After a slight delay, the second issue of Postcards from Irving is now ready for printing and headed this week to a mailbox near you (ideally yours).
The masthead and table of contents are above. Ignore that zip code typo; it should read 48804, which it will on the actual zines. This volume is introducing a new format: a proper booklet style that still fits snugly in letter-sized envelopes. I hope you enjoy it!
There are a few visual pieces that I may crack and wind up sharing digitally. I posted the Iron River postcard in question (as well as a repeat-photo I took there in August 2021) on the Instagram page, so I’ll post it here too for resolution’s sake.
Enjoy this free preview, and if you haven’t already subscribed or donated to the cause, DO SO RIGHT HERE.
It’s real, it’s available, and it’s all yours if you want one! Subscribe here or email me [tyler AT sonicgeography DOT com] with your postal address.
Why a Zine, and Why Now?
Without giving too much away, this isn’t about Ben Irving as much as it is about the worlds and times he inhabited, and I am still consistently amazed at the things I discover about them. For reasons both personal and professional about which I will go into more detail in Issue One, I’ve decided to self-publish the Ben Irving chronicles, and I’ve decided to do it (mostly) away from the internet.
Those of you who have been following this site for a while may be familiar with who Irving was. If not, feel free to take a look back through the archives so far. Postcards from Irving will take these rabbit holes of research on the man, his music career(s), and his travels and expand upon them with each issue. My plan is to publish and mail out Postcards from Irving quarterly – once per season – with occasional bonus issues or collaborations. I will try to announce/preview each new issue on this website, and still include occasional nuggets from the archives.
Will this Cost Anything?
The ‘Postcards from Irving’ zine/newsletter will be free indefinitely from the date of subscription for anybody US-based, and back issues will be available for $1 each. In order to help offset costs of printing and mailing down the line, I will also be accepting donations. A small donation will get you a shout-out in ‘Postcards from Irving’ and my undying gratitude.
If you are outside of the United States and would like to subscribe to Postcards from Irving please get in touch via the form below or on Instagram.
How to Subscribe
If you would like to have fun and keep it analog (aside from reading about it online here), then direct all correspondence to POSTCARDS FROM IRVING, P.O. BOX 1309, MT. PLEASANT, MI 48804. You are welcome to (1) send me a postcard or letter requesting to subscribe or (2) pay for back issues/donate to the project with well-concealed cash.
You can also subscribe right here, using this form:
How to Donate to the ‘Postcards from Irving’ Project
You can mail well-concealed cash or a check to P.O. Box 1309, Mt. Pleasant, MI 48804, or you can donate via PayPal using the button below (or this link, if you can’t see the button). Any small amount is appreciated and will go directly to cover any printing/mailing expenses.
Thank you. I can’t wait to see where this goes.
From what I can tell, Ben Irving took two road trips through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: once in May of 1939, and once in August of 1941. In both cases, he drove through from Wisconsin and continued down to the Lower Peninsula, taking one of nine auto ferries across the Mackinac Strait (the Mighty Mac suspension bridge would not open until 1957).
He did not make it to Marquette, the largest town and cultural anchor of the U.P. (Joe Pera decided to set his TV show there, if there may be any doubts) until his second trip. Avoiding a stop in Marquette may seem odd today, but most towns up there that feel like hollowed-out blips on the map in 2021 were robust mining towns preceding World War II. After I visited the Keweenaw Peninsula, for example, it seemed blatantly obvious that mining is why Michigan Technological University is located way up there in Houghton. Also, the location isn’t really too far afield to other North-Country cities like Duluth and Green Bay; it just seems like a massive haul to any of the “trolls” (an endearing term for those folks who live in “under the Bridge” in Michigan’s lower peninsula, about 97% of the state’s population).
As various friends and colleagues had predicted, my partner and I thought Marquette was awesome. Northern cities, especially those as remote as Marquette, have a special charm to them. Locals tend to be good at making their own fun. Much of the city is contained within hills that bottle it on a descent into Lake Superior, where one finds the massive, lumbering ore dock situated down the street from a nice brewery that bears its name.
