Ben Irving visits Marquette Michigan, August 1941

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.

Downtown Marquette, MI (with the ore dock seen at left) taken from the penthouse of the Landmark Inn (SonicGeography.com).

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!

It’s not perfect, but it’s the closest I could get to the original angle. ~1930’s (mailed in 1941) vs. 2021.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a great weekend.

A Postcard Mini-Assignment (GEO 121)

Here, I hold a stack of postcards written by my students in GEO 121 (Intro to Globalization), about to go into the post. As of this writing, they’re on their way all over the country.

I created this mini-assignment in equal parts as a tribute to the US Postal Service as well as a simple lesson on a lost art (or, at least a heavily niched one). So many students told me they had never composed or sent a postcard before. Well, now they have, and their friends and relatives are in for a surprise.

The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Belding, MI (1938)

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:

Clipping from the Petoskey News-Review 2/10/66: KILLED BY BRICK. A Belding woman was killed and a 18-year-old girl critically injured Wednesday when a piece of decorative brick and mortar fell from a two-story building they were passing.

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.

Belding, MI. Main Street and Bridge, looking West.

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!

Image on the left property of SonicGeography.com / Image on the right property of the Belding Public Library.

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.

Reproduced image courtesy of the Belding Library.

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.

I genuinely hate WordPress’ new design interface, but this image-slide feature is changing my life.

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.

Chandelier hanging in the Belding Library, Belding, MI (October 2020).

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.

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!

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: 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!

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.


INDIANAPOLIS

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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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John Jakle and Keith Sculle on the U.S. Postal Service

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[One sample] postcard [in our collection] was mailed on a Saturday in 1919. The message concerns an intended ride to town the next day by electric interurban car. “I wrote you a letter telling you I would be in town Sunday on the quarter to 9 car, but that makes me hurry so much that [I] will come later… on the quarter to 11… meet me…and I will take you to church.”

Today, most Americans forget (if they ever knew) how fast and dependable the U.S. Postal Service once was. In many localities, postcards could be used to set and change appointments, even within the course of a few hours’ time. Streetcars carried mailboxes, which were emptied after every run. In many cities, mail was delivered to homes several times a day.

– from Picturing Illinois: Twentieth Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo by John Jakle and Keith Sculle, p. 127. This completely clarifies, to someone going through antique postcards in 2014, the function and timing of postcards from that era. I’m fairly surprised the authors didn’t mention this much earlier in the book.

(Re)Photography in the American South (Part Two: Birmingham, Mobile, Chattanooga)

I was originally planning to include these all as part of one giant post from my travels, but then I got carried away writing about the experience of getting that picture from the balcony at Royal and St. Ann in New Orleans. These three cases did not incorporate nearly as intriguing processes of inquiry. They mostly involved luck and convenience. The only danger I encountered came from traffic turning onto MLK Boulevard in Chattanooga while I was taking this:

July 22, 2014

July 22, 2014

Not bad! I knew I would eventually scan the original so you could all have a better look at the original postcard (folded into a souvenir packet from 1938; below). If you’re seeking a good example of a southern city that’s done almost everything within their power correctly over the past three decades, look no farther than Chattanooga. All it took was a New York Times article in 1980 about what a hellhole the place was at the time, and the city’s elites set the wheels in motion. Today, it’s a somewhat-undiscovered gem. A big part of the city’s renovation was (like even the less-progressive southern cities have realized for themselves) major investment in their downtown. This brought about a nicely-maintained park across the street from the old U.S. Post Office and Courthouse Building. That park made it pretty hard to get a full photo of the front of this quintessentially Depression-era architecture that’s stood since the height of that period (1933); trees blocked any view I had of the full building unless I crossed MLK Boulevard and disrupted traffic for a second. Anyway, here is the original 1930’s postcard print.

ChattPostOffice_020937As Jakle and Sculle wrote in Picturing Illinois:

Postcard buyers embraced images that positively reinforced what most Americans believe the United States to be. Indeed, the nation’s postcard craze was largely a matter of self-congratulation. (p.5)

Self-congratulatory or not, the early twentieth century also continued a highly American tradition of, for lack of a better term, idol worship. Few things better signified the impact of an individual or a group on a place than a statue. In Birmingham, I was wandering through Five Points and I landed on the statue of Brother James Alexander Bryan, one of the most notable (if overlooked, outside of Alabama) white proponents of the civil rights movement.

The Brother Bryan statue at Five Points, Birmingham. July 12, 2014.

The Brother Bryan statue at Five Points, Birmingham. July 12, 2014.

From what I’ve gathered from some light research, the city has moved the statue a few times, which explains why the placement seemed off compared to the original 1930s postcard from the Birmingham souvenir packet.

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You can just make out the statue on the pavement island across the street. Birmingham, AL. July 12, 2014.

