. More rare vinyl, delicious Polish food and deep-dish cheesy-tomato pie (they call it “pizza,” which isn’t accurate, but I’ll allow it) for me. Until late last year, I had never been to Chicago during the cold season; I’d visited a few times during the summer, and once for a typically memorable AAG meeting in April 2015.

Until last week, however, I hadn’t gone to Chicago with any of the Ben Irving Postcards. At least, I hadn’t made any excursions to find the places they depicted. Before my train left Union Station to head back to Lansing, I had time to make two stops, which I had planned meticulously to lead me back to the Loop. The first was a stop-off in Uptown and the second was located downtown, tucked right inside the loop track on Wabash Ave.


The Sheridan Plaza Hotel (1942) and Apartments (2019)

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In a few recent cases, I’ve lucked into staging repeat postcard photos miraculously close to the anniversary of the date which Irving mailed them. This was not one of those cases. He mailed this one (above) on the evening of July 13, 1942, commenting that he was “sweating like [he] were in a shower.” That’s rich, considering how my right hand went numb to get this photo. Don’t ever say I don’t make sacrifices for my art.

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Like many of the hotels featured in the Ben Irving archive, the Sheridan transformed into private residences. It shut down as a hotel in 1974 after over 50 years of operation and became private residences by 1983. A decade ago, the Horizon Realty group bought the building for $10 Million and started refurbishing it back to “its Jazz Age luster,” as Chicago Magazine wrote. The Terra Cotta sculptures were cracking and falling off the building over the course of the prior ten years. I can’t find any direct sources on what happened to the residents when the bank foreclosed on it, but it probably wasn’t pretty. Oddly, the Jazz Age Chicago WP site never got around to elegizing the building.

EDIT: I did find this site, which gives a bit more detail into the building’s history and situation as an anchor of sorts in the Uptown district.

Because there isn’t much detailed information on the Hotel (at least, which I’ve been able to find in the limited time I have to write this), I have no idea what those pillar-like objects are on top of the postcard illustration. They don’t look like Terra Cotta designs. Either way, they’re gone today, along with those two gigantic apocryphal flags that the artist probably added, along with their inventive perspective on the building. It does appear that, even in 1942, most of the street-level spaces were commercial enterprises, with an awning leading guests into the hotel on the Wilson Avenue side. The sidewalk is also noticeably bigger (much bigger) in the artistic rendering than in modern reality, though that could also just be artistic license, too. Gone are the light posts and moved are the sidewalk trees (which, granted, were frequently fudged by illustrators to gussy up a street scene for tourist postcards). The second-story window awnings have also gone from a lime green to a navy blue – likely a combination of Horizon Realty’s branding and how it’s just a better color. If you’re looking for a place and can afford about $1,500 per month, they’ve got plenty of openings!

Moving on…


The Empire Room of the Palmer House Hotel (1950/2019)

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Postcard mailed August 1950. Image property of SonicGeography.

Given how vocal I’ve been about the privatization of so many places and spaces featured on antique postcards, it was a welcome relief how open the staff at the Palmer House Hotel keep their crown jewel: the Empire Room.

The Palmer House, being situated right inside the Loop, claims to be the oldest continuously operating hotel in North America. Apparently, the original iteration of the hotel opened on September 26, 1871… and then burned down along with most of the city less than two weeks later. Wow.

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I walked into the hotel lobby. Maybe it was just poor eye-timing mixed with pessimistic paranoia, but I felt like I got suspicious stares from the hosts in the fancy lobby restaurant. However, after asking a few questions to a concierge around the corner, he told me “oh, the Empire room! Yeah, if there’s nothing going on in there, then you should just be able to walk in, up the stairs on the opposite side of the lobby.”

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I felt a bit of anxiety walking up the steps, almost as if everyone in the lobby momentarily turned to glance at me. I opened the doors, and there it was.

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What a beautiful room. For a brief moment, I felt as if I’d been transported back to 1950, or at least the ending of The Shining.

Here are the postcard image, and 2019 photo juxtaposed:

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The ceiling design, chandeliers, even adornment above the curtains were immaculately maintained. I highly doubt those are the same curtains behind the stage, but they kept the color scheme and general aesthetic the same, too. The obvious changes were as straightforward as they were understandable: the dance floor carpeted over, a higher stage, and the bandstand replaced with a conference table. Also, the 2019 chairs looked comfier than the wartime ones. I have no idea how they got that tuba to levitate back then; I guess WWII was just a strange time.