The Landmark Inn (formerly The Hotel Northland)
Unlike other small Michigan cities, Marquette retained a majority of its beautiful early-20th century stone architecture, particularly along Front Street, leading up to the Landmark Inn, where Irving stayed in August 1941. At the time, it was barely over a decade old and called itself the Hotel Northland.
There are plenty of sources that claim the building is haunted, particularly the Lilac Room on the top floor, where a young librarian allegedly hanged herself in grief over her lover dying sailing on Lake Superior. There are also urban legends that tell of a jealous man who murdered his unfaithful girlfriend and buried her body in the hotel’s foundation sometime in the 1920s. In both cases, paranormal enthusiasts report hearing noises that suggest neither young woman ever truly left the hotel. Of course, the hotel’s spartan official history doesn’t mention any of this.
Though the Hotel Northland’s original era ended with its closure in 1982, the Landmark group refurbished the building in 1995. The results, as one might expect, are grandiose and expensive. Like most hotels who haven’t had a date with the wrecking ball, this one was fairly easy to re-photograph. I stood in front of the Peter White Public Library to get my photo, as the original photographer/painter did ninety years ago. Here is the result:
Harlow’s Wooden Man
My partner and I spent a good few minutes wandering around the corner of Spring Street and 5th Street, where I read in a few different, confusingly phrased accounts that Harlowe’s Wooden Man stands today. The landscape over which he towered 80+ years ago is almost completely overgrown today and encased in private property. At first, I felt the standard type of garden-variety indignity an Urban Geographer like myself would feel seeing any piece of bizarro history is fenced off from public enjoyment. Then, I realized that HWM probably owes his “life” to being neglected in some wealthy person’s back yard. Like countless others who walked down the fencing behind an Advance Auto Parts, I felt the temptation to jump the chain-link fence and get a cheeky selfie with the wooden giant. If he were on public property, the city of Marquette or some niche historical society would have to encase him in some type of panopticon to prevent a bunch of hooligans from climbing onto his withered old shoulders and toppling him into a pile of lumber.
The story behind this highly unusual (though I doubt unique) hidden attraction is unusual in itself. According to local lore, Amos Harlow (the postcard misspelled his name – probably an honest error by the publisher) was out for a walk in 1875 when he saw a cedar tree that resembled a person, so he decided to cut it down and bring it to a hill behind his home, where he added various embellishments, including a cane and fine hat. I don’t know if the cane and hat you see in the postcard image were Amos’ originals, but today the cane is long gone (a reflection of how uncool canes are now, for whatever reason), and his current hat resembles a cage of something that Uncle Sam might wear. Here are a couple of more detailed shots I could get from the other side of the fence nearby:
Today, the Marquette County History Museum names their quarterly journal after him, and it’s entirely possible that Amos Harlow’s descendants live in the house facing 4th Street on that property. It’s fun finding whichever photos of the wooden man taken over the years – the ones which have been digitized, anyway. One photographer who snapped an ironic image of HWM in the 70’s did so from behind the figure with permission from Harlow’s granddaughter, who he claimed lived in the house on the property. Notice, if you click on that link, that the wooden man didn’t have a cane in that picture, either. I would have to do a lot more investigative work to figure out when the old man lost it. Someone had better help him! He’s out in the middle of the woods (and on a hill!) without a cane!
Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a great weekend.
In my half-decade of tracing Ben Irving’s path(s) through pre-War America through his postcards, I always look forward for opportunities to visit smaller towns left behind by post-War economic “progress.” Sometimes, that “progress” comes at a profound expense, usually as self-inflicted by local decision-makers as externally imposed by state and federal powers. Belding, a small city of roughly 5,000 in Ionia County, is a crystal-clear case study.
From what I can tell, Irving spent October 1938 in Michigan, bouncing around the lower peninsula while headquartered at the Detroiter Hotel. He spent much of the second week in the Southwestern corner of the Mitten, including stops in Benton Harbor, Muskegon, Ludington, Battle Creek (read about that here), and as one would imagine, the then-thriving metropolises of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. I’m actually well overdue for entries about his postcards from both Muskegon and Kalamazoo, but those will come in time.