It seemed that the statue’s original placement sat on a (mostly) treeless island in the middle of the Five Points South intersection. Today, the statue’s location may be similar, though the city has either rebuilt the street behind it (it’s more of a walkway today, which you can see in the close-up photo of the statue), or placed the statue much closer to that gray building. I’m sure I could dig up articles from the Birmingham News about the statue’s moves, but I’ve only got so much time in the day. Also noteworthy, this postcard was mailed in the late 1930’s, and Brother Bryan didn’t die until 1941. Is it as rare as I think for somebody to be immortalized in that style while they are still alive to see it?

Speaking of the intense relationship between Christ, spirituality, and the South, here’s my second-favorite recreation I accomplished on the trip: Bienville Square in Mobile, AL.

Postcard from late 1930's Mobile souvenir packet.

Postcard from late 1930’s Mobile souvenir packet.

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Bienville Square, July 14, 2014.

How cool is that? The big cross and that gorgeous fountain in the background have largely been untouched. The grounds immediately around the cross are not as grassy, and there appear to be more trees immediately surrounding the cross than there were 75-80 years ago, but the character of the park seems strikingly similar. I stood in several different spots trying to cancel out the trees right next to me while still framing the cross and fountain closely to how the postcard did. I took one picture with the postcard in the foreground that actually worked, surprisingly.

Anyway, I’m here in Knoxville for August, preparing to begin teaching GEO 101 and continuing with my research. I’m so tempted to turn these photographs into something else if I had anything resembling the spare time. I’ve actually had a few people suggest I keep compiling these antique postcard re-productions and turn them into a book. We’ll see.

 

(Re)Photography in the American South (Part One: New Orleans)

For a wide variety of reasons, postcards (specifically, antique ones) have been occupying a lot of my mental landscape recently. As I previously mentioned, a large collection of old ones landed in my lap last year. While I’ve been rotating the wheels in the arduous process of cataloging them, I’ve also had the assignment to review Picturing Illinois: Twentieth-Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo (2012; University of Illinois Press), an excellent history of that state patched together through postcards from the first half of the twentieth century, land in my lap as well. I’ll keep this blog posted as that unfolds, but for now, the book is providing me with great context for what I’ve been gathering through this particular collection, that of which spans from the early 1930’s through the mid-1940’s. 

The reason I haven’t been able to update this site too much lately was because I happened to be on a road trip across the Gulf Coast recently. Considering how much (Re)Photography has captured my fleeting interest over the past year, I did not miss my opportunity to track down a few of the locations in a few of my postcards and make some attempt to recreate the pictures. Today and Wednesday, I’ll be sharing a handful of arguably successful examples.

ROYAL STREET IN NEW ORLEANS’ FRENCH QUARTER

Postmarked Jan 17, 1941. The Caption: "Royal Street is known throughout the world for it's curio dealers, perfume shops and antique stores where one can find beautiful specimens of old furniture, jewelry, chinaware and ancient firearms. In early Creole days Rue Royal was the main street of the French City and along its narrow thoroughfare are clustered many historical buildings. Every block of Royal Street teems with interest. It is one of the most interesting streets because of the many old homes, priceless wrought-iron railings, quaint courtyards and lovely gardens."

Postmarked Jan 17, 1941. The Caption: “Royal Street is known throughout the world for it’s curio dealers, perfume shops and antique stores where one can find beautiful specimens of old furniture, jewelry, chinaware and ancient firearms. In early Creole days Rue Royal was the main street of the French City and along its narrow thoroughfare are clustered many historical buildings. Every block of Royal Street teems with interest. It is one of the most interesting streets because of the many old homes, priceless wrought-iron railings, quaint courtyards and lovely gardens.”

I’ve gone on record before saying that New Orleans is one of my favorite places in the world, crumbling infrastructure, rampant corruption, sauna-like heat 10 months out of the year, and all. I wouldn’t disagree with the postcard’s label on the back declaring it “AMERICA’S MOST INTERESTING CITY” at all; at least, that’s what I call it to anybody who has not yet visited it. There is nowhere on earth I can imagine quite like it. Even outside of the French Quarter (or, as many would argue, primarily outside of the Quarter) you’ll find plenty of unique local flavor, particularly because there won’t be quite as many hundred thousands of tourists devouring it and driving up prices.

That being said, no trip to NOLA is complete without at least a leisurely walk through the French Quarter. Considering how ornate the city has made sure to keep almost all of the structures within the Quarter, it’s easy to forget how many people actually live within that section of the city. I can’t imagine life is particularly easy for anybody in the Big Easy, and especially so for those who live in that hallowed ground between Canal Street to the West and Frenchman St. to the East. Based on my limited experience, one piece of advice I’d give is to take a walk down Bourbon Street just to say you did- and then get the hell off of Bourbon Street. The Quarter actually has plenty of good local haunts that friends there have helped me discover, even along other such touristy thoroughfares like Royal Street. 