I realize that the Palmer House postdate (1950) falls outside the time span I advertised on the Instagram (1932-1944), but there are going to be a small handful of outliers. Also, if literally one person cares, I’ll be amazed. Either way, I don’t know why Irving was in Chicago in 1950; all he indicated was that he was going to be there until that Thursday, having mailed the postcard on a Sunday. I had also completely forgotten that the USPS postmarked and shipped stuff on Sundays back then. In fact, this was a few short months after the USPS reduced their deliveries to one per day:

On April 17, 1950, “in the interest of economy,” Postmaster General Jesse M. Donaldson ordered postmasters to limit the number of deliveries in residential sections to one each day. The only change made in business districts in 1950 was that the number of Saturday deliveries would be one fewer than the standard number of weekday deliveries (USPS.com).

Have a great Thanksgiving, everybody! Check back here soon for more high-quality content (by my standards).

The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Battle Creek, MI

Between 1932 and 1944, Ben Irving mailed more than a thousand postcards and souvenir packets home to Brooklyn from all cities and towns all over North America. This is the story of his postcards from one of those towns. 

BATTLE CREEK, MI

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How’s that for a gripping introduction? I have an unimaginable amount of housekeeping to do on this site, but for starters, I figured I would keep the Ben Irving Postcard Project entries separated by city, rather than clustered together by trip. Living in Michigan now will enable me to do more day trips and work Irving Postcard recon into my excursions, which is exciting. Whether this will result in any type of publication while I’m here remains to be seen. The demands of the new semester at a new job have prevented me from doing much writing at all, but hopefully September will be a productive month of catching up on the multiple proposals and abstracts I have floating around out there.

Anyway, I suppose I should put my money where my mouth is and talk about Battle Creek. Prior to stopping there en route to Kalamazoo (separate entry coming soon), the only space it occupied in my brain was a reference point for small-town Michigan’s post-industrial downturn. My dad mentioned driving through there in 1981, and being overwhelmed even then at how empty it felt. 38 years later, I found myself looking for landmarks based off images sent out into the world at the town’s peak period in 1938.

The first of which was the Kellogg Auditorium. If I ever knew that the eponymous cereal company was headquartered in Battle Creek and essentially keeping that whole city afloat, I had forgotten. The Kellogg food company, who originally produced health food for the Battle Creek Sanitarium (one second; ordering some t-shirts for my new prog metal band), essentially traced the city’s twentieth century history with their own successes. One landmark prominently displayed in a postcard that Irving mailed on October 18, 1938 was the Kellogg Auditorium. The Battle Creek Enquirer posted a wonderful history here on their garbage fire of a website (USA Today‘s fault, not theirs).

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In order to recreate the image, I had to stand in the middle of McCamly St, next to the Battle Creek Central High School. For a handful of reasons, which become plainly obvious here, I had to move around to get any clear shots of the exterior. In addition to removing the parking lot and restructuring the McCamly side, the city (as far as I could tell) planted some trees, two of which had grown massive enough to obscure the building.

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Also, in what I might assume was part of the 1981 renovation, they added a vestibule onto the main entrance, with dummy doors designed to replicate the original 1933 doors. I tried my best to take a photo where both were visible:

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The building was locked and dormant, though it appeared to be still in prime condition to host special events in the main concert hall. Too bad I’m never anywhere near these place when they’re open to the public, or even available by special request. It would be great to see their immense house organ whenever I next pass through there, at any rate. Moving on…

The downtown strip across Battle Creek from Kellogg’s Auditorium felt dead on that Saturday afternoon. I saw a few food trucks setting up on McCamly Street off of Festival Market Square for some burger festival that evening. Maybe my timing was just off. Around 4pm, the only places that showed any signs of life at first on the Michigan Ave strip were a cricket bar and a Subway (which may have been due to the sandwich artist out front on his smoke break). A pair of young women with a nice camera were taking modeling photos next to a dormant construction site on the LEFT tower on this image below:

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The two towers at the center of this postcard, which Irving mailed from Battle Creek on October 8, 1938, made it incredibly easy to recreate the shot. Here’s my best attempt.

