The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Ludington, MI

I began the Ben Irving Postcard Project in earnest in 2013 when I first inherited and began cataloging his collection of postcards. Even prior to my research into the history of the Postal Service and tourism in America, it made sense how many featured hotels. Of course the hotels wanted to make it convenient for lodgers to advertise the place, even if the recipients would never stay there or even visit the city. The penny it cost to send a postcard in 1938, run through an inflation calculator, would amount to only 19 cents in 2021 (17 cents cheaper than the still-paltry 36 cents it currently costs).  

It also stands to reason that, coming out of the Gilded Age, hotels were among the fanciest and more forward-thinking buildings in most American cities. As I’ve previously written, structures like the Hotel Floridan in Tampa were, as of Irving’s 1938 stop there, the tallest building in the state. Some smaller towns had little to advertise other than their spartan hotels targeting travelling salesmen. Others were more a cocktail of heritage, mythology, and utilitarianism. 

In the case of Ludington, a beautiful town on the Northeastern shore of Lake Michigan, the Stearns Hotel was just that. The Mason county seat, Ludington has long been a summer destination for sailors, golfers, and beach bums alike. It is also a boarding location of the car-ferry which crosses Lake Michigan into Manitowoc, another source of income and attention. In 1903, lumber baron Justus Stearns founded the city’s first “major” hotel at the corner of Ludington Avenue and Rowe Street, across from the relatively new Mason County Courthouse (completed a decade prior to the hotel). I assume the “major” designation means that, through the city’s 19th-century growth, the only lodging options were smaller boarding houses and temporary outposts.  

The above postcard, which Irving mailed in October 1938, is a bit more detailed on its inverse side than most. It mentions a manager named E.T. Moran, and it also references the “World Famous Ossawald Crumb and his Unique Art Collection.” Otherwise, the details on the inscription space were straightforward: 100 rooms, rates from $1.75 ($33.41 in 2021 – still a bargain), and a Dining Room (which I can only assume refers to the Grand Ballroom, detailed here).

One great thing about still-operational hotels from these postcards is that they’re ostensibly open 24 hours, so I can actually visit the interior of the depicted buildings at any time. Unfortunately, in too many cases (especially the grander hotels in larger cities), the hotel’s corporate ownership hires a revolving door of desk attendants and managers who couldn’t be bothered to learn about the history underneath their feet. I can’t say I blame them, since the job is stressful enough between having to dress up, spend most of the day on your feet, deal with whiney patrons and run things up to your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss at least once a week in order to afford rent, groceries, and gig tickets.

Bust of founder Justus Stearns atop the lobby fireplace, Stearns Hotel, Ludington, MI (SonicGeography photo)

Fortunately, the Stearns Hotel, which has been owned by the Bowden family since 1964, is not one of those. When my partner and I got to the hotel, we walked into the Rowe St entrance (engineered for loading in lodgers’ luggage and kids), passed by several historic photographs (more on those in a moment) and met Randy Bowden and his son-in-law Jeff Urka, who were helping customers at the front desk.

Randy was a font of information about the hotel, having practically grown up in the building. Obviously, his family purchased the hotel almost three decades after Irving stayed there. He mentioned that he had a vague recollection from his 60’s youth of the original Stearns Hotel neon(?) sign visible in the lower right hand corner of the 1938 postcard, but he couldn’t remember if the sign was preserved anywhere. He also said his father would likely have known (or known of) E.T. Moran, but that Thirties wave of management was long gone by 1964.

One comment that Jeff made regarded how the 1938 postcard pre-dated a door and stairwell cut into the Rowe Street entrance. He gestured over to a nearby wall, where a framed picture hung featuring a postcard almost identical to Irving’s, save for that key difference:

Image courtesy of the Stearns Hotel.

It appears that the hotel added the Rowe Street entry stairwell sometime in the 1940’s. As much as I can’t be arsed to care about car makes and models, it would be helpful to have my father’s memory of American cars from the post-war era just to more accurately date these things.