Anyway, here is the original 1938 postcard image scan he mailed of downtown Belding (All Rights Reserved):
One of the first things I noticed driving into Belding was how sparse it felt. There were a few cool-looking blocks around the downtown area, and I saw plenty of cute neighborhoods on the periphery, but it just felt unspooled. I ate lunch at a café overlooking the river and went to get coffee and do some work at Third Wave Coffee, a great indie spot built into the street level of the 1913 Belding Brothers building at Main and Bridge. The owner and operator, Pete, told me a story (soon echoed by an equally helpful librarian) about an old woman who was struck and killed by a falling brick on Main St. sometime in the 1960’s. I found an article confirming that this happened in February 1966, as reported in the Petoskey News-Review (via UPI) on February 10th of that year:
The article gave no other identifying information as to who the two women were, but it does confirm that the incident occurred on Wednesday February 9, 1966. The chances were fair that Belding’s powers-that-were had been looking for an excuse to move on some development contract. Stories like these were all too common in post-War, deindustrialized Michigan. As you can tell from the postcard (and if you’ve spent time in any Michigan city that was less aggressive with the wrecking ball), that crowning lip was a common adornment atop commercial buildings. They were too shallow to provide additional shade or shelter from the elements, but they did look nice.
Unfortunately, as these buildings crumbled, the slight jutting adornments became a severe liability. Detroit, for example, seriously cracked down on owners of derelict buildings that were raining bricks on passersby. Some of these owners decided it made more sense to just tear the buildings down than deal with other potential lawsuits and fines, especially since it felt like everyone they knew personally had vanished to the suburbs.
In Belding, the town’s elders decided that the best course of action was to just rip out the entire two blocks of Main Street depicted and turn it into a mall. Gaze upon its majesty.
I would bite my tongue if anybody I spoke to in Belding, given their half-century of hindsight, expressed any kind of enthusiasm for the mall. I’m sure that COVID had an influence on just how dead that whole area felt across the street, but it appeared that the Chemical Bank building on the right (on the site of what was once the Hotel Belding) had been vacant since well before the pandemic.
Keep in mind that my progress from that postcard image to the repeat-photo I took above was hardly a straight line. Pete identified Main Street, but because most of the pre-War buildings had been torn out before either of us were born, we had no visible reference points to confirm exactly where the photo was taken. I walked over to the Belding Library, named for, just like everything else Gilded-Age in that town, silk magnate Alvah Belding, who spent the last 56 years of his life in Connecticut until his death in late 1925.
I’ve written before how much I love librarians and how they’re some of the best public service workers in the world. The ones at the Belding library were case in point. I walked in and showed the postcard to one librarian behind the reference desk, and within two minutes, she reached into a nearby file cabinet and produced the following photograph, which we quickly realized was the reverse vantage point of the postcard image!
As the caption on the sticker reads, “MAIN STREET LOOKING EAST,” and the postcard image was clearly taken around the same time period, and the orientation of the buildings helped me confirm that the picture was taken of the same block, looking West. She also produced what may be an original print of the earliest surviving photo of the Belding Hotel, possibly taken not too long after 1893, when the hotel was rebuilt following a fire.
One detail to note is the Victorian-style house which stood to the right of the hotel on Bridge Street, also completed in 1893. Naturally, it was also flattened. As the chief history librarian (who returned from lunch and joined in our conversation) confirmed, the Belding Hotel once stood on the corner currently occupied by that Chemical Bank building, and nothing else but a grassy expanse and a sliver of the parking lot.
So, to review: If you’re ever in such a position to make the decision, don’t do to your downtown what Belding, MI did, kids. It doesn’t feel like it even paid off for them in the short run.
A quick photographic lagniappe: the original chandelier from the Belding Hotel, now located and working within the foyer at the Belding Library at 302 E. Main Street.
Thanks for reading, everybody. I hope your Octobers are going well so far, and are sufficiently spooky. Stay tuned for a bunch of inevitable “REDUX” posts of old Ben Irving Postcard Project images, now that I can overlay them with the slider.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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)
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.
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!
The Empire Room of the Palmer House Hotel (1950/2019)
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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).