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In this shot, you can see the scaffolding hanging off of the tower at 25 W. Michigan, a landmark in the midst of a serious renovation. The one further back and to the right has already been renovated and transformed into Battle Creek Tower, a high rise of luxury condominiums (read their brochure here). Their website has a brief history:

Construction on the Battle Creek Tower began on August 20, 1930, and was open to the public on June 20, 1931. Originally home to the Central National Bank, it was complete with modern features and was the first high-rise to be built in downtown Battle Creek. To preserve the history and significance of the Tower, a copper box time capsule was sealed inside a building cornerstone during the dedication ceremony in 1931.

It goes on to talk about Roger Hinman’s purchase of the building in 2000 as well as how the building’s location in a so-called “renaissance zone” could provide tax benefits to residents. Well, isn’t that nice. I’m sure the 60-year-old homeless gentleman I met walking through Friendship park who has been sleeping under awnings and carrying paint cans at a facility a distant bus ride away to afford food would appreciate that.

I hate to sound pessimistic or contrarian here; I’m genuinely supportive of the local spirit that Battle Creek has, and support any sustainable efforts to regain some of the glory they seemed to encapsulate at (ironically) the Depression era. The key word, though, is sustainable. Heritage Tower, on the left and closer to my vantage point, according to the Battle Creek Enquirer, has been undergoing renovations for well over two years. They were initially eyeing a completion date in early 2019, but from what I saw it looked like they still had plenty of work to do.

One other noticeable landmark shift was the extinct Hotel Milner. In the 30’s, they charged the whopping rate of $1 per day (which is a little more than $15 per day adjusting for inflation – still an incredibly cheap rate). I was somewhat surprised to find a historical placard commemorating the hotel on the Parking Lot sign, considering how blatantly the building had been ripped out of the lot. The signage, placard, and the old building’s bone cage are more visible on this shot here. It just looks…off.

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Additionally, had I not had the Heritage and Battle Creek Towers for reference points, I would have had fun tracing that gorgeous, highly recognizable trim in the postcard image back to the building at 26 W. Michigan:

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So what did I learn about Battle Creek? A lot. As easy as it may be to be skeptical of language developers use to sell luxury high-rises to one of Michigan’s struggling small cities, Battle Creek does appear to be a canvas for young entrepreneurs to experiment, most of whom I imagine have been there for generations. Also, I found out that Sojourner Truth spent her twilight years living in Battle Creek, and the city finally gave her her due with a memorial at a major intersection.

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Did YOU know that Sojourner Truth spent the remainder of her life in Michigan after the decades she spent campaigning for the rights of women and minorities around the country? Did you know who Sojourner Truth was? Tend to that second question first. Did you know that New York didn’t abolish slavery until 1828? I didn’t! But now I do, mostly because my great-grandfather decided to send a couple of postcards from “the breakfast capital of the world” 81 years ago.

Tune back in soon for The Ben Irving Postcard Project Visits Kalamazoo!

 

Transmissions from Down Under: Week Two (Wellington Talk Friday)

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Morning in Cairns, looking south on Grimshaw St. June 30, 2019.

Happy Thursday, everyone! I’ve got (abridged) stories to tell.

First, I began this entry in Cairns, a very cool little city in Tropical North Queensland. I swam with the most stunning variety of fishes I’ve ever seen on the Great Barrier Reef, and I took zero pictures. I did get my Certificate of Recognition from the Divers’ Den (which they clarify, in my favorite part of the certificate, is NOT a Scuba Certification). Considering how uncomfortable I am (1) underwater and (2) cycle-breathing, Scuba seemed like a terrible undertaking. That is mostly because it was. As I write this, my ears are still ringing from when my head nearly caved in on itself, and I’m still wincing at how I looked when I first saw myself in the mirror after returning to the boat. I managed to pop a blood vessel in my nose in attempts to expel water from my mask and equalize the pressure. I think “not looking like Tom Savini designed your face” after removing one’s goggles is a skill that some of the finer divers develop. Also, considering how far self-contained underwater breathing apparatuses have come technologically, I couldn’t stop thinking about how terrifying those early dives must have been for Jacques Cousteau and his antecedents.

All that being said, it was 100% worth it. Granted, the snorkeling session in the afternoon was almost as majestic from up on the surface, but we were parked by an atoll with relatively high towers of coral. I’m clearly no ichthyologist, but every single fish I saw felt like a revelation, considering how massive and rainbow-toned many of them were. The guides emphasized to apply sunscreen at least a half-hour before diving and to avoid contact with coral or fish at all costs. I didn’t see any sharks or lethal jellyfish, so you’ll all be happy to know I’m alive and well unless one of the species applied some kind of slow-burn poison on my skin thaa;fwoij;oi4j……………Just kidding. I’ll post if anything changes. Maybe I’ll get lucky and have a run-in with a particularly vicious Koala. [Update: I did not].