Another consistent feature from photos of the hotel’s first few decades was the ivy that blanketed the entire exterior of the building that was visible in the picture. As cool as ivy looks, it is a pain to maintain, can overwhelm a building with insects, and wreaks havoc on the mortar which hosts it. The north wall had grown so withered under these circumstances by the 1960’s that the building owners decided to tear it out and install some office space for extra rental income. The Tiki Video Nightclub, one of Ludington’s hottest week-end night spots, is split between the old space and the new both literally and aesthetically. I don’t know how many “video nightclubs” still exist, but something about that concept screams Eighties to me (which could be a good thing).

Today, the hotel has been reconfigured to 65 rooms, down from the original 100. Bowden attributed this to the shifting needs and desires of guests over the past five decades. In Irving’s time, the hotel served mainly travelling salesmen, who were typically fine with a bed and a sink. As the lodger base diversified and began to include more couples and families, their accommodation expectations expanded.

Bowden also mentioned that the Ossawald Crumb Art collection hung in the hotel for ages, but was removed relatively recently. Because I hadn’t grown up in the Mason County region, I had no idea who Ossawald Crumb was. According to this 2016 article in the Holland Sentinel, Ossawald Crumb was an apocryphal/mythical figure, invented by Justus Stearns’ son Robert in 1932. The collection is still in the Stearns family, apparently residing with Robert’s grandson Robert Gable somewhere in the region. It most recently emerged at a Ludington Area Center for the Arts special event in 2018.

Given the history-consciousness of the Bowden family, it didn’t shock me to see that they were way ahead of me on the repeat-photography. Anyway, here is the overlay. Enjoy the rest of your week(s)! Thank you again to the hotel owners and staff for their help with the hotel’s history.

The Stearns Hotel (Ludington, MI) in a 1938-mailed postcard, and in June 2021 (overlay). Both images SonicGeography.com.

Norwich City Hall (1936 / 2020)

The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Norwich, CT

In one of our concluding lecture-discussions of our Spring 2021 semester, my North America class and I talked about ways we can be tourists in our own backyards. Though most of us live in Mount Pleasant, there are several corners of the city which are completely foreign to us. Relatedly, most of my New Yorker friends, including those who’ve lived in the city for their whole lives, have only really seen about 25% of it with their bare eyes. To me, that reality isn’t discouraging at a time when Google Earth and Streetview make (virtual) flânerie unthinkably accessible. Either way, it’s reassuring to know that you don’t need to buy a three- or four-figure plane ticket, gouge yourself on a hotel room, and adorn yourself in the common “HEY! I’M A TOURIST” attire (typically a tie-dye shirt emblazoned with the city’s name) to participate in tourism.

I haven’t lived in Connecticut for almost twenty years, but every time I return, the place feels less familiar. Of course that’s understandable, though, since a lot has changed infrastructurally in two decades given the heightened cost of living, shifting demographics, and the Nutmeg State’s perpetual intermediary orientation between two of North America’s most expensive cities. I can barely remember a time when the Quinnipiac River Bridge (which I thought, for much of my childhood, was literally named “The Q”) wasn’t under construction. Driving over the (decently) completed iteration still feels odd. I can probably rest assured they’ll need to rebuild it again in less than ten years.

Truthfully, though, when you’re young, your local and regional landscapes are highly dependent on your engagement with the world outside your bubble. When my friends and I got our drivers’ licenses, the farthest we would go on a quotidian basis would be the Wendy’s across town lines or maybe, if I had a chunk of change to spend on CD’s, to a record shop two towns over. My high school girlfriend lived three towns east, and that twenty-minute drive to her house felt like the height of rebellion. On rare occasions, we would all venture to farther reaches of the state: perhaps going to support athletic friends in their road games or heading to New Haven or Hartford for a concert. Typically, when friends and I were home on breaks from college, we would venture into the cities, but I don’t remember, save for shows at Toad’s Place or the Tune Inn (RIP), having real directives other than killing time.