Last Sunday, I found myself with a little time to kill before finding a bar in which to watch the World Cup Final, so it occurred to me to pull out the postcard (above) from my bag, take a walk down Royal Street and see if I could spot where that illustration was made back in what I would assume was the 1920’s or 30’s, based on the mailing date of the postcard. I began on Canal Street, stopping into a hotel I once stayed at with my family in the late 90’s. I’d be lying if I said the pull of nostalgia outweighed the lure of functional air conditioning; although a storm had passed before I got to town, the humidity was still thick enough to make me pass out if I’d even tried chasing after a bus. I set down Royal Street for at least six blocks, pacing incrementally to study every lattice-work to compare it to the one on the postcard. I nearly interrupted two different tour guides to ask them if they either recognized the balcony or knew whether Royal had ever had a streetcar line (artists hired to illustrate places for postcards often took certain artistic license to complete their task of selling their employer’s city to outsiders; for all I knew, he/she could have been playing on outsiders’ attraction to streetcars, many of which were starting to disappear from American cities over the course of the 1940’s). In retrospect, I’m glad I chose not to be “that guy” and interrupt the tour guides and all of their patrons.

When I got to the corner of St. Ann, I turned around and looked up. There it was.

Picture 007I had landed upon a new set of challenges. I had no way of knowing if the restaurant owned or had any access to the balcony where the photographer stood when taking the picture on the postcard. The only way was to, as politely as possible, ask. I stepped into Pere Antoine and asked if I could speak to the manager. There turned out to be several around, as they were in the mid-afternoon shift change. One of them, Holly, politely told me how cool the postcard was, and regretfully, the second story were all private residences. The restaurant had access to the balcony, but only managers and nobody from the public were allowed on it. She offered to bring my camera up there and take a picture from that perspective for me, which was very generous. As I prepared to hand it to her, she stopped me and said, “wait a second. Let me find James.” James was the restaurant’s GM, and he nearly flipped when I showed him the postcard. He asked if he could scan it and email it to the restaurant’s owner. I pulled out a few other New Orleans and Louisiana souvenir packets from the late 30’s, and the restaurant’s whole staff eagerly gathered to look through them. James looked at Holly for a few seconds asking almost rhetorically if anyone would really mind if he escorted me up to the balcony. As he went to get his keys, I smiled to myself and thought, repeatedly: ‘This is why you ask. This is why you always ask.’

Picture 009

July 13, 2014.

Not bad. The planter (which James and I attempted to move, unsuccessfully) clearly was not in the photo illustration, and the Desire line (yes, that one) had long been torn out of the street below, and somebody covered the wooden structure with red stucco years ago, but otherwise, the block does not look a whole lot different than it did eighty years ago. James even pointed out that the yellow building on the opposite side of Royal, while the windows had been redone, was still yellow

Thank you again to the enthusiastic and courteous staff at Pere Antoine Restaurant for making this possible. I was more than happy to stay there to drink and watch the second half (and extra time!) of the match. I’ll definitely be stopping back through to say hello the next time I’m back in the Crescent City.

Before I end this entry, I’m going to include these bonus tracks of sorts. I actually had a moment of pause while searching for the postcard balcony (which was located at 741 Royal Street) while passing by a gorgeous building at 700 Royal. It turned out to be a three-story facility that remains one of the most-photographed buildings in New Orleans. After getting back to Knoxville, I checked my archives and was able to dig up a pair of photographs I took on that block in 1998. 

The Royal Cafe at 700 Royal Street in April 1998.

The Royal Cafe at 700 Royal Street in April 1998.

From what I can remember, I took this picture while on a walking tour of the area (the exact kind of tour I would come close to annoyingly interrupting sixteen years later). I remember fixating on the latticework and the hanging planters at the time; the latticework is still beautiful and the planters are no longer there. Also, the Royal Cafe, despite the best songwriting efforts of Mark Eitzel, closed down within the past decade, and I think there’s a tourist shop on the street level now. No idea how the upstairs spaces are being used. 

The 700 Block of Royal Street, April 1998.

The ??? Block of Royal Street, April 1998.

I believe I took this facing Northeast, farther West from that previous photo, considering the direction the cars are facing. In retrospect, I wish I’d taken more candid photos of people at that age; the benign inter-era fashions of the late 1990’s deserved more attention. Anyway, if you look farther down the street (provided this is still Royal Street, which I think it is) you can faintly spot the corner of St. Ann.

It’d be interesting to compare the palimpsest landscape of certain New Orleans neighborhoods to one another, hurricane destruction notwithstanding. Businesses and residents come and go in the French Quarter much like any commercially-zoned area, and like most historically-protected area, the city suppresses any major changes. This dynamic probably formulates the bread and butter of New Orleans more so than any major American city (though that conversation also includes tourist-savvy places like Boston and St. Augustine, the latter of which was enduring a serious septic rooting project when I stopped through there last week).

I’ll keep paying attention to this in my own way on subsequent visits. And there will be subsequent visits, believe me.

Anyway… TUNE BACK IN SOON FOR “(RE)PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH (PART TWO: MOBILE, BIRMINGHAM, AND CHATTANOOGA)” coming Wednesday.