 

Second, back to the tape. Before I get to my IASPM experience in Canberra, I’ll extend my gratitude to Maartje Roelofsen and Macquarie University’s GeoPlan Seminar for hosting me last Tuesday. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer setting and better group for my first international colloquium talk. Their seminar room featured a 19th century court room gate rescued from somewhere indeterminate in rural New South Wales, which most seminar rooms should have. Also, I saw my first Lorakeets. I probably confused Maartje with my overreaction, never having seen birds that beautiful outside of captivity before.

I’m looking forward to seeing several members of that faculty and student body again in Hobart next week. I would have enjoyed hanging out for a bit and seeing more of the campus, but I had to get back to Sydney to catch my coach to Canberra. IASPM was already well underway, and I’d missed a good handful of fascinating sounding papers.

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Aboriginal musicians’ panel kicks off the IASPM Wednesday proceedings at the Llewellyn Recital Hall at Australia National University’s School of Music (June 26, 2019).

IASPM was every bit as fun and insightful as a global conference of the world’s top popular music scholars (and me) would be, and Canberra was wonderful. I got to see a few old friends and meet some new ones, learn a nearly overwhelming amount about great new research in pop music studies, and watch Franco Fabbri bring down the house with “Space Oddity” at closing-night karaoke at the coolest bar in Canberra. Scotty Regan (Queensland Uni of Technology) DJ’d the set and closed with “New York, New York,” but replacing “New York” with “Canberra.” Feel free to dig into his Twitter for more details, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Fakhran al Ramadhan presents his paper on the the Jakarta skinhead movement at IASPM at ANU (Canberra) on June 27, 2019.

I was honored to be on the Punk session with Paula Guerra, the co-founder of KISMIF, a Porto conference I’ve been dying to go to since I discovered it a couple years ago, and Fakhran al Ramadhan, who splits his time between the Cultural Studies program at the University of Indonesia and his band No Slide (whose t-shirt I’m wearing as I type this). It was one of the best-attended paper sessions I’ve been on, and as on many conferences outside of my field, the way my ideas resonated with the attendees was highly encouraging. It’s a shame I might never be able to experience IASPM in Canberra again, but I count on returning to both the meeting and the city at different times in the future.

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Paula Guerra, Fakhran al Ramadhan, and I express our thoughts after our punk paper session closes (ANU Canberra, June 27 2019).

While in Canberra, I also had the opportunity to meet and talk archivism and records with Ross Laird, one of the top collectors/curators in Australia, if not the world. In the interest of time (and making another quick announcement about a talk I have in Wellington, where I’m actually finishing up this entry), I’ll move my meeting with Ross to its own future entry.

For now, I’m pleased to announce here that I’ve added a talk to my excursion to Aotearoa/New Zealand! The kind and enthusiastic people at Victoria University of Wellington (Social Theory & Spatial Praxis Research Group) have invited me in tomorrow at noon to talk about Capitals of Punk and some more recent research directions that have emerged from it. I’ve pasted their flyer below in case you know anybody in Wellington and would like to pass word along. From what I understand, it’s free and open to the public.

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Thanks again for reading, and sorry I didn’t have enough time to go into further detail about IASPM. I can’t remember the last time I’ve taken that many notes at a conference. Not that I’m going to hold the IAG or AAG to this, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt if all academic conferences concluded with the organizer(s) singing karaoke with all of the participants.

I’ll do my best to get a Week 3 entry up from Hobart at this time next week! I hope you’re all doing well, wherever you are.

 

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It’s never too late to make new friends in your travels.

The Ben Irving Postcard Project: West Tennessee

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Lazy Sunday in Humboldt, TN, March 31, 2019. This and all images below belong to SonicGeography.com (All Rights Reserved).

Tennessee’s insane width (against its North-South length) presents a weird conundrum for anyone representing the state. Shortly after I moved to East Tennessee in 2013, a friend from Los Angeles surprised me with tickets to see FIDLAR at Exit/In in Nashville. I gave him a call on the long, winding, hour-losing ride home after the show to thank him, and he and I made vague plans should he ever come to Tennessee.