One of my best friends in Knoxville, coincidentally, also grew up near New Haven. He was seven years younger than me, and he left Connecticut over a decade after I did, but whenever we talked about “back home,” we always came to the same conclusion: where was all the cool stuff when we were growing up there? Very quickly, though, we also realized that most of the “cool stuff” either didn’t exist yet in the 1990’s/2000’s or it existed in various iterations which were restricted from us (or, we had our heads in the sand, a common conceit for suburban teenagers). That’s no more thoughtful than some rockist old-timer asking “where’s all the good new music?” (It’s all over the place and available to stream, Roy. Get your head out of 1974).

All that being said, one of my favorite perks of the Ben Irving Postcard Project has been how the cities Irving visited during the Depression Era have laid out a series of destinations that I may have entirely passed by without a thought in my childhood. For example, I always remember knowing that the town of Norwich existed. They had a Double-A baseball team called the Norwich Navigators, but they were Yankees affiliate, so we never ventured to one of their games. I imagine my father went there for meetings pretty often, but it was never a destination for us, and until this past Fall, I could never remember gazing upon the sheer majesty of their City Hall Building. I won’t say it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb among the modest, working-class downtown landscape, but unlike literal sore thumbs, it was worth preserving (which they made official in 1983, when the building was 110 years old).

Norwich City Hall depicted on a postcard mailed April 1936 vs. the Building November 25, 2020.

What is apparent, when juxtaposing the 1936 postcard image with the more recent photo, is that not all of the adjacent buildings enjoyed the same amount of preservationist love and affection. It appears that at least one of the multi-family homes on the Union Street side (left, on the image) has been torn down. The United Congregational Church (built in 1857 as the Broadway Congregational Church), whose steeple is visible at the right edge of the postcard picture, doesn’t stand so close in reality. This suggests that the postcard artist may have taken liberties with sliding the Church closer to the town hall, they widened Broadway sometime in the past 85 years, or my angle just wasn’t a good recreation. Even if I had been able to climb up high enough (or rent a cherry-picker, in a perfect world), I don’t imagine I could have nailed the angle of the original picture. 

One noteworthy and refreshing contrast between these ca. 1936 and 2020 images is the surprising abundance of green space in the latter. The parking lot in front of the main entrance in 1936 is now a park named after David Ruggles, a local abolitionist who was pivotal to the regional branch of the Underground Railroad. I had grown so accustomed to seeing pre-Interstate Highway Era green spaces disappear under a sea of asphalt, especially in post-Industrial cities. Imagine the placeless example of Hill Valley, CA which Bobs Zemeckis and Gale built out of the Universal backlot, where the 1955 town green had been supplanted with a crowded, loud, parking lot by 1985. The Back to the Future example is even more appropriate here, given how the UCC’s original spire was removed after being stuck by lightning in 1898.  

I hope this is the first of many posts about how something as mundane as old postcards led me to discover fascinating places that were, despite being less than 45 minutes’ drive, completely unfamiliar to me. I would encourage anybody to do the same; I promise that you’ll gain a newfound appreciation of wherever you live(d).

Norwich City Hall, November 2020

Ben Irving at the Carlouel Yacht Club (Clearwater Beach, FL)

In early 1938, Ben Irving took his third (documented) trip through Florida, stopping around the Tampa Bay region on the 16th-19th of January. It’s unclear what his specific business was in Clearwater, but he wrote on the reverse of this postcard (above) that he was on his way across to Tampa, likely around Safety Harbor on route 17.

Shortly after the Great 2020 “Lockdown” began, my partner and I took a drive across to check out Clearwater and seek out a pair of postcard sites from Irving’s collection. We spent half the day there without realizing that Clearwater is basically to Scientologists what Salt Lake is to the Latter-Day Saints. We should have noticed it when we saw the intense glow-up on the Hotel Fort Harrison, which Irving had visited previously in 1936 (and will likely earn its own entry sometime). If you want a harrowing gaze into the Scientologists’ relationship with Clearwater, check out these documents from the Seventies.