“If I ever get out there,” he said excitedly, “we’ve have to go to Graceland. I can’t miss that!”

I told him, in terms that wouldn’t put a huge damper on our conversation, that a trip to Graceland would require plastering at least three additional days onto his visit. For the amount of time we would spend in the car driving to Memphis (assuming some delays on I-40), drive to Tybee Island and jump in the Atlantic Ocean.

Largely for these reasons, my visit to Memphis for the wonderful Balancing the Mix conference at the end of March formulated my first trip to the Birthplace of Rock n’ Roll since 2011. For those doing the math, that was two years prior to my relocation to Knoxville. I’ve been a Tennessee resident for almost six years without one visit further West than Nashville. It’s disappointing, since I’ve met several visitors from Memphis, and I’ve been looking for a reason to get back out there. My 2011 visit, as brief as it was, clearly inspired me early in my geography career. One of the header images I use on this website is a photo of me standing outside of Sun Studios, after all.


Downtown Memphis (1935 / 2019)

Downtown Memphis, like I noted in my recent entry about re-tracing Ben Irving’s postcards in Nashville, reinforced a blanket notion about how increasingly privatized American cities have grown over the past few decades. Compared to when Ben mailed his postcards from Memphis (1935 and 1940), even the landmarks depicted have become surrounded by locked down landscapes.

MEMPHIS PARK

Before I made the (questionable) decision to check out Beale Street on that very cold and windy Saturday night, I stopped by Memphis Park, formerly Confederate Park, as seen in this postcard, mailed at midnight on March 16, 1935.

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Obviously, the park is still there. I stood at the corner of Front St. and Jefferson Ave. and snapped this, the only shot anywhere close to recreating the postcard image.

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Yeah, I’m fairly disappointed, too. The wind and cold were unbearable that night, which made even holding my phone-camera still enough to get the streetlights into focus nearly impossible. You can see the building in the background of both images. Today, it’s listed as the Cecil Humphreys School of Law (University of Memphis). In 1935, it was the Front Street Station US Post Office. The Court Square area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1980’s.

In an attempt to subject myself to even more bitter winds at a slightly higher altitude, I looked around the intersection to see if I might get a superior angle. The first thing I noticed was a prominent parking garage opposite the intersection. Here’s a photo, which is actually ten times better than the above photo I took of the park. Figures.

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‘Ooh!’ I thought. That upper level appears to be wide open, maybe I can just walk up the steps if it’s a public gara-NOPE, SORRY, TYLER, EVERY BLOCK OF EVERYTHING WITHIN 20 MILES OF ANY AMERICAN CITY’S CBD IS PRIVATIZED AND GUARDED 24/7 BY (probably underpaid) ON-SITE SECURITY CONTRACTORS. HERE’S A GATE IN YOUR FACE NOW PLEASE LEAVE WITHOUT A FUSS, SIR:

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I’m sure my reaction wouldn’t have been so visceral had it not been miserably cold, but I would not have been any less disappointed. I was grateful that the twenty-first century had at least dumped the ‘Confederate’ from the park’s name in 2013. You win some, you lose some. Moving onto the much sunnier and less windy Sunday afternoon…

HOTEL CHISCA

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Thankfully, this one was a cinch.

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Hotel Chisca, considering how MLK’s assassination occurred a few blocks down the street, had been in a decades-long decline before it was restored earlier this decade into the modern apartments that opened in 2015. The building itself first opened in 1913 and was in full operation as such when Ben mailed this postcard on March 16,  1935. Historic Memphis has a good overview (with a great catalog of artifacts preserved) on their website, including this tidbit about the hotel’s role, like so many places around the city, in Rock n’ Roll history.

The hotel’s historic significance comes mainly from its connection to Elvis Presley.  From 1949-56, its mezzanine was the broadcast base for WHBQ radio’s “Red, Hot, and Blue” program.  It was from there that Dewey Phillips broadcast Elvis’ first record July 7, 1954.  And Elvis’ first radio interview was also conducted in the hotel by Phillips.  

While the streetcar lines seem to function mostly to carry tourists up and down Main Street, I was glad to see they were in operation, unlike the Desire line, which had been long since ripped out of Royal Street in New Orleans. Here are some pictures I took of the current iteration of the Chisca building on different sides.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Well, Sage Francis said it a while back, but I’ll borrow it from him in light of my experiences recreating these images of urban spaces in the United States: “the only thing that stays the same is change.”