Anyway, this entry is about Clearwater Beach, which is a municipality of Clearwater on a long, skinny offshore archipelago across the causeway into the Gulf. It has a more distinct beach-tourism orientation with a major aquarium and, apparently, 100% more Hulk Hogans. On the northern isthmus of the island, right before it tapers off and becomes Caladesi Island State Park, lies the Carlouel Yacht Club, established in 1934.

The Carlouel Yacht Club (Clearwater Beach, FL), June 2020. [SonicGeography.com]

It would be interesting to see an analysis on the discourse of the term “yacht club” during the Depression versus now (whether the emphases on privatization and exclusivity were different at the time), but either way, Clearwater Beach used a photograph of a Cabana scene there to advertise itself in the pre-Disney era. There were enough families in the area by this point two decades past the city’s incorporation who could afford the $100 membership (roughly $1,950 in 2021), and the Cabanas, facing out into the Dunedin Channel (a smart move, given storm surges off the Gulf), were a good image to sell the area to snow-bound Northerners. It must have worked, since the club operated exclusively in the winter months prior to 1954, when I assume Clearwater’s permanent resident population ironed out. An official 1950 count put the population around 15,000; today it is well over 115,000.

On that initial visit to scope out the Yacht Club, for reasons of privacy and COVID, we were not able to talk our way in. However, I met the club’s General Manager Kelley Williams outside, and we exchanged info. A little over a month later, I was able to line up an appointment to wander the grounds with the above postcard. Kelley took great interest in my postcard, and it occurred to her that they had the original reference photograph somewhere. After some searching, she found it on the wall of a small bathroom upstairs from the central Palmer Room. I was dumbfounded:

Kelley was unaware of who framed the image and ascribed the “ca. 1940’s” caption on the plaque or when they did it, but the postmark on Irving’s postcard proved that the photo was taken sometime in the 1930’s. I have no way to prove my suspicion that the photo was completely staged, but that’s still my suspicion, along with how the picture was probably taken shortly after the cabana housing was completed. Why wouldn’t they have wanted to show it off, along with the mile-plus of sandy beach on their doorsteps?

As much as I hate photos of printed photos (especially those with frame glare), I couldn’t find a scanned version. Here’s the original with a special overlay of the postcard:

I also didn’t realize, even as I was searching for the original depicted site to re-photograph it, that the image captured a profoundly physically different era for the club. In the mid-1950’s, around when the club switched to year-round operation, a fire destroyed most of the original structure. From the history page on the Carlouel website:

During the reconstruction, the decor changed from casual to a more formal appearance. Later improvements included enclosing the bay front terrace, adding the Palmer Room, building a sea wall, roque court, swimming pool, tennis courts, and additional cabanas. The short-course Olympic pool was added in 1962.

I guessed that they would stage the photo right inside the club’s entrance, but I did not suspect how the original waterfront was basically extinct. Kelley did not have access to any old maps or other documentation about the reconstruction, and I suspect few, if any, members from that time are still around to recall it. All I could really do was take a guess based on how the main entrance and banquet hall sit on the club’s classic acreage. I am prepared to be told I am way off, but here are two of my guesses:

I’m partial to the latter, since it also worked with the current setup of the cabana housing, which is now formed of connected units, unlike the individual houses seen in the pre-1938 photo. The landscaping is so radically different from the original photo that I also took the horizon into consideration, as well as how much space the beachfront sand originally occupied.

I also looked up the satellite imagery of the Yacht Club (above), which only served to add to my confusion. If the Club has not acquired or last any land since the 1930’s (which is perfectly unlikely), then those Tennis courts are directly on top of what was once the voluminous beach. Interestingly enough, you can see on this satellite image where the public Mandalay Point Road ends and a private drive of mansions with boats (some appear to be yachts) docked across the street.