Downtown Humboldt (1935/2019)

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One of the more obscure locations from which Ben sent a postcard was Humboldt, Tennessee, a small down located on State Road 79, about 20 miles North of where I-40 runs today. As is my bad habit when leaving anywhere, I pushed the beginning of my (very long) drive home well beyond the time I originally planned. I’d say it was well worth it after finding an old, dusty copy of Booker T. and the MG’s’ Green Onions (Stereo press from 1968, not the original 1962 Mono… I’m not a millionaire). Still, the sun was quickly caving into the horizon on my back when I rolled into downtown Humboldt.

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From what I understand (and according to the Humboldt Historical Society), the town was on the L&N Railroad line. I think that Ben drove on most of his Depression journeys, but the railway still influenced his decision to pass through. I can only imagine how much Humboldt suffered following the demise of that line.

Since 1935, at least Main Street installed signal lights to handle the “onslaught” of traffic, and street parking had been sectioned off. Some of the buildings depicted in the gray-scale black and white postcard had also been knocked down and replaced. I walked up and down E. Main Street trying to figure out where, exactly, this original image had been taken. Thankfully, Sunday afternoon was relatively slow so I could stand in the middle of the street and not get run down. I made it all the way to the point where you can see those trees on the horizon of the postcard, where I found a small, public green space at the corner of Central Ave.

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The Humboldt Plaza 3 cinema didn’t appear to be doing heavy business, but it was open and people were wandering in and out of it. According to the best website on the internet Cinema Treasures, the theater opened with 800 seats in 1942, seven years after Ben passed through and mailed the postcard. It was triplex’d in the early 1980’s, I imagine because it was the eighties.

I thought it would be fairly straightforward since the postcard clearly indicated the street and vantage orientation. I had gotten a bit too far ahead of myself. After walking up and down both sides of the street, trying to match a scratchy black and white image from the 1930s with the small town’s current formation, I finally found my architectural Rosetta Stone:

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The building on the NW corner of Main and S. 13th Avenue still has its gorgeous sculpted awning, albeit in two different colors. The left side was painted black to foil the whitewashing, as was the ornamentation over the windows. Whomever duplexed and renovated this building really had to commit; just look at the window decoration in the middle. To one person, it may be tacky, but to me… well, it’s tacky, but I love it. They bricked over the middle window with, it appears, slightly different, newer bricks. I can’t stop looking at it. It’s so distracting.

So, here was my conclusion. I took the first photo at an angle from the south side of the street, and I took the second about ten yards too far back, but you get the idea:

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From what I can tell, the entire block opposite of the duplex building was torn down, eventually filled (sort of) with a newer Regions bank building. For a Sunday evening, there were a good handful of people wandering in and out of the Mexican restaurant and the movie theater. Strawberries featured prominently in the downtown corridor to signify the town’s annual Strawberry Festival, which appears to be Humboldt’s biggest tourist draw. I’m glad Ben Irving’s postcard drew me through here, the place seems to be a quintessential slice of West Tennessee that disappears under Memphis’ increasing weight.

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Alright – thanks to you (reader) for following this long long-term project on Sonic Geography, and thanks to the Ben Irving Postcard Collection for continuously providing a worthwhile distraction. Back to grading finals. Here are a couple more photos I took that don’t necessarily connect directly to the postcard sites, but I still love:

The Irving Postcards: Nashville

Spring Break! 2019! PARTY! By “party,” I mean… take a day in Nashville to buy some records, see some friends, and investigate a couple of sites from the Ben Irving Postcard collection. I mean, it’s a party to me… 

Before I go any further, I’ll provide a helpful link for any new readers who Ben Irving was, and why I have so many postcards he mailed to Brooklyn in the 1930’s.

Who Was Ben Irving?

Now that you’re caught up, I will say that it appears that Irving only visited Nashville two or three times during his Southern journeys in the depression era. In mid-February 1934 and again in November 1935, he was in bad way financially. In retrospect, it seemed fairly obvious that the South wasn’t going to deliver the goods to a travelling sales representative as the region limped out of the Depression’s (subjective) height in 1933. One could understand how life in Brooklyn might have distorted the economic landscape a bit for Irving. It may be worth looking into whether his shock at the South’s slowness tempered over the decade. Early on, though, this part of his journeys were always a slog.

February 1934

For his first (documented) visit to Nashville in February 1934, he mailed home a postcard that advertised the city’s flagship station WLAC. The station’s history often gets overshadowed by WSM, considering the role the latter station played in growing the country music industry, but it has a fascinating story nonetheless. Though it’s the home of iHeartMedia-financed reactionary hate speech today, WLAC is perhaps best remembered as the station that went against the segregationist grain and played black music in the late 1940’s. It originated as the station of the Life and Casuality Insurance Company of Tennessee, with studios on the 5th floor of their building downtown. Considering how both the studios and said building no longer exist (to my knowledge), I took the postcard to the (possible; I’ll explain these parentheticals, don’t worry) broadcast site depicted.

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2421 West End Avenue, Nashville TN. March 20, 2019.

So, this postcard is somewhat unique, in that it prominently features an inset image. I suppose there was a massive abyss in the sky between the two broadcast towers, so may as well show off the sleek 5th-floor studios. It’s an exciting new medium, after all.

The only address I could find for the towers’ location was 2421 West End Avenue, which doesn’t line up with a specific business address today because, well… you see the scaffolding. I have no concrete evidence that the towers depicted in the postcard were located here, but there’s definitely a possibility considering how the landscape does elevate a bit (when not full of new construction). The image on Google Streetview (as of this writing) shows a parking lot behind a row of trees, which was surprisingly demure for being right down the street from Vanderbilt’s campus. This was less than two years ago:

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So, in conclusion, this was the best I could do, given how I didn’t have time to dig up the original insurance maps, official WLAC archives (if they even exist anymore), or talk to a nonagenarian who happened to live around there in the 30’s. If you have better insights, or my site was way off, please get in touch.

November 1935

In late 1935, Irving came back for his second visit, this time down from Harlan, KY, at the end of 1,518 miles of driving since leaving Brooklyn the previous month. I know I beat this point into the ground when writing these entries, but the Interstate Highway System was still almost two decades off. Even the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which many believe sets those dominoes in motion, was more than two years away. That driving experience was pure PAIN.

What was almost as painful was finding a place to park, during rush hour, at an incredibly busy intersection with no street parking and only hyper-privatized lots nearby. Again, as far as I could tell, this was where the Hotel Tulane once stood. It’s now a giant pit.

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Church St. and Rosa Parks Boulevard, Nashville TN. March 20, 2019.

Most obviously, 8th Avenue was re-named Rosa Parks Boulevard several decades later. When Irving stayed at the Tulane in 1935, Rosa was an unknown 21-year-old domestic worker in the Montgomery area.

Again, I didn’t have time to look at any aerial images or flood maps that may have existed of downtown Nashville, so the SE corner of the intersection (which has been transformed by viaducts) was my best guess. This page, which details how the hotel was actually razed in 1956, was helpful.

Conclusion

Based on what I know from the postcards, Irving’s final visit to Nashville saw him spending November 1st-2nd in the city, staying at the Hermitage Hotel for a night before heading to Knoxville. I never found any postcards he mailed from there, but on November 2 (very close to Election Day), he mailed a postcard home that was just a photo of FDR, writing Every state in the South is for Roosevelt If only all the others were it would be fine. Will write from Knoxville.

Every attempt I’ve made to find Irving Postcard sites has been somewhat rewarding, but I have to say Nashville was the most frustrating yet. The basic act of driving around the city makes one clearly aware of how rampantly it’s growing. I didn’t particularly enjoy either of my re-photography attempts above; in both situations, I had to snap the photos quickly and hurry back to my car out of the fear it would be impounded and crushed into a small cube. As the photos I did get show, entire tracts of land have been razed with cranes looming overhead; to me, it almost recalls the uncontrollable growth of DC over a decade ago. The large artists’ renderings of yuppie markets not unlike the ones that have come to dominate Atlanta (speaking of uncontrollable growth) don’t make me feel good about the sustainability of this gargantuan landscape modification, but what do I know? I’m not a Nashvillian; I’m just a fan of its record shops, vegan options, and (unless they’re playing the Caps) hockey team.

COMING SOON TO SONIC GEOGRAPHY

It’s conference season! I’ll be presenting at the Balancing the Mix Conference in Memphis on March 30th as well as the AAG Meeting in DC (along with some other surprises there). Check back in soon. 

The Irving Postcards: Louisville, KY

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The United States Post Office, Court House, and Custom House in Louisville, KY (1936 Postcard Image, and December 2018). 