The Cabana Colony (site) at the Carlouel Yacht Club, Clearwater Beach, FL (1930’s vs. June 2020)

Per usual, cracking a little into the mystery behind a landscape depicted on one of Ben Irving’s postcards has generated a bevy of new questions. Maybe I’ll have to go back there sometime. Maybe someone who was there and then will see this and reach out to me. Either way, it was a privilege to do this. Special thanks to Kelley J. Williams and all the Carlouel members and staff on board that day. Until next time…

The Hotel Quincy: A Panhandle Mystery (Part 3: Solved)

Read Part One (Before I Visited Quincy) HERE
Read Part Two (After I Visited Quincy, but still had a lot of questions) HERE

The Hotel Quincy (Quincy, FL) sometime in the 1950’s. Courtesy of David Gardner and the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce.

You are currently reading part three, and I am elated. Last week, I got on the phone with David Gardner of the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce, and after we hung up, we felt like we’d known one another for years. As it turned out, Gardner used to work for Visit Florida, and we shared a deep appreciation for American Jewish culture and these histories that reside on the fringes of the twenty-first century.

Perhaps as importantly, Gardner did have some material to share about the Hotel Quincy, including an April 1972 feature about Mrs. Frank W. Lloyd from the Tallahassee Democrat. Her family had owned the hotel from 1928 until 1951 (as I’d found in that 1951 Democrat blurb in Part 1), and she lamented how the development of the Interstate pulled traffic away from Quincy in the 1950’s. The article (which has no visible byline) also confirms it: the hotel was demolished circa 1962.

It also turns out that, yes, my guesstimate of where the lobby once stood in Part 2 was accurate. Here was my photo recreation:

Here is another photo postcard depicting the outside of the Hotel Quincy, published in 1940, two years after Irving mailed that postcard above:

Hotel Quincy (Quincy, FL) Postcard, 1940. Courtesy of David Gardner and the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce.

It’s apparent that the new owners, who bought the place in 1951, got rid of the Plantation-style stacked front porch (but not the rocking chairs) and repainted it to make it match the white-washed Modernist architecture that was in vogue down in Miami. It’s odd, since Quincy has always presented itself as quintessentially “Southern,” which tended to define itself against whatever happened below Gainesville.

Zherti Jasa, a former student and future star architect, put it into a helpful perspective.

“I don’t know if there’s a specific reason why people stopped designing the stacked porches like in the hotel,” she said, “but I would think that the facade is what became more prevalent. Simplicity was the name of the game. They were trying to get away from any decorative ornamentation that resembled any European classical or Roman styles and so on and so forth. The architectural styles typically represent a political and cultural movement of that time.”

So, there we have it. I’m hardly done thinking about or seeking new information about the Hotel Quincy, but as I said, I’m elated how much I was able to unlock using those twentieth-century methods of phone, email, and just stopping through. I still think it’s strange how there aren’t more publicly accessible resources about a building that formed such a heart of what was, in its time, a cosmopolitan town.

Thanks again to David and Zherti for their help in putting the mystery of the panhandle to bed. And thanks to you for reading this.

Appearance on ‘The Postcardist’ Podcast for The Ben Irving Project

After spending almost two years trying to make it a reality, I finally got together (separately) with Frank Roche, host of the wonderful podcast The Postcardist to talk about my research, my family, Florida, and the Ben Irving Postcard Project. I’ll include a handful of links to listen to the episode below, but I have borrowed and posted the episode file here. Enjoy!

The Postcardist Ep. 84 08/23/20, Hosted by Frank Roche, guest Tyler Sonnichsen.

If you’ve never heard of this podcast, make sure to subscribe to it on Stitcher, TuneIn, Apple Podcasts, or whichever conduit you prefer!

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: 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:

Re-Photography in the Midwest: Indianapolis | Cadiz, OH | Cleveland

Over Spring Break, a friend and I headed up to the Southern Great Lakes Region on a road trip. I brought along a few selections from the Ben Irving postcard collection. Here is what came of that.


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Irving mailed this one from Indy to family in Hartford on the evening of September 23, 1934. The caption reads “Obelisk of black granite in the INDIANAPOLIS WORLD WAR MEMORIAL PLAZA AT INDIANAPOLIS showing 100 foot pink marble basin of electric fountain illuminated.” I always find the different ways objects reference the Great War interesting, considering how in 1934 the building blocks for World War II were in place but it was not yet imminent. I suppose it was common, more than fifteen years on, to refer to the Great War as ‘the World War.’ I wonder if the terminology differed depending on where it was published.

Also noteworthy was this card’s crude illustration and its unique publisher. Rather than the nationally oriented Teich Company, this card was printed and distributed by a local concern: the DeWolf News Co in Indianapolis. Strangely, this doesn’t turn up in a search for DeWolf in the Indianapolis Library Postcard Collection here. The artist seemed to want to depict the underlit fountain, which I’m sure would be running in full vigor during the summer, but what came out was a botched, blotched depiction that looks closer to how a schoolkid might draw fire. The obelisk at attention also appears to be dark blue with a golden triad on top.

At any rate, this shot was challenging. Thankfully, my smartphone’s camera has a smart iris/shutter tandem. I think I took this around 2pm, right before we left town and right when the sun was sitting almost directly above the obelisk’s tip from this vantage point. It took a couple attempts, but it came out. Here are a few outtakes where I played with card placement and focus.


CADIZ, OH

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Irving mailed this postcard home to Brooklyn from Wellsburg, WV (right across the state line) on December 16, 1936. The card was published by the Cadiz News Agency. His note on this one was pretty lengthy, asking my grade-school aged grandmother if she had been behaving. He also mentions “remember Clark Gable the actor was born in this town. His picture is all around here. Interesting.”

At the time Irving sent this card, Gable was probably the biggest star in Hollywood. Today, Gable’s birthplace and an annual festival there every February are the depleted town’s two biggest meal tickets. Though he was born there, he wasn’t from there, technically. At least, this was what Cadiz native Jamie Miller told me when we stopped to chat outside of her Ohio Valley Winery. Miller also told me that the vacant lot across the street from the Court House building (whose roof most likely provided the vantage point for this postcard) was occupied until a few years ago by Mr. Fish, a seafood joint torn down sometime over the past two years. My friend and I had to push on to Pittsburgh (as the sun was obviously setting), so we couldn’t stick around, but if you’re ever passing through Cadiz, check out their Winery.

We pulled into Cadiz with about 20 remaining minutes of sunlight and I did my best to get the photo you see above while it was still recognizable. Most of the features in the postcard are still visible, including the statue in the foreground. Here are a few of the other shots I took in the vicinity.


CLEVELAND

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This souvenir packet, mailed to Brooklyn in October 1938, gave me so much material to work with. First of all, seeing Cleveland referred to as “The City of Industry and Refinement” invites a whole bunch of jokes about its de-industrialization. Of course, that’s been done to death. The cover features a vantage panorama of Public Square and Terminal Tower, which you can see in the blurry background of the photo above. The May Company Building, the white structure next to my thumb, now houses a Community College and a Taco Bell Cantina (a late-night Taco Bell that serves alcohol… what a time to be alive).

The packet had a slew of information about Cleveland’s then-recent development. It doesn’t mention anything about the May Company, but it does detail the function of the Terminal Tower and the network connected through the unified terminal, often called the “Gateway to the Continent” at the time. The only other featured site I was able to find nearby was the Public Auditorium, a massive building located next to the Fountain of Eternal Life. Though we couldn’t talk our way inside, I did snap this from a platform atop the submerged Convention Center across the way:

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From what the desk guy told us, the interior was undergoing some work and was closed to the public. They could still hold events in there, however… he mentioned something about wrestling. No idea. Hopefully, next time I’m in town I’ll be able to make an appointment to recreate the interior shot featured here.

According to the booklet, the Civic Auditorium went up for $15,000,000 in 1922, which converts to $220,997,930 today, which is absolutely insane. The packet described it as “the finest and most serviceable municipal auditorium in this country…[with] acoustics [that] have been declared perfect.” Additionally, it describes a $100,000 pipe organ ($1.7 Million today) with over 10,000 pipes and 150 direct speaking stops. I’m not an expert on pipe organs, but that sounds massive. Here are a couple of shots I took around the lobby:


If you’re from any of these locations and have any good stories, pictures, or links to share, leave a comment! If you haven’t spent any time in any of these cities, make it a point to check them out, even if it’s just for the opportunity to live más in an old department store building.