Last month, I spent a few days passing through the lower Midwest, including one of my favorite cities, Louisville. Not only is Louisville an overwhelmingly cool city with a great musical history (and according to Ethan Buckler a consistent threat of twisters), it’s also rich with history. Like its counterpart up the Ohio River Cincinnati, I imagine Louisville was a major crossroads during the antebellum era and reconstruction. It also gave us Muhammad Ali, quality baseball bats, and Elliott.

The two postcards I had on hand, like many items in the Ben Irving collection, were of newer landmarks the city was trying to show off in the WPA era. The Post Office and Memorial Auditorium both foreground Greco-Roman elements in their architecture. Only the Post Office postcard had any information about the building; it reads “Cost $3,000,000.00. Covers block on Broadway between 6th and 7th Streets.” Pretty straightforward. According to one inflation calculator, 3 Million dollars in 1930 would convert to $44,848,829.59 in today’s currency.

The more interesting building, for me, was the Memorial Auditorium. This postcard had absolutely no information on it, but according to the Auditorium’s official history, it opened in 1929 and was designed as a deliberate Greek Revival throwback by Thomas Hastings.

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Louisville Memorial Auditorium (1936 Postcard / December 2018 in Background)

Though it looked like there were some city offices inside the building (I saw a security guard wander out one of the side doors and leave shortly after I took the above picture), nobody appeared to be home, so I couldn’t go inside. I did wander around the building to get a more detailed look. My favorite part may be the bas reliefs, which you can see pretty clearly on the 1936 postcard image.

Thank you for reading. Coming soon: a failed attempt at an ambitious vista re-creation in West Virginia!

Nathan Jurberg

Happy Birthday to Nathan Jurberg on what would have been his 100th. I became aware of his existence during a trip to Florida on March 8th, 2000, four days after he died:

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I know next to nothing about Jurberg, other than that he was Jewish, was born on December 12, 1918 (cf. public data sites), and lived on the 4th floor of Jade Winds when he passed on. I assume that he migrated to Florida to spend his retirement like my great-grandparents, but I have no way to know that for certain (unless you knew him and can tell me more).

A Brief Visit to Columbia, SC

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I was down in Columbia last weekend. I managed to forget my Ben Irving postcards, but I did check my database against whatever images I could find, and most of the sites included were torn down. This wasn’t the first time I had run into that issue, but it was pretty dispiriting. Downtown Columbia has a lot of great things going on, as both the state capital and a major college town. My favorite building (and beneficiary of benign neglect) is probably Tapp’s Arts Center at 1644 Main Street. According to the official history, it was built in 1940. Irving went to Columbia at least four times (1936, 1938, 1940, and 1941), so he saw the growth of that block as the department store went up.

il_340x270-1480314154_8sc4Here are a couple of online resources I found about two of them: the Jefferson Hotel and the Hotel Wade Hampton. The namesake of the latter is indelible to antebellum South Carolina history, and I’m just learning about the Hampton family now. Their plantation Southeast of downtown Columbia, Millwood, was also featured on one of Irving’s postcards and remained a tourist attraction for over a century after Sherman’s raiders torched it in 1865. The columns depicted on the postcard and various easily-searchable photos from the 1940’s were all that survived of the estate (one of which toppled in 1930, leaving five standing). On the way out of town, I drove down to the site, which sits behind a private fence across from a Target Plaza on the outskirts of Columbia. As the sun was setting, I drove down Woodlawn Avenue slowly, trying to catch a glimpse of anything through the trees. No luck, unsurprisingly; the Millwood site was too far West of anywhere visible. It seemed like everything was still named after Wade Hampton, including the private road leading to the old site and the public park off of Woodlawn where a bunch of young African-Americans played basketball. The site owners still give tours monthly, though all that’s there to see are decapitated pillars slowly being reclaimed my nature. Meanwhile, up the road, Columbia’s downtown grows fast; the Old South vanishing as the New South booms. Though he may not have realized it at the time, Ben Irving’s Southern journeys afforded him a glimpse at a South, albeit paralyzed by Jim Crow laws, limping into modern America. Today, like many Southern cities, it’s at the forefront.

Thanks for reading! Here’s a photo of one of their giant Gamecock statues on Gervais Avenue. Some colleagues goaded me into climbing onto this thing during the 2016 SEDAAG meeting. I don’t want to talk about it.

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