Speaking of Cleveland department stores, we paid a visit to the house from A Christmas Story, which I will hopefully get a chance to write about soon. The visit couldn’t have come at a better time, since I will be introducing film geography to two of my classes in the next few weeks. What a perfect case study.

Anyway, have a great week, everyone.

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Catching Up with the Farragut Hotel

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I took this when I walked by the site on Wednesday afternoon, mostly because of the shiny new “Coming Fall 2017” Hyatt banner.

I can’t remember how much I’ve covered the Farragut Hotel and its intersection with the Ben Irving Postcard Project, but from what I can tell, he stayed there at least once in 1935 and then possibly again in 1940. That’s really all I could ascertain from the notes and the dates on the cards.

Regarding the development’s news, the Knoxville News Sentinel published this article last year about the official development plans, which stated their plan was to reopen during the summer of 2017. So, knowing the pace of development in Knoxville, I looked forward to being able to see their finished product in late 2019.

I was fortunate to be able to visit the project as it currently sits when Knox Heritage had a special event there last Fall. I took several pictures while wandering around the construction site and I never did anything with them in October, so I figured I would post some highlights here. Forgive any unintentional trespassing I may have done.

Knox Heritage has been teasing a follow-up event where their members will get a free preview of the hotel when it’s ready to officially reopen this fall. I’ll do my best to recreate these photos, but I can’t make any promises with the ones of gigantic death-hazard holes. I imagine they’ll patch those up.

Lyrics, Letters and the Forgotten Lives of Ben Irving

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Click to watch at PechaKucha.org

Pecha Kucha Knoxville recently uploaded the PowerPoint and Audio from my November presentation about my great-grandfather. This was a 6 minute, 40 second truncation of archival work I’d been doing about over a thousand postcards he sent from the road in the 1930s and 40s. It is an ongoing project that has been as rewarding as it has been educational and surprising regarding both my family history and a different era in American cultural life.

Here is my respectful sales pitch: If you enjoy what you see above, let me know. I am always happy to bring this lecture (in any reasonable length) to present at your company, school, civic organization, for any interested parties. Feel free to contact me at sonicgeography [at] gmail. I presented an hour-long version of this talk, which included a handful of his original song lyrics, more news clippings, and personal history at the Kimball Farms Lecture series in Lenox, MA in November. I have an audio recording available for anybody interested in the extended version.

Anyway, I’ve hinted at this postcard collection before, but until now I haven’t been completely comfortable with sharing. But now that the cat’s out of the bag and I did this presentation for over a thousand people in Knoxville, I’ll be a bit more forthcoming with Ben Irving’s story.

I assume you’ll watch the video-slideshow at the link above (WordPress doesn’t allow embedding of iframe codes; apologies), but the long and short of it was that my great-grandfather, who went by his stage name Ben Irving in most of his professional life, was a prolific musician on the Hartford jazz circuit of the 1920s. When the Depression hit, he moved his young family (including my grandmother, then a toddler) to Brooklyn and hit the road as a sales representative. In his time, Irving got to see so much more of America than most anybody in his position, including parts of the country that were still mired in dark history and summarily unfriendly to Jews. Assuming that his wife and daughter would probably never see any of these places, he sent home multiple postcards from almost every city he visited.

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A few years ago, when I inherited the postcards, I began bringing selections with me whenever I traveled to particular cities in North America. I began to re-pose and re-create the shots, better terms as ‘rephotography’ (see Kalin 2013 for a great overview of this). I cataloged these attempts in a handful of entries (including in FloridaNew Orleans, Mobile, and Chattanooga) all of which are tagged with ‘Re-Photography’ and I included in my PechaKucha talk. I recently created a new tag (‘Ben Irving’) for the posts I make about my ongoing work focused on (or directly inspired by) my great-grandfather. Stay tuned for a pair of new entries that follow his postcards (including an overdue AAG 2017 retrospective), coming very soon.